Thursday, February 3, 2011

Whitetail Deer Management In Pennsylvania and The Deer Wars

Most blogs listed in my favorite blogs list are outdoor photography oriented, and I have endeavored to keep photography as a major part of my effort, but I have recently added two issues oriented blogs to my favorites list and intend to add more of this type in the future.

It is no secret that the main purpose of launching this blog was to advocate ideas and present points of view about elk management that were not being openly discussed at the time, and as such it has been focused on elk perhaps more than any other species. With that being said, I would find it hard to choose between elk and whitetail deer, as to which is my favorite wild animal, but at the end of the day I suppose I would have to pick the whitetails.  Perhaps it is because I grew up around them and they were those mysterious, elusive creatures that made the wild places seem wilder.  Whatever the reason, there are few sights in nature that thrill me more than seeing a whitetail buck during the rut as he postures and chases does, or spotting a monster buck in velvet as he feeds at the edge of a lush summer meadow as dawn arrives or darkness falls, or simply watching a herd of does and fawns feeding in a meadow or browsing in the woodlands.

Mature Whitetail Buck During The Rut

I first participated in deer hunting by helping drive the woodlot on the family farm, and I began hunting at about thirteen years of age with a Model 92 Winchester 38/40,which I used for one or two years , but I never shot a deer with it.  My parents bought me a Winchester Model 88 .308 in 1965 and I turned into an extremely serious deer hunter.  Between hunting, scouting, and year around deer watching, my initial attraction quickly turned into an addiction, which became even more pronounced when I purchased my first 35mm camera with telephoto lenses in 1974.  Deer hunting was so important to me that I was absolutely sure I would be out there hunting as long as I was able to get one foot in front of the other.  To the surprise of most of my friends, I abruptly quit hunting completely in 1998, but that is a story for another day.

I went to work for the Pennsylvania Game Commission as a maintenance worker in October of 1980 and  I was very excited to be working for the agency.  Now I was no longer just a sportsman, but the outdoors was my life's work. Within a short time I met a charismatic young officer, who had recently graduated from Ross Leffler School of Conservation, and was assigned to Fulton County as what was then referred to as a "Game Protector",  This was the great Mark Crowder, who was in the process of recruiting a large force of Deputy Game Protectors, which he built into one of the largest and most effective deputy forces in the state. I went to work as a Deputy in May of 1982, and for a time my life revolved around the Pennsylvania Game Commission, as I did game lands maintenance work during the day and law enforcement on the weekends and sometimes during weekday evenings.

The vast majority of our law enforcement work was related to the whitetail deer as most of the illegal activity we encountered was people killing deer out of season, exceeding the lawful limit, or  hunting by unlawful methods such as killing them at night by "spotlighting", which involves locating the deer with a light and then shooting it, hunting over bait, hunting by use of motorized vehicle, or failure to tag the animal after killing it.  We also dealt with removing road-killed deer from the highways and were constantly fielding crop damage complaints from farmers. On the whole life was exciting  and professionally rewarding. We were told our deer management program was the envy of the nation and our agency was second to none.

Things began to change sometime in the 1990s as I recall attending a meeting at the Southcentral Region Office in Huntingdon, where John Dzemyan, a Land Management Officer from The Northcentral Region, presented a program about deer management issues and the potential that deer had to damage their habitat. This was followed sometime later, by the appointment of Dr. Gary Alt as PGC deer biologist and in time (either 1999 or 2000) we were summoned to Huntingdon where he presented his thoughts on deer management to us. At that time he advanced the point of view that deer were "the biggest problem facing the forest today".  I recall him making a statement to the effect that the deer overpopulation problem began in the northwoods of Pennsylvania and spread through the state like a raging forest fire.

The Greatest Problem Facing The Forest Today according to Dr. Gary Alt
Things never seemed  the same after that day.  In effect we were working day and night to protect the deer, and doing habitat work to benefit them, but it seemed we had done our jobs too well and instead had contributed to the creation of a serious problem, at least if one believed the situation was as Dr. Alt. portrayed it.

This time period marked the escalation of the discussion over deer management in Pennsylvania into what would become know as "The Deer Wars", with one side saying that deer had wrecked the habitat and  numbers needed to be drastically reduced and maintained at lower levels, while those opposed to this accused Alt's supporters of wanting to kill all of the deer to please farmers, foresters, The Audubon Society, and auto insurance companies. This controversy continues to this day, with each side saying the deer wars must end, but that doesn't seem likely anytime soon as neither side seems inclined to give up the fight.

This brings us to the point of today's post, which is to draw your attention to a blog co-authored by former PGC board member Roxane Palone, her husband Vince, and Bob Frye, The Tribune- Review outdoor editor. The blog, titled "Skunk In The Woodpile", is so named  because one staunch opponent of Dr. Alt's deer management program was a radio personality and news paper columnist, who constantly berated the PGC about their deer management policy, and claimed, "there is a skunk in the woodpile somewhere".

Mrs. Palone served eight and one half years as a member and of the  PGC board of Commissioners, during which she served a term as president of the board.  During her tenure she was best known for her support of Dr. Alt's policies, and for advocating the legalization of hunting with the Atlatl  (a stick used to launch a 7-8'  spear). As such Mrs. Palone has been a lightning rod of controversy for those who oppose the herd reduction program instituted by Dr. Alt.  It seems this blog is mostly a combination of a defense of her position on  deer management issues during her time as Commissioner, and a platform for Palone and her associates to speak out against the current move to rescind many aspects of Alt's policies, but this may be because deer management is currently at the center of attention once again. It is not a blog to read simply for pleasure, or just to gaze at beautiful photographs, but it is one of the best reads around if you are seriously interested in whitetail deer management in Pennsylvania, and want to gain an understanding of the point of view of an ardent supporter of Dr. Gary Alt and the deer herd reduction program.

Originally posted at Pennsylvania Wildlife Photographer by Willard Hill


Ritchie said...

Deer's are a group of even toed ungulate mammals. They are one of the part of nature's beauty. Thanks....

Wildlife Photography

Kritter Keeper at Farm Tails said...

the woman who agreed with killing deer with that spear has no regard for living mammals. i never heard of that thing and most hunters in my area probably have not either. watching bossy boy with an arrow in his shoulder due to an inexperienced hunter is a travesty. i am extremely tired of the blatant disregard to animals and the way they are treated. if the farmers don't want deer in their fields there is such a thing as fencing with solar charges. it works in our 100x200 garden, it can work for them but the bottom line is that they dont want to put out the money. hunting is a big money maker so researching other solutions is of no interest. i am sure there are ways to make the deer sterile if that was a popular idea with the dnr's and game commissions, but it isn't. they want the hunting revenues and that is all they care about. ps. bossy boy has not shown up for over two weeks, i hope he didn't die on me...

Unknown said...


Once again you have captured the essence of an issue. You have described it well and the photo that goes with the post is stunning!