Most deer hunters will not see many significant changes in the number of deer they see this year. Following a few years when decreasing the deer population was a management goal, deer numbers have been stabilized over most of Pennsylvania.
Deer management is continually evolving in Pennsylvania. This has been happening, and will continue to happen, based on scientific research. Through the past several years, research conducted by the Pennsylvania Game Commission, Pennsylvania Department of Conservation and Natural Resources and Penn State University have added considerably to the information that guides deer management.
Deer hunters can benefit from data provided by the Game Commission. Our goal here is to combine available data sets for a more rounded assessment of the state of the deer populations in Wildlife Management Units.
The "2015-16 Deer Population Report" provides a wealth of information about the status of deer populations in each Wildlife Management Unit. It contains the data that is used to determine Antlerless Deer License allocations. These are calculated by using the number of Antlerless Deer Licenses used to harvest each antlerless deer from past hunting seasons, the antlered deer harvest, the deer population, the fawn-to-doe ratio, and forest regeneration.
Antlerless deer tags and Deer Management Permits are the primary tools for controlling the deer population. Antlerless Deer License allotments are a good indication of whether the deer population is stable. When deer are too plentiful the allocation increases; when deer are not as abundant as they could be, allocations drop.
Wildlife Management Unit 2D will have an 8.5-percent increase in the antlerless allocation this year, rising from 61,000 to 71,000 Antlerless Deer Licenses. Deer numbers have been increasing in this unit, so the allocation is larger.
Wildlife Management Unit 5D was increased in size at the expense of WMU 5C. Also, the deer population has been increasing. The Antlerless Deer License allocation increased 62 percent, from 18,000 last year to 29,000 this year.
WMU 5C, on the other hand, will have 7,000 fewer Antlerless Deer Licenses this year, dropping from 95,000 to 88,000 licenses. So the net gain in the allocation is only 4,000 licenses between the two units.
In the case of Antlerless Deer License allocation increases this year in four units, WMU 1A, WMU 1B, WMU 3A and WMU 3D, the number of antlerless licenses was decreased because the antlerless season itself was shortened to seven days.
Shortening the number of concurrent antlered deer and antlerless deer days from 12 to 7 days was done after hunters requested the move. The net result is an increase in Antlerless Deer License allocations, since with fewer hunting days it takes more licenses to harvest each antlerless deer.
The Antlerless Deer License allocation has been increased in all but one of the units that have stable deer populations, and remains the same as last year at the other.
Likely this will draw questions from hunters.
Part of the answer is that the number of antlerless deer allocations is largely determined by the state of the habitat. Habitat condition is quantified by the Pennsylvania Regeneration Study.
Forest habitat is considered to be good if 70 percent of forested plots have adequate regeneration, poor if less than 50 percent of plots have adequate regeneration; anything between is considered to be fair.
Another factor is that the number of Antlerless Deer Licenses required to harvest each doe varies significantly from one Wildlife Management Unit to another. Last year 5.8 licenses were needed to harvest each antlerless deer at WMU 5A, whereas only 3.1 were necessary in WMU 3C.
Licenses issued per doe taken is obviously a statistic that is interesting to hunters looking to manage their deer herd or who are simply looking to put some packages in the freezer. This is very good to know for hunters who are searching for their best chances at bagging a deer.
However, the numbers require some thought. We might be tempted to assume that a better license-to-deer ratio indicates better deer population levels, but this might not be so.
The deer population is not the only thing that affects hunter success. Land access, the number of hunters, and type of terrain can significantly influence success rates. This probably is reflected in the number of Antlerless Deer Licenses needed to harvest each deer per Wildlife Management Unit last year.
Fewer than 4.0 licenses were needed to harvest each antlerless deer in five units. In four units more than 5.0 licenses were needed. This provides perhaps the best indicator of where deer hunters have the best success ratios.
There are 23 Wildlife Management Units.
Those units where fewer than 4.0 licenses were needed to harvest each doe last year, the best hunter success ratios, were 3.4 at WMU 1B, 3.7 at WMU 2D, 3.8 at WMU 2E and 3.1 at WMU 3C. The poorest hunter success ratios were 5.2 at WMU 2H, 5.6 at WMU 4A, 5.1 at WMU 4C and 5.8 at WMU 5A.
One major complicating factor in this set of data is that the antlerless deer season has been reduced to seven days in 14 of the 23 units. Data is quite reliable at most of these, which have been in place for a few years. In two units that were reduced to seven days of antlerless deer hunting last year, reliability might be questioned.
At WMU 4A, the Antlerless Deer License success rate was 4.7 per antlerless deer harvested in the 2013-2004 hunting season. In the 2014 - 2015 hunting season after the seven-day antlerless season was instituted, the rate deteriorated to 5.6 licenses per antlerless deer harvested.
At WMU 4C, the Antlerless Deer License success rate declined from 3.9 per antlerless deer harvested in 2013-14 to 5.1 during the 2014-15 hunting season. Both declines in hunter success fall within the typical range.
Average success rate is 4.5 licenses per antlerless deer harvested. Nine units fall above that level, 14 below.
Fawn-to-doe ratios are stable across Pennsylvania. Four units have good forest regeneration levels — WMU 5A, WMU 3D, WMU 3B and WMU 3A.
Except for WMU 2B, WMU 5C and WMU 5D, which are not significantly forested, all other units are rated as having fair forest regeneration levels. No units have declining regeneration; two units — 2E and 2H — have improving regeneration.
Only WMU 2F has shown decreasing deer impact. However, deer impact still is too high in WMU4B, WMU 3D and WMU 3C.
Trends in Antlerless Deer License allocations, Antlerless Deer License success rates and total deer harvest are excellent indicators of where hunters might find success. Looking only at the previous hunting season might cause a hunter to draw poor conclusions, however, if unusual conditions existed in those units last season.
We will look into this with an overview of some of the Wildlife Management Units where your chances for bagging a deer should be better than average.
The 8-year average number of Antlerless Deer Licenses that are required to harvest each doe is a very favorable 3.2 in WMU 1A. Post-hunt deer populations have averaged 43,879 deer.
With an area of 1,846 square miles, the deer population after hunting season averages 23.8 per square mile. This adds up to some excellent deer hunting.
On the negative side for WMU 1A, there are few public lands. Habitat is a checkerboard of wood lots, agricultural fields and human development.
State Game Lands No. 39 is the largest public land in WMU 1A. Maybe the most exciting deer hunting option is floating to state forest land that lies on the western side of the Allegheny River upstream from Kennerdell.
Bordering WMU 1A to the north and covering the northwest corner of the state, lies WMU 1B. Most of this landscape was scoured by Ice Age glaciers. Habitat includes wood lots (small to large) anong agricultural fields.
This unit has less human development that on WMU 1A, except for the City of Erie. Numerous small state game lands provide hunting access adjacent to farmland.
The 10-year average number of Antlerless Deer Licenses required to harvest each antlerless deer is an impressive 2.85 per deer.
Average post-hunt populations have been 51,419 deer over the past eight years. This works out to an average population of 24.3 deer per square mile.
State Game Lands No. 143 is the largest tract of public land on WMU 1B. Most of this 8,261-acre area is forest in various stages of growth. It is a popular place for hunting deer, yet enough walking and steep terrain can separate a hunter from heavy hunting pressure.
Some very impressive numbers come out of WMU 2D, which borders WMU 1A along the east. The 10-year average for Antlerless Deer Licenses is 3.1 per antlerless deer. Average post-hunt deer population has been 102,073 per year. This is a very high average of 41.05 deer per square mile.
Habitat includes 60 percent forest and 31 percent agriculture field. Only 2 percent of WMU 2D is public land. Terrain is mostly hilly. Hunting success largely depends on gaining access to private land.
Wildlife Management Unit 2E averages 3.4 Antlerless Deer Licenses per antlerless deer over the past 10 years. The post hunt deer population 8-year average is 40,848 deer. This is an average of 32.4 deer per square mile.
But WMU 2E has only 6 percent public land. Habitat is 65 percent forest and 26 percent agriculture fields. If you do not live here, be prepared to start knocking on doors to gain land access.
With a 10-year average of only 3.1 Antlerless Deer Licenses per antlerless deer, WMU 3C looks like a good candidate for being one of the best deer hunting units. Add to that a 8-year average post-hunt deer population of 27.6 per square mile (and the fact that this year recorded the highest post-hunt population over the eight years at 31.1 deer per square mile).
On the down side, only 3 percent of WMU 3C is public land. A good deal of land is locked up behind posted signs.
Much of the public land is contained in 5,619-acre SGL No. 219, in 7,772-acre SGL No. 35, in 6,363-acre SGL No. 70 and in 9,368-acre SGL No. 159, all of which are large enough to provide quality hunting.
Both WMU 3C and WMU 3D have deer impact that is too high. But WMU 3D falls short of being one of the best deer hunting units.
We might have an overlooked deer hunting area at WMU 4E. The average number of Antlerless Deer Licenses required to harvest each antlerless deer has been an unimpressive 4.3 over the past seven years. However, the past two years the rate has been 3.4 and 3.6 — a significant improvement.
Post-hunt populations have averaged 26.1 deer per square mile. This year the post-hunt deer population amounted to 34.1 deer per square mile. It is the fourth year of an increasing population. The 2015 post-hunt population of 59,206 deer is 31 percent better than the 8-year average.
Only a small amount — 4 percent — of WMU 4E is public land; 54 percent is forested, 34 percent is in agricultural production and 8 percent is developed.
We will ignore total deer harvests, antlerless deer harvests and Antlerless Deer License allocations. Differences in areas of the Wildlife Management Units alone invalidates these as clear indicators of good deer hunting. For example, WMU 2H has an area of 1,001 square miles, whereas neighboring WMU 2G is more than three times larger with an area of 3,117 square miles.
None of the data we have used here can pinpoint the precise place where you should hunt. That takes scouting, first by narrowing as much area as you can adequately cover down to walking distance of a parking spot, no matter how many steps it takes.
Finally you should match your hunting method — be it stand hunting, still hunting or anything else — to the area. Learn the places where it is most likely you will intercept a deer.
Further information about deer hunting in Pennsylvania can be found at the Pennsylvania Game Commission, 2001 Elmerton Avenue, Harrisburg, PA 17110-9797, web site www.pgc,state.pa.us.