Search for ‘magic’ deer number in Pennsylvania goes on
The magic number.
When it comes to deer in Pennsylvania, Game Commission board president Dave Putnam often says – usually in a joking manner – that he is searching for it.
After the recent commission meeting in Harrisburg, where commissioners again slightly reduced the number of doe tags available to hunters – which they say should result in deer numbers in most places increasing a little – he believes he may be closer to finding it.
The magic number, as I think Putnam envisions it, is the number of deer that can exist on the landscape while still allowing for adequate forest regeneration and keeping hunters happy? Also, that magic number of deer would somehow not inflict an unacceptable level of crop damage on farms.
Given the differences in the state’s regions – from urban to countryside, from vast, isolated, forested mountains to rural, fertile agricultural valleys – a statewide magic number is a mirage, of course, and Putnam knows it. That’s why he often jokes about it.
But I had a thought after the recent Game Commision meeting when commissioners agreed to allocate 746,500 antlerless deer permits for this fall, 33,000 fewer than last year – about a 4 percent reduction. It was the second consecutive year of very minor cuts in the number of available doe tags.
Will angry deer hunters even notice if the deer herd grows slightly? And how much growth would be enough to satisfy hunters upset by low deer numbers?
At the recent meeting, Game Commissioner Brian Hoover suggested an answer. He pointed out that the agency has learned that when deer densities drop to 15 per square mile and lower, hunters complain. And when populations climb to 20-25 per square mile, they seem to be satisfied. A magic number? Perhaps.
Maybe hunters are actually starting to notice. According to commission deer and elk section chief Chris Rosenberry, responses in recent hunter satisfacton surveys indicate hunters in 12 of the state’s 23 wildlife management units think deer populations “are about right.”
“That makes me feel a little better about our search for the number,” Putnam said. “I think that’s progress.”
But Putnam said after the recent meeting that he’s not just trying to appease angry hunters, he’s trying to do the right thing for the habitat, and for the state. A certified wildlife biologist himself, he noted that the debate about doe hunting has been going on in Pennsylvania for a century – the deer wars, if you will.
“I understand that hunters never have been happy with our deer population or deer management. We used to fight in school in the early 1960s over whether or not we should even hunt does. Hunters complained in the 1980s that there weren’t enough deer,” he said.
“It is understandable that many were concerned when the herd was really lowered in the early 2000s. Every deer biologist that the Game Commission has ever had, including Roger Latham, has urged responsible management, and been vilified by the hunters in one way or another.”
Putnam makes good points, but many angry Keystone State deer hunters won’t buy them. They scoff at a 4 percent reduction in doe tags as insignificant, they are highly skeptical of Game Commission hunter surveys and deer-harvest and population estimates, they are convinced that increased coyote predation on fawns is keeping the herd from growing, and they believe this past brutal winter killed a lot of deer.
I can’t say, but I know deer management in Pennsylvania is a tightrope act, and I believe Putnam, Hoover and the rest are trying to do the right thing. Maybe they really do need a little magic.