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November 22, 2005
From The Morning Call

Putting the hunt back in deer hunting

By Christian Berg
Of The Morning Call

The number of deer killed by Pennsylvania hunters has declined two years in a row, and it appears the downward trend is likely to continue this year.

With less than a week to go before Monday's opening of the two-week, statewide firearms deer season, Game Commission officials are warning sportsmen to expect challenging conditions in many areas.

Quite simply, there aren't as many deer as there used to be. That's exactly what the commission intended six years ago, when it began implementing dramatic regulatory changes that made it much easier to kill does but harder to legally harvest bucks.

Initially, the changes produced record harvests as hunters took advantage of their newfound freedom to thin overabundant deer populations. In 2000, hunters killed more than 500,000 deer for the first time in state history. In 2002, they took an all-time record of 517,529 deer, including 352,113 antlerless deer.

However, the long-term impact of the commission's changes has hit Pennsylvania's nearly 1 million deer hunters hard in recent years. The total harvest dropped 10 percent in 2003 and 12 percent to 409,320 last year. Last year's results included declines of 20 percent or more in seven of the state's 22 Wildlife Management Units.

''There are a fair number of deer, but nothing like what many long-time hunters can remember from the past,'' Clinton County Wildlife Conservation Officer John Wasserman said.

Many hunters unhappy

The dwindling harvest, along with a coinciding decrease in deer sightings, produced an outcry from hunters, and dissatisfaction with the agency's deer program is at least partially blamed for a 10 percent drop in hunting license sales so far this year. One group, the Unified Sportsmen of Pennsylvania, filed a lawsuit this summer claiming that the commission is intentionally decimating the state's whitetail herd.

But Cal DuBrock, director of the commission's Bureau of Wildlife Management, said the changes reflect the agency's new focus on managing deer as part of the overall environment rather than simply a popular game animal.

''Seasons and license allocations are different today, and they need to be if we are going to continue to carry out our wildlife conservation mission,'' DuBrock said. ''Progress must continue in the future. We need a deer population in balance with its habitat to improve the status and condition of deer, as well as the many other birds and mammals that we have an obligation to conserve.''

The commission's deer-management changes include a significant increase in antlerless deer licenses, allowing hunters to shoot bucks or does throughout the entire firearms season and antler restrictions that require bucks to have at least three points on one antler before they can be taken.

''As a result, deer populations have been reduced in many areas and the proportion of older bucks in the harvest has increased,'' said biologist Christopher Rosenberry, supervisor of the commission's Deer Management Section.

Despite that, deer populations remain strong throughout Southeastern Pennsylvania, including the Lehigh Valley. Across much of the region, gaining access to private property may prove more challenging to hunters than finding deer.

''There are more deer in Montgomery County than fleas on a pack of stray dogs,'' said Wildlife Conservation Officer Tim Wenrich.

Although the commission reduced the number of antlerless licenses available to hunters this year by 15 percent, officials say that is a response to lower deer numbers and not a move designed to boost the size of the herd.

Hunters say deer numbers have dropped dramatically across Pennsylvania's traditional hunting ground in the northcentral portion of the state. Given that, officials say pre-season scouting and adapting to changing in-season conditions are more critical than ever.

''Every hunter knows that a variety of factors influence where deer will be when the firearms season opens the Monday after Thanksgiving. And that can change within hours after daylight as deer respond to hunter movements or pressure,'' DuBrock said.

''If you cannot put yourself in a location where deer come to you, then it's probably best that you go to them. Still hunting and organized drives are both time-proven ways to take whitetails. Remember, changing your approach can make a difference. In fact, it may be one of the best ways to improve your chances this fall.''

When to hunt

Officials also note that when you hunt can go a long way to determining your level of success. Although the season runs Nov. 28-Dec. 10, the best day of hunting by far is opening day. Forty percent of the total firearms season harvest, and 54 percent of antlered bucks, were taken on the first day last year.

The other most productive days were the first Saturday, followed by the second day of the season and the second Saturday. Those four days combined accounted for about 77 percent of the total harvest.

If you plan to hunt on public lands that receive considerable hunting pressure, experts recommend locations in thick cover, particularly in areas loaded with mountain laurel/rhododendron and hemlock or scrub pine. If you're familiar with deer escape routes in your hunting area, concentrate on hunting near those outlets on high-pressure hunting days.

Antler restrictions, now in their fourth year, will be in place during the upcoming season. The rule required bucks to have at least three points on one antler to be legally harvested in most of the state and at least four points on an antler in part of western Pennsylvania.

Lower overall deer numbers and antler restrictions have resulted in a substantial reduction in the annual buck kill. Hunters took more than 200,000 bucks during the last year without antler restrictions but only 124,410 last year. However, the average size of bucks has increased substantially.

''At no time in history has the chance to score on a truly giant whitetail been better than it will be this year,'' Centre County Wildlife Conservation Officer Terry Wills said. ''I receive reports daily and have personally observed some really large bucks this past summer.''

The commission also reminds hunters in Wildlife Management Units 3B, 3C, 3D, 4C and 4E that they make take a bear during the first week of the season as part of the state's extended black bear season. Hunters who wish to participate in the extended bear hunt must purchase a bear license prior to Nov. 28.

Another point the commission is stressing this year is the need for successful deer hunters to complete their harvest report card and return it to the agency within 10 days, as required by law.

Information from harvest report cards is used by the commission to calculate harvest totals, and the more cards that are received, the more accurate the agency's estimates will be, DuBrock said.

Last year, only 40 percent of successful hunters submitted harvest report cards — the lowest level ever. That rate was calculated based on the examination of more than 34,000 deer carcasses at meat processors. The ear tag license numbers were then cross-checked with report card data to determine the reporting rate.

''When you consider more than 400,000 deer were taken by hunters [last year], it quickly becomes obvious that we can, and must, do better.''
 
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