Here's a look at what Keystone State deer hunters can expect in 2009, with tips on where to fill your tags this season. (October 2009)
Pennsylvania deer hunters can look forward to more of the same this year. The deer population is stable, so our main concerns when planning our hunting strategy can be based on the weather or the availability of mast crops.
"What we've seen the last few years has been a fairly stable deer population and fairly stable deer harvests, so at this point I wouldn't expect anything much different this coming year in the different wildlife units," said Dr. Chris Rosenberry, head of the Pennsylvania Game Commission's Deer Management Section.
WHAT DOES STABLE MEAN?
While the deer population is stable in most wildlife management units, this does not mean that hunting opportunities are equal from one area to the next.
The Pennsylvania Game Commission does not make estimates of the deer population. However, by examining some of the numbers related to deer harvests, our biologists could make some reasonably accurate estimates about where hunters stand the best possibilities of tagging a deer.
Without estimates of the deer population, the best information that is available to hunters for estimating hunting potential is the success rate for antlerless deer licenses. Because wildlife management units vary substantially in size, the number of antlerless deer that are harvested in any given wildlife management unit is not a good indicator of hunting potential unless it is combined with other data.
One way to produce a hunter success rate is to divide the number of antlerless deer that have been harvested into the number of antlerless deer licenses that were allocated.
"That would be the best index we would have. That translates directly back to hunters and how successful they are," Rosenberry said. "In general, the areas where we see our hunters having the greatest success on antlerless deer is in our western counties and units. And we see some of the higher success rates in the areas with 4-point restrictions."
One of the most useful pieces of information supplied by the Pennsylvania Game Commission is an annual assessment of each wildlife management unit, which states whether the new antlerless deer license allocations are intended to increase, decrease or stabilize the deer population.
Deer Management Assistance Program (DMAP) tags are the one factor that confuses this information. Deer managers do not know how many DMAP coupons will be requested when the antlerless deer license allocations are set.
"But the DMAP allocation this year remains the same in every unit except one," Rosenberry said.
That one wildlife management unit for which the antlerless deer license allocation has been changed is WMU 5C, which lies along the outside of Philadelphia in the Southeast Region.
So, while not totally accurate because DMAP tags are not factored into hunter success rates, the PGC's hunter success rates are as good as any information that is available for estimating deer-hunting potential.
The bottom line is that wherever you hunted last year you can anticipate that deer numbers will be similar to whatever they were last year.
Deer hunters will have some changes in regulations to deal with this year. Most notable will be the addition of crossbows to the archery season. The Pennsylvania Board of Game Commissioners gave final approval to a measure allowing deer hunters to use crossbows during the archery deer and bear seasons.
Hunters in WMUs 2D, 2G, 3C and 4B will again have a five-day antlered-deer-only season starting the Monday after Thanksgiving, followed immediately by seven days of concurrent antlered and antlerless deer hunting. The proposed package retains the 12-day concurrent antlered and antlerless season in the remaining 18 WMUs.
This modification will be studied before any decision is made to make it permanent.
Another change in deer seasons will be an extension of the late flintlock season for WMUs 2B, 5C and 5D to run from Dec. 26 to Jan. 23.
The goal for antlerless license allocations was to stabilize the deer population in all but five wildlife management units. One of these is WMU 5D, where the goal is to decrease the deer population. Nonetheless, the antlerless license allocation remains the same because, as in other special regulation units, the allocation has already exceeded demand.
WMU 5D is the city of Philadelphia and the surrounding urban-suburban area. Access to the land for hunters is very limited.
WMU 5C lies beyond WMU 5D, but is nearly as built up. However, there is more demand for antlerless deer licenses. The allocation here was increased by 23 percent.
"This is a highly developed unit," Rosenberry explained. "We have a Citizens Advisory Committee in that unit, and the citizens came to a consensus recommendation to reduce the deer population in that unit over the next five years. They put a 40 percent reduction level as their goal. They practically told us to cut the deer population in half in that unit! Over the last five years we have not seen any indication of a decrease in the deer population. Last year, we had 92,000 antlerless deer tags and we sold out. The demand was there for the tags.
"In addition to that, the forest habitat health in that unit is the worst in the state. So, we have a unit where the forest habitat health is not in good shape, people want less deer, the demand for antlerless licenses is still there, and the deer population doesn't appear to be decreasing. So, we increased the opportunities for hunters to take more antlerless deer."
Forest health is not a big factor in this unit, and in fact, the nutrition factor for deer is good.
"There's a lot of development in this unit, but there's still agriculture and even when people develop the land, there's food available for deer," Rosenberry said.
Last year, WMU 5C led the Commonwealth in antlerless and combined harvest, and ranked second for antlered harvest. However, the antlerless deer hunter success rate was below average at 22 percent.
WMU 5B is more like the rest of Pennsylvania in that the goal is a stable deer population. This area is a combination of largely suburban and agricultural land use with very little public-hunting opportunity.
WMU 5A, which includes Micheaux State Forest, is one of a couple of units where the desire is to increase the deer population.
"That is a unit where our objective is to increase the deer population slightly. That is based on the biological measures that we have as well as the Citizens Advisory Committee in that unit, which recommended a slight increase. We've been working there to cut the allocation last year and kept it the same this year to let that population come up a little bit," Rosenberry said.
In WMU 4B, which is directly north of WMU 5A, the goal is to stabilize the deer population. But this unit has the poorest antlerless deer hunter success rate, at 17 percent.
The goal is a stable deer population for WMUs 4C and 3D. However, there is a big difference in hunting quality between these units. WMU 4C has an antlerless deer hunter success rate of 23 percent, which is very close to the statewide average. WMU 3D has the second-lowest success rate, at 19 percent. Unfortunately, this is one of the most popular areas for deer hunting.
"Some 16 percent of the land is public in that unit," Rosenberry pointed out.
It is interesting to note that the difference between the best units and average is much greater than the difference between the worst units and average.
WMUs 4E, 3B and 3C are all close to average for antlerless deer hunter success rates. Public lands are becoming more numerous and larger. WMU 3C rates among the better deer-hunting units with a 27 percent antlerless deer success rate.
WMUs 4A and 4D hunter success rates are very close to average. State lands lie along the rugged tops of the ridges where deer hide during the day and then drop down to valley farms to feed at night. Some hunters complain that access to many of these public lands is difficult, while others take advantage of this.
WMUs 2C and 2E are along the western edge of the mountains, and some of the better deer hunting in Pennsylvania. Antlerless deer hunter success rates are 26 percent for WMU 2C and 30 percent for WMU 2E. Public land is abundant.
WMU 2G is the Big Woods, the traditional "deer woods" of old that have taken a beating during recent decades. However, by looking at antlerless deer hunter success rates we can see that deer hunting here is not as bad as some believe. With a success rate of 25 percent it is right on the state average.
"In terms of antlerless deer hunter success, it's lower than what you would see in those western areas. Those units are not drastically different from most of the state, however. There are units that have lower success rates," Rosenberry said.
With the greatest amount of public land and a welcome attitude toward deer hunters, Pennsylvania's "Big Woods" country is still is an excellent deer-hunting destination.
WMU 3A is a relatively narrow area north of the Big Woods and U.S. Route 6 where there is less public land than in the Big Woods. It has a high antlerless deer hunter success rate of 29 percent
WMU 2F, which is mostly Allegheny National Forest, is very similar to WMU 2G in most respects. Most of this unit is public land. The antlerless deer hunter success rate is a surprisingly high 33 percent, second highest in Pennsylvania.
Antlerless deer licenses sell out rather quickly here.
WMUs 2A and 2D lie on opposite sides of WMU 2B, which is the area around Pittsburgh. Both WMU 2A and WMU 2D have above-average antlerless hunter success rates of 28 percent. WMU 2D had the second greatest antlerless harvest and the highest antlered deer harvest last year.
WMU 1A is the southern edge of the glaciated northwest corner of Pennsylvania. Terrain is gentler than in most of the Commonwealth. Soils are rich and there is a lot of agricultural activity. Deer grow large, and this is one of the 4-points-on-a-side units. The antlerless deer hunter success rate of 30 percent tied for third last year.
Occasionally, the facts work out nicely for a gimmicky story line that might make a writer appear to be clever without actually being so, and this is one of those rare, opportune occasions.
Let's take a closer look at WMU 1B, which just happens to be the best unit for deer hunting in Pennsylvania for a number of reasons. First, WMU 1B has the highest antlerless deer hunter success rate by a wide margin, 45 percent compared with 33 percent for the second best unit. Secondly, this is one of the better trophy buck hunting areas of the Commonwealth, which will be looked at more closely next month.
The terrain is flat to gently rolling. Land use is largely agricultural. Numerous swamps and other wetlands dot the land. This is classic "checkerboard" landscape, which includes plenty of overgrown farmland and a lot of thick brush.
Numerous state game lands are scattered over WMU 1B, although most are small. There is no state forestland. Fortunately, compared with the agricultural areas on the opposite corner of Pennsylvania, getting permission to hunt private lands is relatively easy.
"Hunters who have questions about the deer program may visit our Web site," Rosenberry said. "There's even a place where they can ask deer biologists questions. That's an e-mail account that we check ourselves and reply to. We can't necessarily reply to all the questions, but I think we do a pretty good job of answering the most important questions."
Get more information about deer hunting, including answers to your deer hunting questions in Pennsylvania, from the Pennsylvania Game Commission, 2001 Elmerton Avenue, Harrisburg, PA 17110-9797, or call (717) 787-4250. Interested hunters may also check the agency's Web site at www.pgc.state.pa.us.