Alt’s article in Philly paper ticks off PGC

By Jeff Mulhollem Editor

Harrisburg — A dispute between the former deer-management chief
of the Pennsylvania Game Commission and the agency he left in
disgust last year has boiled over into the op-ed pages of the
state’s largest-circulation newspaper, with Gary Alt and commission
officials trading insults and accusations.

Alt — who said after he retired in late 2004 that he was
frustrated because angry hunters had persuaded lawmakers and Game
Commission officials to limit his deer herd-reduction efforts aimed
at saving forest habitat — made statements shortly after he left
the agency that angered Game Commission Executive Director Vern
Ross, Press Secretary Jerry Feaser and others.

Perhaps most notable was his contention that deer couldn’t be
managed properly in this state until the current generation of
older hunters died off.

In the Friday, June 3, edition of the Inquirer, in an op-ed
piece headlined “Hunting Focus Hurts Deer Management,” Alt ruffled
more feathers at the commission. Feaser said an editor from the
Inquirer contacted him and asked for the agency to respond, so Cal
DuBrock, chief of the bureau of wildlife management, wrote an op-ed
article in response to Alt’s, which was published a few days

“For those of us who drive, garden, own land or value nature,
the recent action of the Pennsylvania Game Commission is cause for
concern,” Alt wrote. “On April 26, the commission reduced the
number of antlerless deer-hunting licenses — the primary tool in
controlling deer populations — by 160,000. The most severe cuts
were in those state wildlife management units where forest health
and regeneration are most threatened by deer overbrowsing.”

In his article, Alt pointed out that without lowering deer
numbers “we cannot have safe highways, sustainable agriculture,
livable communities or healthy forests. But, so long as the Game
Commission is funded primarily through hunters, license fees, this
won’t happen.”

Pennsylvania has more deer hunters than any other state,
according to Alt. “Deer hunters know that when they want something
from the commission — in this case, fewer antlerless deer licenses
to increase hunting opportunities for those who are licensed —
they usually get it,” he wrote. “The commission’s very name
identifies its primary focus — game. In effect, Pennsylvania does
not have a wildlife conservation agency or even a wildlife
commission. Instead, conservation of our wild bird and mammal
populations is entrusted exclusively to the Game Commission, an
organization designed to promote recreational hunting (primarily
for deer) and whose programs are funded through recreational
hunting fees. The result is that if you don’t hunt, you’re not a
participant in funding wildlife conservation in Pennsylvania and
have no influence in how our wildlife resources and their habitats
are managed.”

In his piece, Alt pointed out that he is a hunter, but noted
that he is also a wildlife ecologist, conservationist, and member
of a community. “I value hunting as an important part of my life,”
he wrote. “But I don’t believe deer management should strive to
maintain irresponsibly high deer populations to facilitate hunters’
enjoyment at the cost of habitat quality, other wildlife species,
or human health and safety.

“Some hunters and agency personnel suggest we need to strive for
compromise,” Alt wrote. “We have already compromised our ecology,
economy, and even our safety by carrying too many deer for too

DuBrock’s response was headlined “Commission Manages Deer
Properly,” and it pointed out that deer population numbers used by
Alt were likely inflated.

“Contrary to Alt’s assertions, the Game Commission has not caved
in to hunters and reduced deer-hunting opportunities,” DuBrock
wrote. “Quite the opposite is true. The commission reduced licenses
to hunt antlerless deer in many of the state’s 22 wildlife
management units because of lower deer populations. In addition,
deer-management opportunities through hunting were increased or
maintained despite some vocal hunter opposition.

“It is true that as recently as last year, Game Commission
estimates indicated higher deer populations,” DuBrock continued.
“However, a recent review of the methods used to estimate deer
populations during Alt’s tenure as deer section supervisor
identified several aspects that could have been improved upon and
would have resulted in more accurate population estimates. Although
the Game Commission cannot validate the figure of 1.6 million deer
in Pennsylvania (the figure that Alt cited while deer section
supervisor), data available now suggest that deer populations in
many wildlife management units have declined.”

Alt attacks the commission for a lack of various wildlife
management plans, including an urban deer management plan, DuBrock
pointed out in his article. “This is an unusual complaint given
that the commission’s deer management plan, approved in 2003,
called for development of a plan for urban deer. It was his
responsibility to see that the plan was completed, but it was not
done before his resignation.

“Alt also ignored the fact that the state Board of Game
Commissioners, by a very solid majority, voted to maintain the
two-week concurrent hunting season, approve a substantial number of
antlerless deer licenses, expand DMAP eligibility, and increase
antlerless deer hunting opportunities in the southeastern
Pennsylvania wildlife management unit,” DuBrock added. “Also worthy
of response is Alt’s statement that “less than 5 percent” of the
Game Commission’s budget is spent on nongame, endangered and
threatened species. All of the agency’s habitat work, as well as
the purchase of state game lands, benefits game and nongame
species. Each acre preserved for public hunting and trapping is an
acre not threatened by development.”

Commission spokesman Feaser was blunt in his response to Alt’s
published comments, saying Ross “would have no comments at this
time because he is still trying to take the high road, despite
Alt’s attacks.”

“We’re disappointed with Alt,” Feaser said. “We hope he is not
going to continue to throw darts at the agency, because while his
tenure here included many successes, it also included some serious
flaws. Perhaps it’s time to do an open and honest accounting of his
deer population numbers.”

Commissioner Steve Mohr, of Lancaster County, isn’t surprised
that Alt is criticizing the agency in the press. “From day one when
Gary started this deer program, he and I didn’t see eye to eye,” he
said. “I will give him credit for one thing, he was one hell of a
good salesman. But out of public view I kept questioning his deer
numbers and how he came up with them. I was repeatedly told they
were guesses.

“Well, if they were guesses, he was doing a damned poor job of
guessing,” Mohr said. “Any third-grader could figure out that with
the land mass in Pennsylvania, there was no way in hell that there
were 1.6 million deer out there. I never bought his deer numbers
and I still don’t.”

Even Commissioner Roxanne Palone, who generally supported Alt’s
deer-management program, said she is “a little bit saddened” by his
comments. “I am not sure where he is coming from,” she said. “From
my point of view, it seems what he said was demeaning to the other
biologists who work for the commission.

“Of course he has the right to say these things, but it is
unfortunate that he chooses to criticize the Game Commission
because he got most everything he asked for from the
commissioners,” Palone added. “But deer management is a team effort
— it’s bigger than any one person. I think we are doing the right
thing. I guess maybe if Gary feels so strongly about this he should
have hung in there with us instead for taking another course.”

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