N.Y. deer hunting hurdle: Access

Waverly, N.Y. — It doesn’t take a lot of digging to see that deer hunting opportunities – including whitetail numbers – vary widely in New York’s Southern Zone, where the archery season kicked off Oct. 1.

A quick look at DEC’s regional deer season forecasts highlights some of the challenges the state faces in managing the deer herd.

Specifically, access issues seem to stymie deer management efforts in several regions. And with no solution seemingly in sight, whitetail populations continue to grow in many areas.

“Despite legislative changes in 2014 that reduced the setback distance for discharge of bowhunting equipment (from 500 to 150 feet), access to deer habitat continues to be one of the primary factors limiting the effectiveness of hunters in WMU 1C (Suffolk County),” DEC Region 1 wildlife manager Michelle Gibbons wrote in her pre-season report.

Deer numbers continue to grow on Long Island, even though the deer kill in WMU 1C last year, at 3,491, was up 21.5 percent from 2013-14. Gibbons said that number was “a far cry from what is needed to reduce its deer population.”

But hunters, in many cases across the state and particularly in highly developed areas of Long Island, can’t get to the deer. And liberalized seasons and regulations haven’t helped as much as DEC biologists have hoped. An abundance of Deer Management Permits hasn’t helped the state reach its management objectives, and this year WMU 1C is one of several units that will see antlerless-only restrictions during the Oct. 1-15 portion of the archery season.

Hunters in several other units will be limited to taking only antlerless deer again during the late muzzleloader and archery season.

On Long Island, Gibbons says hunting alone “is not likely to sufficiently reduce abundant deer populations to the desired levels in many Long Island communities. In these areas, we expect that DEC and communities will need to coordinate more aggressive action that involves greater organization of recreational hunters, culling of deer by professionals and/or trained volunteers, and possibly non-lethal measures.”

The access challenges aren’t limited to Long Island. A quick look at DEC’s unit-by-unit deer season forecast –which appears on pages 37-41 of this issue – shows a common phrase in many WMUs: “limited public access.”

DEC Region 9 big game biologist Tim Spierto, in his pre-season forecast, says public hunting access “continues to be a major concern for DEC. We promote access for hunting on all DEC-owned lands wherever possible.”

Region 9 in western New York actually has more public land available than most DEC regions, a mix of state forests parcels and wildlife management areas.

Spierto added that there are many private landowners willing to allow hunting on their properties and encouraged hunters to ask permission.

In Region 3, which includes the rugged Catskills, public land is plentiful in the form of state forests, WMAs, multiple-use areas and New York City Department of Enviromental Protection lands.

But in Orange County WMU 3M where deer numbers are the highest, perhaps not coincidentally public hunting opportunities are limited, according to Region 3 big game biologists Jonathan Russell.

Winter hits hard

This season, another factor has come into play: a prolonged winter that led to whitetail mortality in many areas of even the Southern Zone, where winter doesn’t always impact the deer herd.

“The winter of 2014-15 included prolonged periods of extreme cold and deep snow,” DEC Region 4 big game biologist Larry Bifaro wrote in his pre-season report. “Weather forecasters in the Catskill region regarded it as one of the coldest on record. Regional staff received multiple reports of and confirmed winter-killed deer. This primarily affected fawns.”

In response to that mortality, DEC’s Region 4 Deer Management Permits were trimmed by up to 30 percent in some units.

In Region 7, DEC biologist Courtney LaMere said the prolonged snow and cold in some higher elevations led to some fawn mortality.

As a result, DMPs were cut by 8 percent from last season, although LaMere said that even with the modest fawn mortality deer populations remain above desired levels in many units.

Russell that the tough winter in Region 3 had its greatest effect in WMUs 3A and 3H and, coupled with limited acorn production last year, likely led to some winter kill.

Region 8 biologist Art Kirsch, in his pre-season report, called the winter of 2014-15 “as cold as the year before, with the added impact of heavy, prolonged snow cover. This combination made last winter among the most severe in decades in Western New York, and it likely had an effect on deer survival.”

Kirsch said an examination of road-killed whitetails showed that about 40 percent would have died of starvation had they not been struck by vehicles. 

Severe winters typically impact fawns, which translates to fewer yearling bucks afield the following season. 

“Although our carcass examinations were not extensive enough to draw firm conclusions, the tough winter of 2014-15 will likely have ramifications for deer hunters this fall in the way of fewer yearlings available for harvest,” Kirsch said.

That will set the stage for a lower overall buck kill in the region.

Spierto, too, predicted the past winter led to lower fawn survival in Region 9. 

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