Deer kill numbers embraced, rejected

By Bob Frye Capital Correspondent

Harrisburg, Pa. — Is Pennsyl-vania’s deer hunting glass half
empty or half full? That depends on who you talk to.

The Pennsylvania Game Commission recently released its estimated
deer harvest figures for the 2005-06 hunting seasons. Reaction to
those numbers has varied from satisfaction to surprise.

Overall, the kill was down about 13 percent from 2004-05 to
2005-06. Hunters took 354,390 last season, compared to 409,320 the
year before. Those numbers do not include harvest figures from the
deer management assistance program, which will be released
later.

According to the commission, the drop in the harvest was almost
entirely attributable to hunters killing fewer does. The buck
harvest was down just about 3 percent, from 124,410 to 120,500.

The doe harvest fell by about 18 percent, however, going from
284,910 in 2004-05 to 233,890 in 2005-06.

That was not unexpected, said Carl Roe, executive director of
the commission. General license sales were down 5 percent, he
noted, and deer populations have been reduced in some places.

The biggest factor in the decline of the harvest, however, is
that there were 15 percent fewer doe licenses available in 2005-06
than there were the year before, Roe said. Hunters had the
opportunity to buy 879,000 doe tags last fall; the year before, the
commission made 1,039,000 available.

There’s a direct link between the number of doe licenses
available and the size of the doe harvest, he added.

“For example, in Wildlife Management Unit 2G, a 44 percent
reduction in the unit’s antlerless deer license allocation resulted
in a 42 percent drop in the antlerless deer harvest,” Roe said.

The doe kill was not down in every wildlife management unit,
however. In unit 2A in south-western Pennsylvania, for example, the
doe kill went up 6 percent, even though the number of doe licenses
available for that unit stayed the same.

Statewide, the doe harvest was comprised of 23 percent button
bucks, which is about average, according to the commission. As for
the buck harvest, almost 50 percent of those deer were 2.5 years
old or older this past season. Prior to antler restrictions, only
about 20 percent of the deer killed by hunters each year were that
old.

What all of those numbers mean will be determined in Harrisburg
April 17-18. That’s when commissioners will meet to set seasons,
bag limits and doe license allocations for 2006-07.

The board has been split almost evenly in recent months as to
whether now is the time to change course with the deer management
program or stay on the current path a while longer. Indications are
that gap remains.

For instance, Roxane Palone, a game commissioner from Greene
County, said she is pleased with last year’s harvest, especially
considering that fog and then rain marred the first two days of the
season in many places.

“We expected the doe harvest would be down because we sold fewer
tags and because we know there are fewer deer in some places, but I
still thought it was a very good harvest,” she said.

Commissioner Tom Boop, of Northumberland County, admitted that
he expected the harvest “would be down more” than it was. That
said, he remains convinced that the commission needs to rework its
deer-management program.

“There’s nothing in these numbers that changes my basic thought
that we need individual management plans for individual management
units,” Boop said.

“License sales are down significantly. There’s a reason for
that. I think a lot of that is based on dissatisfaction with this
program, and I think it’s broad-based dissatisfaction, not the
dissatisfaction of a minority, as some have suggested.”

Melody Zullinger, executive director of the Pennsylvania
Federation of Sportsmen’s Clubs, said she has members on all sides
of the deer issue. Generally, the federation is advocating
patience.

“I think, for the most part, we have to remember that the goal
of the program was to reduce deer numbers. And they’ve done that,”
she said. “Now I think the agency needs to look at where they’ve
been reduced and make adjustments where needed.”

The members of the Unified Sportsmen of Pennsylvania figure to
be less patient. The group is already suing the commission over
what it alleges is a program of deer mismanagement, and Greg
Levengood, chairman of the unified board of directors, said a few
days before the harvest figures were released that his members
would look with disbelief at any estimates that suggested hunters
killed more than 100,000 bucks last year.

“Not only are deer numbers down, but the weather on the first
two days of the season was terrible,” Levengood had said. “That’s
why, if the buck harvest number they give us is over 100,000, no
one is going to have any confidence in it. I know I won’t.”

Cal DuBrock, director of the commission’s bureau of wildlife
management, defended the agency’s system for estimating deer
harvests. He also pointed out that it’s necessary because of hunter
apathy. This year, less than 40 percent of hunters who harvested a
deer sent in their harvest report card.

DuBrock also agreed that the weather in most of the state was
bad on the first two days of the season. It’s true, too, that more
than half of the deer harvest occurs on those days, he added.

But the weather for the remainder of the two-week rifle season
was much better, and the harvest on the two Saturdays of the season
reflected that, increasing over the year before, he said.

If anything, this past season showed the wisdom of offering
concurrent buck and doe seasons, he said.

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