Study could lead to better deer policy

Harrisburg — Why now?

That was the question addressed at the Pennsylvania Game Commission’s most recent work group meeting when the subject turned to a new study aimed at figuring out what else, besides deer, might be impacting forest regeneration across the state.

The commission, in partnership with the Pennsylvania Cooperative Fish and Wildlife Unit at Penn State, and the state  Department of Conservation and Natural Resources, has launched a deer-forest study aimed at achieving several goals.

Deer – adult bucks and does – have been collared in four study areas within the Bald Eagle, Rothrock and Susquehannock state forests. Each will be tracked over time. Hunters will be allowed to shoot them just as they would other deer.

Bag limits will be tweaked in those study areas, using DMAP tags, over time as well.

All of that is meant to answer four questions. One is how effective the deer management assistance program is at increasing antlerless deer harvests. Another is how hunter behaviors and attitudes change in relation to changing deer populations.

Two other questions – the ones that will assuredly most interest hunters – the study will examine are how much white-tailed deer impact forest regeneration in comparison to things like acidic soil, invasive plants, insects and more, and how good the existing habitat-monitoring program is at detecting changes in forest health.

In short, “we want to make sure deer are the problem,” said Game Commission deer biologist Chris Rosenberry.

As to why now, this kind of study just couldn’t be done before, Rosenberry said.

The commission actively decreased deer populations between 2002 and 2004, he said. Prior to that, the commission’s deer program was based on deer density objectives, which is not the case today. The data available for evaluation today didn’t exist then either, he noted.

The commission has always tried to use science to better refine its deer program and deer management recommendations, though, he added.

The commission’s chief forester, Dave Gustafson, agreed. In 2006, he said, recommendations on whether to increase, decrease or maintain deer populations were made based on one “decision node” regarding forest health. Now there are a half dozen or more.

Likewise, the commission has always recognized that deer are not the only factor impacting forest regeneration. But, he added, the sensitivity of its measures for monitoring forest health have been works in progress.

Habitat regeneration has occurred in some places and not in others, he said. But measuring that to date has involved a pass/fail grade that left little room for talking about incremental progress, he said.

This latest research will make those measures more sensitive, he said.

“It comes down to the question of, we see what we have – can we make it better?” Gustafson said.

Answers will hopefully come sooner rather than later, said Duane Diefenbach, Penn State  professor and director of the cooperative fish and wildlife unit. Researchers will make predictions about how deer and forests will respond as

DMAP allocations are increased or decreased and as areas are fenced to keep deer out, herbicides are applied to the forest and more.

They’ll then make those changes and monitor how deer and forests respond.

The answers they get will be shared immediately in an integration of “research and management.”

“This isn’t one of those studies where we go away and do research and come back with answers in five to 10 years,” Diefenbach said.

None of that should be taken to mean that deer are not impacting forest regeneration, he said. They clearly are, he added.

But, in response to a question by Commissioner Brian Hoover, of Delaware County, he agreed they are not the only problem.

He pointed to Game Land 44 in Elk County as an example. When he visited it 10 years ago, fenced deer exclosures had a young forest growing inside them. Outside the fence, where deer could roam, there was nothing but ferns.

Visit those same areas now and the forest inside the fence is vibrant and lush. Outside the fence – though deer numbers have been reduced – there’s more growth, but not as much as hoped, he said.

“We’ve made tremendous progress in the last 10 years. But if you dig down in the weeds, the more palatable species are still struggling. The question is, is it just deer,” he said.

This “huge, complex study” will answer those “more complicated questions,” he said.

Deer populations could be allowed to grow in some places based on what the study says, said Commissioner Dave Putnam, of Centre County. But it’s not just about clearing the way for more deer on the landscape, he added.

“What the deer study will do is either give us more confidence in whether there are too many deer or too few deer. Before it was black or white,” he said. “Now we’re hopefully going to be able to see more closely which way the trends are going so we can make better decisions.

“We can look at refining our measurements.”

Even then, it may be that there are changes recommended that just can’t be implemented, warned Executive Director Carl Roe.

“We’re going to have to ask, are they economically feasible? In other words, if we get to the point where we say that to get regeneration across the entire northcentral region we have to lime, we know that’s not going to happen,” Roe said.

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