Harrisburg — Anyone who’s been paying attention in recent years knows the Pennsylvania Game Commission has been growing the deer herd.
Now the agency’s admitted it.
Chris Rosenberry, the agency’s chief deer biologist, rolled out staff’s recommendation for the total number of doe licenses to be issued for the 2015-16 seasons at the board’s working group meeting on March 30. The allocation is designed to hold the deer population steady in 20 wildlife management units, allow it to increase in one, unit 3A, and decrease it in two, units 3C and 4B, he said.
That’s in keeping with what the commission’s deer management plan dictates, he said.
Biologists look at deer health, forest health and human conflicts, he said. The information determines which direction to take deer populations.
“We collect our data, we make our recommendations,” Rosenberry said.
Commissioners rarely follow those recommendations to the letter, though. In almost all situations, they “tweak” the numbers, usually lowering the total number of doe tags to be available.
Expect that to happen again this year, and for more deer to be the result, said commission President Dave Putnam, of Centre County.
“We’re not admitting we’re doing anything other than making adjustments. But the end result will be we expect the herd to increase in certain units,” Putnam said.
Still, commissioners had questions about the staff recommendations.
Jay Delaney, of Luzerne County, said he’d expect staff to give more consideration to things like the harsh winter he’s seen. That’s what happens in western states with elk, he noted.
Rosenberry, though, said biologists make decisions based on trends in populations over a multiyear period so as not to give too much credence to any one variable.
What’s more, he’s neither seen nor heard from inside or outside the agency any evidence of winter killing deer in any significant numbers, he said.
“It’s one of those things where you think you ought to see it. But give deer credit, they’re survivors,” Rosenberry said. “Our animals seem to be making it through.”
Delaney wasn’t convinced.
“Maybe I just have a different opinion of how we get to the (same) end,” he said.
Commissioner Brian Hoover, of Delaware County, said staff needs to place less emphasis on deer-human conflicts and non-hunter opinions.
There are places in the northeast corner of the state where public opinion suggests people want, if not fewer deer, certainly not any more, he said. But that can be skewed by considering the opinions of people in gated communities, where no hunting is allowed.
Hunters on public lands don’t share those views, he suggested.
If the commission isn’t going to go away from conflict considerations, it might be time to go to public-versus-private doe tags, he added.
Commissioner Tim Layton, of Somerset County, meanwhile, asked if the answer might be to maintain the wildlife management unit system, but develop a system of smaller “deer management units” within it.
“Could that be done effectively?” Layton asked.
Rosenberry said it could be done. The commission used to manage doe harvests by county, which was effectively 67 management units.
But it can’t collect enough data on such a small scale to justify – or defend – decisions at that level, he added.
“Effectively? That’s where the problem comes in. I’m not certain it would be effective. It certainly would be more difficult to defend,” Rosenberry said.
Delaney then asked why the commission doesn’t manage some of its game lands under something like the Deer Management Assistance Program, allowing doe hunting on some and maybe not on others.
That’s not what hunters want, Rosenberry said. Surveys have shown that hunters, many of whom hunt public land exclusively, don’t want shut out of any of those properties.
“We do know hunters don’t want game lands limited,” Rosenberry said.
The end result will likely be that, when commissioners meet on April 9, they’ll adjust doe tag limits by unit, as they’ve done in the past, Putnam said. They can conceivably go too far, if they cut back the number of licenses enough to let the deer population grow to the point it’s harming its habitat.
“There’s a line commissioners shouldn’t cross,” Putnam said.
But otherwise the system as is seems to be working, he said.
In the meantime, the recommended antlerless license allocation, provided by Rosenberry, for the 2015-16 license year, breaks down like this: Unit 1A, 54,000; 1B, 37,000; 2A, 51,000; 2B, 61,000; 2C, 44,000; 2D, 71,000; 2E, 22,000; 2F, 28,000; 2G, 28,000; 2H, 6,000; 3A, 19,000, 3B, 37,000; 3C, 41,000; 3D, 37,000; 4A, 30,000; 4B, 33,000; 4C, 33,000; 4D, 35,000; 4E, 26,000; 5A, 19,000; 5B, 50,000; 5C, 88,000; 5D, 29,000.