Saturday, January 28th, 2023
Saturday, January 28th, 2023

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Sportsmen Since 1967

State is a leader in whitetail research

University Park, Pa. – Andrew Norton is well aware of how
controversial and political deer management is in Pennsylvania.
That’s one reason why the graduate student in Penn State’s College
of Agricultural Sciences is so fascinated by it.

A dedicated and passionate deer hunter from Minnesota who is
pursuing a master’s degree in wildlife and fisheries science,
Norton plans to estimate deer harvest and survival rates from data
collected on hundreds of whitetails that Penn State and the
Pennsylvania Game Commission captured and fitted with radio collars
in Armstrong, Centre, Clearfield, Clinton, Cumberland and Perry
counties.

In addition, in the coming year he plans to monitor deer
captured and radio-collared in Bradford, Butler, Cameron, Elk,
Indiana, Juniata, McKean, Potter, Susquehanna and Wyoming
counties.

Penn State and the Game Commission have been trapping and
radio-collaring 200 to 300 deer annually since 2002. Trapping
occurs January through March each year.

Norton’s two-year research project will be looking for patterns
related to whether those deer were harvested by hunters and how
they survive outside the hunting seasons.

“We are looking for large-scale patterns in harvest rates of
deer across Pennsylvania,” Norton said. “We are investigating
whether road networks and forest cover affect the chances a deer
gets harvested.

“After collecting data in the field, such as information about
deer that are harvested, road-kills and other nonhunting mortality,
we can test some of the assumptions deer managers make to see
whether they are legitimate by comparing them to field
observations.”

Norton, who moved to the small town of Luverne, Minn., from
South Africa in 1994 when he was 10, developed a keen love of
wildlife, hunting and fishing in the Upper Midwest as a teenager.
After graduating from the University of Minnesota with a bachelor’s
degree in fisheries and wildlife science – when he decided he
wanted to do research on white-tailed deer – he decided there was
no better place than Pennsylvania and Penn State.

The Keystone State has a rich deer-hunting heritage and one of
the nation’s largest deer herds, but it also has a tradition of
controversy surrounding deer management and doe hunting, and deer-
hunter dissatisfaction. Pennsylvania – which is annually among the
top states for deer-vehicle collisions – is a world-leader in
hardwood production, but valuable tree species such as oak are not
regenerating at historic levels. Forest problems have long been at
least partially blamed on overbrowsing by too-many deer.

And Penn State has one of the top-rated schools of forest
resources in the world. Norton’s adviser, Duane Diefenbach, adjunct
associate professor of wildlife ecology and leader of the
Pennsylvania Cooperative Fish and Wildlife Research Unit, housed in
the school, is nationally recognized for his deer research. He has
been involved in all the Game Commission’s deer studies since
2000.

One question in Norton’s mind that needs to be answered is how
harvest and survival rates vary across Pennsylvania. “Factors such
as forest on the landscape, public-versus-private land, distance
from a road, slope of terrain, human population in the deer range,
severity of the previous winter, and mast production the previous
year could all have an impact,” Norton explained.

“I would like to see if there are patterns to be discovered in
the variability we find across Pennsylvania.”

Researchers use computer models to see if certain factors are
related to the probability that a deer gets harvested during a
hunting season or it survives beyond the hunting season, according
to Norton. “What we do is develop models that incorporate all these
variables that potentially might affect a deer’s chances of being
harvested or surviving — I probably will have 20 models by the time
I am done,” he said.

“Then we use a computer program to help us identify what factors
are related to harvest and survival rates. The program will rank
the models and tell us which ones are most appropriate. It gets
quite complex because we are using state-of-the-science
methods.”

Norton realizes that he is privileged to be working in a state
where the white-tailed deer plays such an important role in
society. “I appreciate the opportunity to be exposed to the
politics and science of deer management in Pennsylvania and
hopefully be able to contribute to the Game Commission having more
accurate information to better manage the deer population,” he
said.

“In the end, we will have a study with at least 1,500
radio-collared deer to estimate harvests and the population – there
is no other study on the whitetail in the eastern United States
being done like this.”

Norton has noticed a big difference between deer management in
the Keystone State and Minnesota. “I definitely have an
appreciation of the politics and the issues deer managers have to
deal with here in Pennsylvania,” he said. “In Minnesota where I got
my undergrad degree, hunters are not so angry, skeptical and
critical of deer-management policies.

“In Minnesota, they may not even have enough hunters to control
the deer population, compared to Pennsylvania where there is such
an incredible density of deer hunters, with almost a million.

“I can understand sportsmen’s anger because they had high deer
densities and easier hunting for the past 50 years, and that was
taken from them when changes in management goals led to lower deer
numbers,” he added. “It’s a difficult situation. But higher deer
densities mean more collisions with vehicles, damage to forest
habitat and more crop damage.”

Diefenbach emphasized the importance of Norton’s work, calling
it unparalleled for white-tailed deer in the eastern United States.
“No other state agency in the East is putting as much effort into
capturing, radio-collaring and monitoring white-tailed deer,” he
said.

“In 2000, the Game Commission captured and radio-collared more
than 200 fawns, one of the largest studies of fawn survival ever
published. Since then, more than 1,000 adult deer have been
radio-collared. With the trapping efforts that will begin on four
study areas, Andrew could have close to 2,000 adult deer to study
harvest and survival rates.”

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