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Gary Alt's statement: "deer management "has been the biggest mistake in the history of wildlife management." Alt refers to it as "malpractice." (Alt was the Chief Deer Biologist in PA until he resigned last year.)

What is the reason for the management problem? Hunters, who have paid the freight with their license dollar, have always asked for more deer. Biologists have responded with various techniques that allow deer herds to
build beyond the carrying capacity of the forests, and now they are paying the penalty with declining forest regeneration. The basic premise is that biologists have kept hunters happy but ruined the forest.

Central New York Outdoor Journal
Vol. 2, Issue 3
December 2005

Deer management dilemma will effect our future seasons
By Brian Dam

Hunters and landowners have a problem: too many deer and not enough folks to thin their ranks. Don't believe me? Read the latest issue of National Wildlife. The article is in the natural debate section: "How Deer are Redesigning Our Forests." It explains that too many deer are changing forest ecology by destroying the new growth that will replace older trees. Dutchess County, in southern New York is one focal point of the piece written by James P. Sterba, a staff writer for the Wall Street Journal.

His claim is that deer have been 'wreaking ecological havoc in forests across the nation." They have become defacto forest managers determining what forests will look like in 100 years. He uses supporting evidence from Peter Pinchot, director of the Milford Experimental Forest on the Poconos Plateau in Pennsylvania, who states that "the ground level vegetation of the forest has been severely degraded by over-browsing in many regions.". He then goes on to use Gary Alt's statement: "deer management "has been the biggest mistake in the history of wildlife management." Alt refers to it as "malpractice." (Alt was the Chief Deer Biologist in PA until he resigned last year.)

What is the reason for the management problem? Hunters, who have paid the freight with their license dollar, have always asked for more deer. Biologists have responded with various techniques that allow deer herds to build beyond the carrying capacity of the forests, and now they are paying the penalty with declining forest regeneration. The basic premise is that biologists have kept hunters happy but ruined the forest.

The dilemma - hunters are never happy with the numbers of deer they see and forest managers are never happy unless the forest dollars per acre are maximized. Who is right? That depends on where you live and what type property you own or hunt.

New York's Southern Zone hunters have a number of different ecological zones in which they hunt. Look at the Deer Management Units; they were developed around ecological areas. Each has a land use coupled with soil type and climate that determines the carrying capacity of the unit - how many healthy deer the unit can support. Sterba contends that an aging hunter population and poor recruitment of new hunters into the population is causing a decline in deer take and the resulting forest damage.

What he doesn't add into his equation is the increase in land fragmentation caused by farmers selling off parcels to maintain their cash flow or retiring and the resulting increase in posted property. This has a major effect on deer hunting - if you can't hunt a property, you can't remove the deer. And, deer are not stupid; when the season starts, the increase in human population moves the deer to areas without human intrusion. Where is that - the posted land.

You have a regional deer management problem that fails when applied at the local level. Go back to Dutchess County; if land sales are similar to Delaware County, you can't get to state land to hunt except in limited areas where state land intersects a road. What has happened is urban folks are buying 10 20 acre parcels for summer places or retirement homes. This fragments former farms, and the new owner buys a roll of posted signs and plasters every tree along their boundary line, They have never owned a piece of property before, and they damn sure don't want anyone stepping on their new land!

Land companies are making a lot of money through these subdivision deals, but hunting access suffers because of it. The woods where a farm family and friends used to take deer each year are not hunted at all in many cases. The result is too many deer and they over browse the vegetation.

Northern zone hunters do not have that problem. Mother Nature takes care of over population problems with severe winters. My patch of north country woods, which was logged six years ago, has become a jungle of new growth so thick you can't see over 100 feet on the ground and it's not much better from a tree stand. But, there's not a lot of deer there to 'destroy' the woods. We don't kill them off - Mother Nature does every March when there is a heavy snow that keeps them from reaching food when their metabolism responds to the longer periods of daylight.

What's the solution? Pennsylvania has tried using more antlerless deer permits and has reduced the population; but in the larger farming areas, where farmer and friends really control the hunting, results can vary. New York had a similar population problem before our string of severe winters, and the DEC issued lots of DMU permits as a result. Now, following the population reduction due to both permits and the weather, areas like DMU 7M have no permits at all.

Where you hunt, are the deer in balance with the range? Are you part of the problem or part of the solution? Create your own habitat report by collecting the following data during the hunting season:

1) What type of deer range did you hunt? Farmland and woods, mature timber in large tracts, brush and swampland, suburban woods interspersed with housing and undeveloped areas.

2) How long have you hunted this area?

3) Do you remember what the undergrowth looked like five years ago and ten years ago?

4) What does the undergrowth look like now? Full and thick - tough to get through, moderate - fairly easy to navigate, barren with little or no new growth.

5) When did the last timber operation take place that would open up the canopy to allow sunlight into the forest and promote the growth of seedlings? Five, ten, fifteen, twenty years ago. Never been timbered as long as you can remember?

6) If you have been hunting this area for more than five years, how have the deer sightings changed? More sightings per season, less sightings per season.

7) If the deer density has changed, what do you think contributed to the change? Has there been timber removal other than wind driven blow downs? Has the area experienced severe winter losses? Have subdivisions changed the habitat eliminating wintering areas or bedding areas?

8) What type of cover produced the best hunting? Mature timber with no under story or in timbered areas with new growth that also provides good cover.

9) How much posted land is there adjacent to your hunting area that is off limits to hunting?

10) What does the local deer movement look like when there is snow cover? Lots of tracks coming from the posted land during the night but the deer all move back before daylight.

11) Is the problem with management in your area not enough hunters, mature habitat or inaccessible deer?

This is not only a good evaluation of the area you hunt but the results can also be the deciding factor in your decision to start looking for new country, country that meets more of the criteria that creates better deer habitat and better deer hunting.