Solving the deer problem through mythology?
by Steve Sorensen
(Originally published in the Warren Times Observer, Warren, PA., April 1, 2006.)
Man has always had a fascination with hybrid creatures.
The expectation is that a half whitetail, half mule deer
hybrid will be better suited to the conditions
that prevail in modern Pennsylvania.
Horror stories and science fiction tell of bizarre combinations of man and beast, such as Wolfman and "The Fly." Our superheroes, including Spiderman and Batman, combine the traits of animal and human to generate superhuman powers. The ancient Greeks had their mythological creatures, too; the centaur, the half man and half horse, is one of several.
Now, the automobile insurance industry is taking a page out of mythology to address some of the problems that Pennsylvania's hunting culture faces. The secret plan is a multi-year experimental program to transplant mule deer bucks to a limited range in northern Pennsylvania in hopes that they will crossbreed with whitetail does. The expectation is that a half whitetail, half mule deer hybrid will be better suited to the conditions that prevail in modern Pennsylvania.
The two main species of deer that inhabit North America are the whitetail deer (Odocoileus virginianus) and the mule deer (Odocoileus hemionus). The whitetail/mule deer hybrid has a face that looks like a mule deer, and an antler configuration that looks like a whitetail. Its tail is white on the underside, and dark brown or black on the topside. The hybrid runs like a mule deer, with an evasive tactic of peculiar pogo-stick-like bouncing called "stotting" that makes it less susceptible to predators. It literally bounces over obstacles such as large boulders, which predators must go around.
The goal of the program is to address several problems all at once. One is the continuing decline in hunting license sales. Not long ago, Pennsylvania led the nation in sales. Now it lags behind Texas and Michigan, and the decline will probably continue. The insurance industry recognizes that fewer hunters are not going to be able to keep a prolific whitetail population in check.
Another problem is constant pressure on the Pennsylvania Game Commission to reverse its herd reduction policy. Although the deer herd has finally been reduced to a level that satisfies the auto insurance companies, the chief stakeholders in the PGC's policy are still the hunters, and many of them continue to advocate for a higher deer population.
The third problem is the disappointing results of the current antler restriction policy. Bigger deer are being harvested, but by a small number of hunters. Many hunters are not satisfied with giving up the opportunity to kill a 4-point buck every year in exchange for the opportunity to kill an 8-point every 5 or 6 years.
Wildlife biologists have been studying whitetail/mule deer hybrids in a few western locations where they naturally interbreed, and some believe that the hybrid holds the answer to these problems. Why?
First, whitetail/mule deer hybrids grow larger antlers sooner. The hybrid produces branched antlers with 4 points to a side at a younger age. This will give hunters more opportunities to harvest a buck under the antler restriction policy, and halt the common criticism that antler restrictions have not produced enough well developed bucks.
Second, the hybrid will make the herd reduction policy irrelevant because it is far less prolific than the whitetail. While whitetail deer tend to overpopulate their range wherever they exist, whitetail/mule deer hybrids are self-limiting because hybrids suffer greater fawn mortality. They will never fill the niche as completely as whitetails do.
Third, with a self-limiting population of deer, Pennsylvania won't need to reverse the decline in hunting license sales. Greater fawn mortality means that the whitetail/mule deer hybrid won't be dependent on hunting as the chief means of population control.
Why isn't this scheme viewed as a risk? Because it's the direction Mother Nature is taking anyway. The introduction of mule deer to Pennsylvania merely accelerates what is happening in western states where whitetail and mule deer habitats overlap. As land use changes, populations of both species are forced together in order to take advantage of available habitat, and where that happens they are interbreeding successfully.
Members of the Pennsylvania Bigfoot Society (yes, it actually exists) are opposed to the plan. A spokesman says, "Because the bouncing gait of the hybrid deer will make it difficult for 'Bigfoot' to prey on them, the hybrid deer will further endanger the existence of this large, secretive primate."
Officials in the insurance industry are mostly mum about their plan, but they believe it will definitely reduce car-deer collisions. One has commented, "The bouncing pattern of the hybrid deer will mean safer roadways. The deer will bounce right over cars, saving the lives of deer as well as the occupants of cars."
What can the everyday hunter in Pennsylvania do about this? First, he should realize that today is April Fool's Day.