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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
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
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
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
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
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
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.