Deer-ly departed: Deer go where hunters aren’t
University Park, Pa. — A Penn State study into deer movement during the hunting season has shown whitetails react to hunting pressure by moving out of their typical home range.
And many times, particularly during Pennsylvania’s hugely popular two-week firearms season, that movement is significant.
“Once the rifle season begins, we see some pretty dramatic differences,” said Duane Diefenbach, leader of the Pennsylvania Cooperative Fish and Wildlife Research Unit and one of the study’s leaders. “Some of these bucks will leave their home range and go places we’ve never seen them in the previous 10 months. It’s pretty amazing.”
The information essentially confirms what many hunters have long suspected: that deer “disappear” during the height of the hunting seasons.
While the whitetails don’t drop off the face of the hunting earth, the research has shown they react to hunters’ presence, and the more hunting pressure the more dramatic that response.
The research is the product of the second year of a five-year study by Penn State’s College of Agricultural Sciences into whitetails and forest health, as well as how Pennsylvania hunters are using that state’s deer management assistance program and how hunters react to changes in deer numbers.
As part of the research, the study monitors 40 deer, both bucks and does, fitted with GPS radio collars on four tracts of between 25 and 40 square miles each in Bald Eagle, Rothrock and Susquehannock state forests. The collars transmit data and receive commands via satellite and can be remotely signaled to change the time between location fixes.
The data transmission from the deer, including mature bucks, occurred every 5-6 hours during the winter, spring and summer and every three hours during Pennsylvania’s archery season.
During the firearms season, researchers bumped that up to every 20 minutes.
Diefenbach said monitoring during the archery season showed no indication that the deer were impacted by hunting activity “to any great extent.”
But that all changes when the firearms season begins – even ahead of the official kickoff.
Diefenbach said the collared whitetails altered their movement patterns on the Sunday before Pennsylvania’s traditional Monday-after-Thanksgiving firearms opener, likely due to activity in the woods as hunters check their stand locations and make last-minute scouting forays.
And the deer go where the hunters don’t, according to Chris Rosenberry, head of the Pennsylvania Game Commission’s deer and elk section and a biologist participating in the study.
In one case, a buck moved about 400 feet up a mountain from0 where it had been ranging. During the season it spent its time about 1,000 yards from the nearest road. And that was the typical reaction of the collared deer.
“These animals were in areas that are not readily accessible,” Rosenberry said. “They went beyond where the hunters were. If they survive two hunting seasons, they have places that either no one goes or that are just so thick unless you did a drive, they’re just going to walk circles around you.”
Diefenbach said at some point they hope to lead some hunters into those areas to show them just where the whitetails go when the shooting begins. He also said the information gathered shoots holes in hunter theories that whitetails “go nocturnal” and move only at night during the hunting season.
In the first year of the study, hunters killed only about 10 percent of the collared does and 25 percent of the collared bucks. That, Rosenberry said, parallels previous studies that showed 85-90 percent of the does survive hunting season no matter how long it may be.
“The odds are stacked against the hunter,” Rosenberry said. “These deer are not nearly as predicatable as hunters would like them to be.”
Diefenbach said they’re tracking deer movement not only to educate hunters.
“Deer locations provide insights into how landscape features influence deer movements, and this will provide important information as we monitor how deer populations change during the study and how the forest responds,” he said.
(Pennsylvania Outdoor News Editor Jeff Mulhollem contributed to this report.)