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Saturday, February 26, 2005

Why Hunters Didn't See Deer

by Steve Sorensen
(Originally published in the Warren Times Observer, Warren, PA., January 15, 2005.)
Although many hunters don't believe it, quality deer hunting is still available in Pennsylvania – for those who learn to adapt.
Many hunters are saying that it's the worst of times in Pennsylvania's deer woods. Their biggest gripe is that they saw fewer deer during the recent season.

For the last three years the Pennsylvania Game Commission has had an Antler Restriction/Herd Reduction (AR/HR) policy that has aimed at: (1) improving the social structure of the deer herd by protecting younger bucks, while (2) reducing the overall population to achieve a more balanced forest ecology. In a state with widely varied habitat, uneven distribution of deer, increased posting of land against hunting, and an entrenched traditional deer hunting culture, deer management is sure to be controversial.

As a consequence of HR, the population is down in some areas. But that is only one of many reasons why hunters saw fewer deer. Hunters know that deer must move for hunters to see them. I offer several reasons why deer moved little this season -- relating to weather, hunting methods, and biology -- and a few conclusions.

First, warm temperatures reduce deer sightings in a number of ways. Cold weather prompts hunters to move in order to stay warm, and when hunters move, deer move. On opening day this past season, I saw only one hunter walking in the woods, but perhaps a dozen in the area were comfortably stationed in all kinds of fixed locations. They didn't need to move in order to stay warm, and therefore didn't move any deer.

Warm weather also means no snow. A background of white snow dramatically increases the visibility of brown deer. I'm sure I didn't see as many deer as I would have seen with snow cover.

Other reasons relate to hunting methods. Fewer hunters are using deer drives and more are using elevated stands, shanties, and other stationary methods to hunt their favorite "hot spots." Hunters have a tactical reason for preferring stand hunting: they're waiting for other hunters to move the deer to them. But when the majority of hunters don't move, deer don't either.

Bare ground encourages stand hunting, which doesn't risk pushing deer to other hunters. But snow cover makes hunters more apt to abandon that method. Snow makes still-hunting -- moving slowly and quietly through the woods trying to see deer before they see the hunter -- more productive. Besides improving visibility, snow also muffles sounds that the still-hunter might make.

Other reasons why hunters saw fewer deer this season relate to biological needs. First among these is scarcity of food this year. If deer don't concentrate around food sources, they will seem few and far between.

Finally, another biological reason hunters saw fewer deer this season is largely overlooked. It correlates the timing of the whitetail rut (the breeding season) to the hunting season. I recently spoke with Charles Alsheimer, noted outdoor writer, photographer and deer researcher. Through his studies he has concluded that the timing of the rut is predictable, but varies from year to year based on the lunar cycle.

His research indicates that the second full moon after the September 22 autumn equinox triggers the receptivity of does. After the breeding frenzy winds down, deer go into recovery mode, resting from the rut and preparing for one last feeding binge before the onslaught of winter. In Pennsylvania this year, that reclusive resting period was the 2-week firearms season. Alsheimer says that's a big reason why deer weren't moving this year and, in fact, a variety of other states experienced the same. Deer were recuperating in their bedding sanctuaries as much as possible.

Add the fact that more land is posted against hunting -- giving deer more places to avoid hunters -- and we have the fuel to ignite debates at hunting camps, around water coolers, and on Internet discussion forums.

With the recent resignation of Dr. Gary Alt, manager of Pennsylvania's deer program, some hunters are applying political pressure on elected officials in hopes of forcing a return to previous management methods and traditional hunting seasons. The deer herd now faces the danger of politicians, rather than wildlife biologists, making wildlife management decisions. And deer scientists generally support the idea of sparing the youngest whitetail bucks while maintaining deer populations at levels where the land has the capacity to carry them easily.

I don't pretend to be a whitetail biologist or game manager, but I've come to a few conclusions: (1) Although the population varies from one area to another, fewer deer sightings do not necessarily mean that the population is dramatically down. (2) Deer management is complex and should be addressed by wildlife biologists who themselves are deer hunters – not by politicians. (3) Under the current or any future policy, hunting will be harder and hunters will need to adapt.