Lawmaker to PGC: Must compromise on deer

Harrisburg — As hunters gear up for deer season, Rep. Bryan Cutler, R-Lancaster, is calling on the Pennsylvania Game Commission to meet with them and hear their concerns.

In what he characterized as a “steady crescendo” of constituent complaints about the dearth of deer in some public areas, Cutler said a conversation between the Game Commission and hunters could “go a long way toward solving problems,” and potentially boost license sales.

“Over the last year, year and a half, I’ve been hearing more disgruntlement from my constituents,” Cutler said. “People tell me they’ve quit hunting because they’re not seeing deer.”

Some comments have been positive, with folks linking the big bucks they are seeing today with the habitat-driven deer management plan implemented more than a decade ago, he said. “But they’re certainly outnumbered by the disgruntled hunters.”

Cutler is an avid hunter. His wife and young son and daughter hunt, too. But he said he stopped hunting in Potter County at the camp his grandfather founded in 1949 because he wasn’t seeing deer.

“We still go up there, but I no longer buy doe tags for Potter County,” Cutler said. “I hunt in central Lancaster on private land.”

He thinks the commission should “hyper-localize” its deer management to specific geographic areas beyond those with special regulations now. And he said he is particularly bothered by the Game Commission’s failure to answer a question he has posed at hearings of the House Game and Fisheries Committee on which he has served since his first term.

“When they changed the deer plan under Dr. (Gary) Ault, they had three goals – healthy habitat, healthy deer, and low deer-human interactions, i.e. fewer deer getting hit on roads,” he said.

“But what I’ve always asked is why the commission doesn’t establish a minimum for the number of deer a habitat would support – theoretically, one deer per square mile. And I’ve never got a satisfactory response.”

That’s easy, said Wayne Laroche, who joined the commission as director of wildlife management last year. “You can’t establish a minimum of any kind. Habitat varies so much from place to place, you can’t pick a magic number.

“An area that’s solid old-growth pine, you wouldn’t expect to carry any deer. But where there’s early successional forest, you’d find plenty of deer. You have to assess forest regeneration for each area.”

A wildlife biologist who moved here from Vermont, Laroche has been traveling the state as much to familiarize himself with various parts of Pennsylvania as to address concerns he has received from hunters representing groups such as Unified Sportsmen of Pennsylvania.

“Some have suggested that we manage down to the county level,” Laroche said. “With 67 counties in the state, that would be impossible. We wouldn’t have the manpower to do that, and we’d wind up with areas too small to accurately assess deer.”

Laroche recently visited Lehigh County in Wildlife Management Unit 5C on two nights and, using a forward-looking infrared camera mounted on his vehicle, counted 341 deer in a 14-square mile area in four hours the first night, and 60-plus deer in 40 minutes on his second visit.

“And that included areas where the habitat is really hammered. Deer are eating multi-floral rose. They’ve chewed acres of knee-high corn.”

The commission estimates there are 48 deer per square mile in Unit 5C, Laroche said. “If you divide the 341 deer I saw by 14, you’ll get 24.35 per square mile. When I see 24 deer, I figure there’s at least half that I’m not seeing.”

Laroche also traveled to the commission’s Disease Management Area 2 in Bedford County near Roaring Spring (where chronic wasting disease is known to be infecting wild deer), which is supposed to be a deer-dense location. But he said he saw just 35 deer in a couple of hours, which he blamed on poor visibility.

“The corn was just too high and there were oceans of it,” he said.

Laroche was preparing a visit to Potter County in Wildlife Management Unit 2G, where hunting pressure is low, and said he would invite Cutler to go there with him.

“I happen to know that if you look at the adult buck-to-yearling buck ratio there – whether they’re living long or not – over 50 percent of bucks taken every year are adults,” said Laroche.

A computer program the commission uses to assess deer puts the statewide average at 40 per square mile, although it tends to under-estimate the size of a herd in any given area, Laroche said. The software collates data such as forest inventory and hunter harvest numbers to help the commission review and potentially change seasons and bag limits.

“Come March,” he said, “we run the assessments through the computer model and based on that, make recommendations about deer management.”

Laroche’s visits to Pennsylvania forests also will go into the mix next spring, he said. “The way I think about it is, the model is just a computer game. I’m judging things for myself.”

“I’ve hunted for over 50 years and so I have a fairly good idea of deer densities based on signs on the ground,” he said.

“I’m used to hunting in Maine where there are 10 deer per square mile. I’ve never hunted where there are as many deer as there are around here. It’s not even close.”

Categories: Hunting News, Whitetail Deer

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