Throughout Pennsylvania history, the white-tailed deer has been an invaluable wildlife resource. Managing deer has been a primary, and ofttimes controversial responsibility of the Pennsylvania Game Commission since the agency was created back in 1895. With an often unenviable track record behind us and the challenges of a new century unfolding, we continue to make refinements to our deer management program and the many sporting and viewing opportunities this premier big, game animal provides.
Managing Pennsylvania's deer herd is an enormous undertaking that frequently includes input from everyone from hunters and naturalists to farmers, foresters and suburbanites. Each has his or her own idea about how many deer we should have. As a general rule, hunters want as many as possible. Still others, particularly people made a living from their land, prefer fewer deer. But history has shown that no one group gets its way entirely. Sometimes local herds have expanded to almost unmanageable sizes while, in other instances, they've dropped to what some feel are alarmingly low numbers.
In the early part of the century, the Game Commission stocked deer to augment a severely depressed population. Now, however, there is no longer a need to release deer. Large, but often localized, deer populations can be found in every county. And regardless of what some might say, white-tailed deer aren't bordering on the brink of extinction. Hunters are still taking more than a quarter- to half-million deer annually. The Commonwealth still has a very sizeable deer herd.
The Commission began stocking deer in 1906 and continued the practice into the early 1920s. In 1907, a new Buck Law provided complete protection to does and juveniles, and its effects were felt almost immediately. The herd's size swelled dramatically – almost doubling every two years.
By 1923, the herd had expanded to where crop damage was widespread. Legislators responded by removing protection on female deer, and the Commission authorized a regulated antlerless season. A hundred permits were issued for a three-day hunt in two Franklin County townships and eight antlerless deer were taken. Also that year, laws were passed to provide deer-proof fencing and allow farmers to shoot deer for crop damage. Five years later, in an effort to reduce the rapidly increasing herd, the agency closed the traditional buck season and held an antlerless deer hunt in 54 of the state's 67 counties. It was a revolutionary step forward in deer management. Back then, however, many hunters disagreed.
The uproar over harvesting "mother" deer shook both the Commission and the state's hunting fraternity. Antlerless licenses were bought and burned. Newspaper ads proclaimed “… only yellow hunters shoot does.” “No Doe Hunting” signs went up as fast as printers could make them. Hunters were convinced the 1928 antlerless-only season would wipe out the herd, but the Game Commission stayed its course and hunters took more than 25,000 antlerless deer. This was double the total number taken during the 1927 bucks-only season. The following year (1929), in another antlered-only season, hunters shot a record 22,822 bucks and learned through experience that harvesting substantial numbers of antlerless deer would not reduce buck hunting opportunities. But the knowledge wasn’t applied to managing deer. More often than not, the political majority dictated what would happen with antlerless license allocations from one year to the next, not historical perspective or science.
By the 1930s, crude estimates and derteriorating habitat showed the state’s deer population was substantially above its range’s carrying capacity in many areas. So, in 1938, faced again with a burgeoning deer herd, the agency closed buck hunting and adopted another antlerless-only season. Once again many hunters complained. They yelled even more loudly after more than 170,000 deer were taken – surpassing the state's best annual harvest by more than 65,000 animals. Dissatisfied sportsmen exclaimed to everyone who would listen that “Pennsylvania's deer herd is ruined!” Yet, during the next two years, hunters shot another 250,000 deer.
A review of deer management efforts from the late 1920s to the mid ‘40s shows closed antlerless deer seasons led to too many conflicts and high malnutrition losses within the herd. During this era, the Game Commission frequently closed antlerless seasons in response to pressures exerted by hunters and legislators. Deer were managed under the broadest of guidelines. The herd was, after all, Pennsylvania's pride and joy, a resource from which millions of residents benefited. It was a supplemental food source for thousands of households, and it boosted local economies and provided countless hours of recreation. Given the perks, everyone wanted to lend a hand in deer management.
The 1950s brought radical changes in Pennsylvania's deer management program. The Legislature in 1951 eliminated the Game Law's abrogation clause (enacted in 1949), which permitted residents to close, by petition, antlerless seasons in their respective counties. The advent of practical deer aging techniques allowed more precise study of deer population sex and age structure. Research at Penn State University began to unravel the mysteries about deer nutrition. In addition, the Game Commission began clear-cutting and establishing herbaceous openings (food plots) on state game lands to increase deer foods. By the close of the decade’s close, antlerless seasons had become a yearly standard of the deer management program. The last closed antlerless season occurred in 1956.
In 1960, the Commission established its first deer management policy – directing the agency to collect more population and carrying capacity data, and to dramatically improve efforts to educate hunters about deer management. Agency biologists initiated studies on habitat carrying capacities and improved methods for calculating populations. Statewide public meetings informed and educated hunters about the need for annual antlerless harvests and the relationships between deer and habitat.
In the early 1960s, biologists decided they needed to examine more deer to improve the agency's population data base. They trained more field personnel to age harvested deer and, in 1963, deer check stations were established during hunting seasons to gather additional data. Successful hunters were urged to stop at the various stations to aid the agency in its research. To improve our data, today we get our sample of the harvest at deer processing shops. The number of deer checked has grown from 5,000 in the best check station years to about 40,000 deer per year.
The agency initiated carrying capacity studies on mixed-oak and northern hardwood forests in 1967 and continued this work into the 1970s. Based on these studies, the agency in 1979 adopted a deer management system based on overwinter deer density goals for each county. The system – used for about 25 years – assigned to each county an overwinter deer density goal based on the amount and quality of woodlands found in it. These goals are set below a county's biological carrying capacity to ensure forest regeneration and minimize problems in agricultural, suburban and urban areas. Overwinter population goals are used because winter is a critical time when deer foods are most limited.
Different forest size classes provide varying amounts of food. Seedling-sapling stands (brush to five-inch trees) supply the most; saw (trees larger than 11inches) and non-commercial timber are next best; pole timber (five to 11 inch trees) the least productive. Based on carrying capacity studies in the 1960s, ‘70s and ‘80s, the agency established the following overwinter goals for these size classes: seedling-sapling, 60 deer per square mile; saw and noncommercial timber, 20; and pole timber, 5. Forested land figures for each county are determined through a U.S. Forest Service inventory conducted about every 10-12 years. County data are then applied to the deer densities established for each size class.
During the early 1980s Pennsylvania's deer population increased substantially. Antlerless harvests were insufficient to dampen population growth because of weather, land posting, low allocations, and insufficient demand for the antlerless licenses. Lower than desired deer harvests hampered the agency's ability to manage deer effectively. In addition, overwinter deer survival and reproduction improved. In 1983, the Game Commission allocated a record 536,650 antlerless licenses to curb herd growth; only 519,000 were sold. Over the next four years the Commission continued to increase the annual license allocation. But license sales seemed to reach a saturation point between 500,000 and 550,000; hunters – limited then to buying only one antlerless license annually – couldn’t legally buy more. It became necessary to modify the allocation program.
In 1984, 1986 and 1987, hunters shot record numbers of bucks; the annual antlered harvest increased by 24 percent during this period. The rising buck harvest indicated the herd was still growing, even though the agency was allocating more antlerless licenses and hunters were taking more deer. The agency's inability to sell the entire annual antlerless license allocations was impeding efforts to reduce the herd. Deer conflicts with other land uses increased in some areas because of the larger herd.
To further deal with inadequate harvests, in 1988 the Commission implemented the statewide “bonus deer program,” successfully piloted in the southeast special regulations area the previous year. For the first time hunters could take more than one deer per year. The agency allocated 679,300 antlerless licenses. Under the new program, unsold antlerless licenses were issued as “bonus tags” three weeks after license sales began – and the entire allocation was issued. Since 1988, the agency increased antlerless allocations, and hunter harvests in subsequent years not only stopped the growth of the herd on a statewide basis, but reduced it by about 15 percent as of winter, 1993-94.
The buck harvests peaked in 1989 and 1990, and since then have dropped slightly as a result of the overall reduction in the size of the statewide herd. Of course, agement system some areas of the state have had a substantial decrease in their deer herd, while others have continued to grow. But on average, the herd is still about one-third larger less license than it should be.
The Commission's county deer density figures are disputed by some hunters. They claim there are few or no deer where they hunt. However, deer do not spread either sex deer license themselves evenly across a county. There are pockets containing high numbers and other areas with sparse numbers. The availability of food is often a determining factor. But gypsy moth defoliation, maturing forests, timber operations, posted land and other land use changes all affect deer distribution and hunter access to the herds.
Most counties still have populations above Commission overwinter density goals. Herd size will not reach desired densities following this year's deer seasons; it will require several years to accomplish the objective.
The Pennsylvania Game Commission's deer management system is a sound one, based on carrying capacity of habitats and other land uses. However, the system is not perfect, or unchanging. Since 1988 we've:
- added archers in the antlerless harvest man
- provided hunters an eartag with their antler
- extended fall archery season two weeks
- retained, at their request, muzzleloaders an
- initiated a community-based urbandeercon
- created permits for expanded hunting on military installations
- initiated bonus antlerless tags
- started and expanded the agricultural deer damage program