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Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Looking at Pennsylvania’s whitetail records

by Steve Sorensen
(Originally published in the Forest Press, August 15, 2012.) 
More big bucks have been killed
during the 10 years of antler restrictions
than in any previous decade.
Back when my dad shot one of the biggest bucks of his life, through my little kid eyes I saw it as a giant. It didn’t qualify for any record book, nor was it very old (probably 3½ years.)

When I began my own hunting career, Pennsylvania was loaded with highly successful, traditional hunters. And many of us made a career of shooting spindly-antlered yearling bucks.

In 2002 the Game Commission launched its programs of herd reduction and antler restrictions. The goal of herd reduction was to reduce the negative impact of a high deer population on the habitat, and the goal of antler restrictions was to take pressure off young bucks so they could grow older.

Many traditional hunters have roundly criticized the PGC for its deer management policy, but has it worked? Some aspects of it may be debatable, but ordinary observations as well as scientific evidence point to the fact that reducing the herd has resulted in improved habitat.

What about the antler restriction policy? Here, it’s harder to find agreement. Point to the bigger, more mature bucks being taken, and some hunters will say “Check the records – Pennsylvania has always produced big bucks. We’re not producing any more than we ever did.”

So, now that we’ve had 10 seasons of antler restrictions in Pennsylvania, I decided to check the records. I charted Pennsylvania records (which use the Boone & Crockett measuring system) over the last ten decades. The record books don’t say antlers are bigger now, but they do say more bucks have large antlers than ever before.

These numbers in the chart represent almost all Pennsylvania’s record book bucks killed in the last 100 years. The year of harvest is unknown for 17 of the bucks in the Pennsylvania record book, and only five more were killed more than a century ago, including the famous 1830 Arthur Young buck of McKean County, PA, the oldest buck in any record book.

A few observations are worth noting. First, the decade that produced the most significant increase in Boone & Crockett bucks, along with a large increase in Pennsylvania record book bucks, was the decade that included the post-World War 2 years when riflemen returned home to hunt a deer herd that had boomed. Deer had less hunting pressure while men were fighting in Europe and the Pacific, so bucks lived longer and grew larger.

The most recent 10-year period is the antler restriction period, and it put higher totals into both the Pennsylvania record book and the Boone & Crockett record book than any previous decade. However, bucks often don’t get entered right away, so the numbers for the most recent decade will continue to increase for a few years.

Note that the last 20 years reflects the tremendous growth in archery hunting. In both those decades, the total record book bucks taken by archery exceeds the record book bucks taken by firearm.

Don’t mis-read the chart and think that without archers in the woods, the overall totals wouldn’t be so high. That can’t be true. Firearms categories increased too, and if those archery bucks had lived to be available in rifle season, firearms hunters would show an even greater increase.

The bottom line? The decade of antler restrictions produced more record book bucks in every category. Any given area of the state may not show the same increase, but statewide more record book bucks are available than ever before.

Some readers will be quick to warn that record book bucks should not be the goal of hunters, nor should more record bucks be the goal of the Pennsylvania Game Commission. I agree. And the records have nothing to do with goals; records are not forward-looking. They have only to do with history; they are a look backwards.

Speaking of goals, my goal is not to get my name into either the Pennsylvania book or the Boone & Crockett book. My goal is simply to harvest a mature buck every year in Pennsylvania. I fail at that more than I succeed, but history shows that my odds are better now than they have ever been before. Yours are too.

Saturday, August 04, 2012

Hunters Are Green

by Steve Sorensen
(Originally published in the Forest Press, August 1, 2012.) 
Hunters should be poster boys
for locally grown food.
Times change. There was a time when the word “conservationist” was almost synonymous with “hunter” or “fisherman.” No longer.

Yet, for more years than we can count, outdoorsmen have been the most environmentally friendly people on earth, and were accepted as such by nearly everyone. Hunters respected nature, understood the relationships between animals and their habitat, and invested themselves in keeping those relationships healthy. When they’ve realized they were doing something that hurt the environment, even if they were the culprits, they’ve been first to lobby for change. 

Today hunters are under fire for being enemies of the environment when the truth is that they’re the greatest friends the natural world has ever had. North American wildlife would be in dire straits if it weren’t for the greatest conservationists the world has ever seen – American hunters.

Modern environmentalists advocate for values that hunters have held for generations. When it comes to meat, hunters eat more organically produced food than anyone. It hasn’t been injected with growth-inducing hormones, or crowded into constricting fences or cages. No one can link hunting with so-called “evil” profit-driven agribusinesses.

Eco-conscious messages encourage us to eat locally grown food – food that doesn’t waste resources by trips of hundreds or even thousands of miles to market. The truth is that hunters should be poster boys for that idea. Fully 95% of hunters do most of their hunting within a few miles of home – yet don’t get the credit backyard gardeners get for eating tomatoes and broccoli.

Way back in the 1980s, the Wall Street Journal featured a story about a new wave of urban restaurants that served “stress-free meats,” but stress-free meat is commonly available in the homes of hunters.

Yes, hunters kill with bullets and arrows, but without hunters animals still die. Few wander off and die a peaceful death, curled up on comfort. Virtually all of them would eventually die slowly from malnutrition or disease, by being maimed in violent collisions with tons of steel, or by being eaten alive by merciless predators. The truth? Modern hunters are the world’s most humane predators.

While some anti-hunting organizations make lots of noise about conserving habitat for wildlife, what all of those organizations do collectively is miniscule compared to the way hunters and fishermen step up for wildlife conservation on both private and public lands.

Thanks to the Pittman-Robertson Federal Aid in Wildlife Restoration Act of 1937, hunters have given $5.3 billion to their state game agencies for the privilege to hunt. That includes special excise taxes on firearms, ammunition, bows and arrows and other gear. Amazingly, hunters were the chief advocates for this during the Depression-era depths of genuine hunger in this nation.

Hunters continue to generate as much as $324 million in annual taxes through this program, one of the few federal programs no one accuses of being unsuccessful. In fact, it has been so successful that in the 1950s, the Dingell-Johnson Federal Aid in Fish Restoration Act was passed to benefit fish in similar ways.

Then, besides the billions that hunters pour into state coffers for the management of wildlife and its habitat, hunters contribute billions more to the various conservation organizations. But look up “list of conservation organizations” in Wikipedia, and you won’t find a single hunter-funded organization – not the National Wild Turkey Federation, not Ducks Unlimited. None.

It’s not because hunters care only about animals they hunt. Every single hunter-supported conservation organization recognizes the interdependency of wildlife, and invests in the overall health of wildlife habitat. They sponsor projects that support countless species. If we’d turn the welfare of Africa’s elephants, Siberia’s tigers, and Canada’s polar bears over to hunters, these species and others that share their habitat would likely thrive.

It was hunters who launched the industry of wildlife conservation, and wildlife would be rare without hunters. Yet, hunters are a small minority of the overall population. Ask anyone, “Do you love wildlife?” Everyone will say they do. But ask, “What have you done for wildlife?” Most people do very little compared to what hunters do.

No doubt the vast majority of hunters are “green.” No, not green with envy. Not green in the sense of having wealth. Not green, in mimicry of some alien life form. Hunters are proud to be the original environmentalists. Everyone else is a johnny-come-lately to the world of wildlife advocacy and conservation. Hunters were first, and should be proud of the contributions they’ve made and continue to make.