Harrisburg – If a wild animal wanders through Penn’s Woods, but
doesn’t have antlers and/or a white tail, does it matter?
Philosophers can forget debating that one. State lawmakers have
already answered the question.
Though the Pennsylvania Game Commission is responsible for
managing more than 400 species, lawmakers made it clear they are
largely interested in just one of those.
White-tailed deer were the focus of attention – as always – when
the House of Representatives Game and Fisheries Committee met to
receive the commission’s annual report at the state Capitol in
Aside from one question about muskrats and another about
pheasants, all of the wildlife questions asked by legislators
focused on deer – and specifically, what the commission is doing to
make sure the state can have more of them.
Rep. Gary Haluska, a Cambria County Democrat, set the tone for
the hearing in an animated exchange with commission Executive
Director Carl Roe.
Haluska said Pennsylvania’s “Big Five” wildlife species – deer,
bears, turkeys, grouse and pheasants – are what interest sportsmen
most. Of those, however, deer clearly rank No. 1.
“There are 66 mammals in this state. But really, when you talk
to hunters, there’s one animal they want to hunt, the white-tailed
deer,” said Haluska. “They are your cash crop.”
By acting as it has over the last eight years, the commission
has failed to listen to hunters and give them what they want,
Haluska said. Proposing to shorten doe season in four units this
fall is merely a “token” meant to appease people, he said, and
“Four management units to me is not enough. It doesn’t cut it
with my hunters. It certainly doesn’t cut it with me,” Haluska
Roe agreed that deer are important. It’s critical that they be
managed properly, however, he said, because they are a “keystone
species” in that they impact other wildlife.
“When deer overbrowse a forest, it affects everything – snowshoe
hares, moles, voles, ruffed grouse, everything,” Roe said.
Lawmakers left little doubt that they would like to see more
deer for hunters, however.
Several, for example, said that they support a proposal to
shorten the antlerless deer season in four wildlife management
units by five days. That’s a “good first step” for an agency that
has exhibited a “total lack of responsiveness” in the recent past,
said Ed Staback, the Lackawanna County Democrat who chairs the
“I would like the program even more if it covered a wider range
of the commonwealth,” Staback said.
That could or could not happen, Roe said. The commission plans
to study deer-harvest rates in the four units – though it has no
money and no staff for the work, has collared no deer, and been
told by its own chief deer biologist that the work won’t provide
any meaningful data – and then determine what other changes to
make, if any, Roe said.
Rep. Mike Hanna, a Clinton County Democrat, said he is also glad
to see that the commission is considering shortening doe season in
some units. He would like to see the commission go further, though,
and work with the Department of Conservation and Natural Resources
to increase timber harvests.
“We would like to see aggressive timbering while the deer herd
is down to get regeneration while the deer are not there in large
numbers to impede it,” Hanna said.
Roe responded by saying that only 10 percent of the 700,000
acres of timbered game lands are in the old growth, high commercial
value stage, and much of that is too important to wildlife to cut.
The majority of commission timber – about 53 percent – is in small
saw timber stage, which means it has mid-range commercial
With timber prices for some tree species ebbing right now,
though, it’s becoming increasingly hard to get loggers willing to
cut, Roe said.
As for DCNR, creating wildlife habitat is not its chief goal,
Roe said, and the commission cannot force it to cut trees for the
sake of deer, he added.
Rep. Neal Goodman, a Schuylkill County Democrat, suggested the
commission contact private companies to see if they would be
willing to donate seed or equipment or develop land-management
plans to improve habitat on state game lands, most specifically for
The commission already spends a considerable amount of its
budget on habitat improvements to game lands, Roe said. Those lands
represent just 5 percent of the land mass in the state, however, so
there are limits to how effective improvements there can be at
boosting the deer population as a whole.
“If you’re expecting to really improve habitat across the board
for a variety of species, know that 80 percent of land in the state
is in private hands,” Roe said.
All of that may be true, said Dan Surra, an Elk County Democrat.
But something needs to be done to save the state’s deer-hunting
tradition, especially as it used to be in the northcentral
counties, he said.
Opening day of deer season in those places “used to be a
circus,” he said. Things are that way no more.
“Now, it’s almost like any other day. And that’s too bad. I hope
we can change that,” Surra said.
The answer is simple, Haluska suggested. Sportsmen want to be
able to go into the woods and see more deer than there are now.
“Sportsmen would like to see more deer,” Haluska said. “They’d
like to see one behind every tree, if possible.”
There may be some of that coming, Roe said. Though many hunters
think the commission is still trying to reduce the size of the deer
herd, the reality is that the commission’s goal last year was to
reduce deer numbers in just three units – those around Pittsburgh
and Philadelphia – increase them in one, and stabilize them in the
This year, the herd might be allowed to increase in additional
units, he hinted, via a reduction in the number of available doe
The commission just needs to do a better job of letting hunters
know what it’s trying to do, Roe said. “We haven’t done a very good
job of communicating what we’ve been doing, to be frank with you,”