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“Under-the-Net” Evaluation of Antler Restrictions

Adult buck captures increase as more than 2,000 deer are captured.

On March 19, 2004, biologist aids Andy Toric and Mike Surmick, and I (Eric Long) sat hidden in our truck along a field just outside the small town of Coburn. It was a clear night, with the temperature hovering around freezing and the ground covered with wet snow. The three of us had binoculars and night vision optics and, most importantly, a detonator wired to a rocket net strung out about 50 yards away. The net was folded inconspicuously, and we had baited the area with about 100 pounds of shelled corn. Over the previous few days deer had become accustomed to feeding on our corn, and we hoped tonight —with rockets charged and loaded with solid rocket fuel — would be no exception.

We did not have long to wait. Around 6:30, eight deer made their way out of the woods and down the hill toward the corn. Pausing every so often to scratch at the snow, they obviously were more interested in our bait. First one and then two deer made it to the edge of the corn, and before long other deer started to trickle down toward the baited net. As the deer came closer, we waited and watched, trying not to move.

Trapping deer is a lot like gambling: When a couple deer make it to the bait ahead of the others, we are faced with the decision to take them or hold our hand and hope others follow. On some past occasions we were too greedy, and something spooked the deer before we could trap them. Other times, our patience paid off and the entire group eventually worked its way to the bait. This night, when six of the eight deer made it to the bait and the other two did not look particularly interested, we decided to take what we could get.

Andy held the detonator as Mike and I spotted for him. When all six deer had their heads lowered and were feeding on the corn, we gave Andy the green light and he hit the button. Immediately, three rockets with the large net trailing behind arced over the deer. The deer turned and tried to run, but the net fell over them.

Andy, Mike and I burst out of the truck and dashed toward the net, but before we could get there, three of the six deer managed to escape from the net and bolted back into the woods. The other three had become entangled, and the three of us, together with some landowners and volunteers who had been waiting nearby, converged on the deer and quickly inventoried our catch.

My deer had the telltale pedicels of an adult buck that had recently shed his antlers. Andy’s deer also had bare pedicels, indicating it, too, was an antlered buck that had survived the hunting seasons. Mike’s deer was easier to identify, as it still sported a single forked antler that was unusually late in falling off. Capturing three deer and having all of them turn out to be adult bucks is something that never happened the first year of our study. After drugging the deer to calm them, we untangled them from the net, equipped them with radio-transmitters and numbered ear tags, and released them, “on air,” back into the woods.

The Buck Ecology Study began in December 2001, in Armstrong and Centre counties, to monitor the impact of antler restrictions. We chose those counties because they span a wide range of cover types, land use practices, management techniques and topography. Armstrong County is located in WMU 2D, which is one of the western units where antlered deer must have at least one antler with 4 points to be legal. Armstrong County is comprised almost entirely of private land, has a mix of field and forest, and is in the Allegheny Plateau region of the state.

Centre County, on the other hand, is in WMUs 4D and 2G, where deer with 3 points on a side are fair game. Eastern Centre County is in the Ridge and Valley region of Pennsylvania, where large wooded ridges are separated by wide agricultural valleys, but northern and western Centre County, crossing the Allegheny Front and onto the Allegheny Plateau, typify the “Big Woods” habitats of Pennsylvania, where there is little agriculture. Further, Centre County has many state game lands and much state forest property, so here we were able to trap deer on both public and private land that is hunted. While many deer in Centre County were trapped in Penn’s Valley, others were trapped in and around SGLs 33 and 176, as well as Moshannon, Rothrock and Bald Eagle state forests.

Between the two counties, more than 80 landowners allowed us to trap deer on their properties, and we also trapped deer at five separate hunting clubs. In this way, though we were not able to trap deer in every county in the state, we covered many different habitats and land types.

Over the course of this 3-year study, we captured 2,023 deer. Of those, 551 were bucks we radio-marked. Nearly all the bucks trapped in Armstrong County were caught on private land. Of the 220 bucks we radio-marked in Centre County, 66 were caught on state game lands, and about half of the Centre County bucks spent time on public land. All bucks in both areas were exposed to hunting pressure.

Capture crew experience, number and type of traps, and weather greatly affected deer capture success. During our first winter, despite the warm, muddy weather, our crews captured 384 deer. Based on that first year, for the winter of 2003 we increased the number of clover traps and added rocket nets. That, coupled with a snowy winter and more experienced capture crews, resulted in 790 deer captures. The winter of 2004 brought another good year, and we finished the capture season with 849 deer.

Clover traps were by far the most successful trap, capturing about half of all the deer. Drop nets followed, with about 40 percent of our deer captures. Rocket nets, a helicopter, and dart guns captured the remaining deer.

Handling more than 2,000 deer over three years provided a great opportunity to view the impact of antler restrictions. The percent of adult bucks (more than 1 year of age) captured increased substantially over the course of this study (Figure 1). This field experience suggests that following implementation of antler restrictions, considerably more adult bucks are surviving the hunting seasons.

If bucks are surviving the hunting seasons, the next question is how many survive until the next hunting season? To answer this, we are monitoring the survival of bucks wearing radio collars. Results from 2003 are encouraging. Nearly 90 percent of all adult bucks that survived the 2002 hunting seasons were still alive and available at the beginning of the 2003 archery season. With more than 200 bucks currently on the air, we expect to develop a more complete picture of buck survival and mortality causes throughout this year.

We will continue to track movements and survival of bucks through the end of 2004, and although we have finished capturing deer for this study, we will continue to monitor bucks into the 2005 hunting season.

With the many bucks that survived last year and the large number of adult bucks that we caught this year, we will be able to monitor survival for a much larger sample of adult bucks than in previous years, and this will allow us to get a better estimate of how many adult bucks survive hunting seasons. Together with data we have already collected, this information will help us better understand deer movements and survival and will assist future management decisions.

We would like to thank the many landowners who generously provided access to their land, and we would like to acknowledge the tremendous work of our deer capture crews over the last three years. Enduring bad weather and unruly deer, these young biologists captured more than 2,000 deer, providing the foundation for all we are learning in this study.

Members of past and present deer capture and monitoring crews include: Bob Colden, Susan Cooper, Andrea Evans, Sarah Frantz, Heather Halbritter, Christine Hoskinson, Greg Huchko, Dennis Jones, Brad Kirr, Jason Kougher, Josh McBride, Nick Miller, Paula Mooney, Sean Murphy, Ryan Reed, John Rohm, Tony Roland, Josh Schrecengost, Matt Silicki, Jim Sinclair, Khara Strum, Mike Surmick, Andy Torick, Wendy Vreeland, Willy Wenner, Jamie Winans, Nate Zalik and Lindsay Zemba.


FOR THE next few hunting seasons, there will be many deer in and around Centre and Armstrong counties that will be equipped with numbered ear tags, and some bucks will also have radio-transmitters. We encourage all hunters to consider these deer as they would any other — if the deer is legal for harvest, treat it as fair game. We do ask that if you kill a tagged deer, call the toll free number on the tag and report your kill to the appropriate region office. Additional information on this study is available on the PGC website (www.pgc.state.pa.us). Follow the links for “Wildlife,” “Deer,” and “Antlered Deer Research Study” to learn more.

THIS PROJECT is a cooperative research effort between the Pennsylvania Game Commission, the U.S. Geological Survey and the Pennsylvania Cooperative Fish and Wildlife Unit at Penn State University. The research is also supported by Pennsylvania Audubon Society; Quality Deer Management Association (specifically Susquehanna, SE, and NC Pennsylvania branches); Pennsylvania Deer Association; and the Pennsylvania Department of Conservation and Natural Resources. Eric is a graduate student at Penn State University, working with his advisor, Dr. Duane Diefenbach.

By Eric Long, PSU Graduate Student
Dr. Chris Rosenberry, PGC Wildlife Biometrician
Bret Wallingford, PGC Deer Biologist

No portlets in this column.
Pennsylvania Game Commission, 2001 Elmerton Ave, Harrisburg Pennsylvania 17110-9797