The 150-class 10-pointer suddenly appeared out of nowhere. One minute the bowhunter was looking at empty woods, the next a mature buck was standing within bow range. Waiting for the buck to make a move, the hunter nervously sat in his perch wondering if the deer could hear his heart pounding. Finally the buck started down the trail, searching for a doe that had passed by earlier. The hunter stood up, drew his bow, and made a lethal shot.
Walking up on this fine trophy would have been the event of a lifetime a decade ago in his native Pennsylvania, but for bowhunter Scott Walker, this was not even the biggest rack he had spotted during the season. While images of such trophies might generate thoughts of hunting in the Midwest, the fact is that Scott was hunting on public land in the south-central part of the state.
In Pennsylvania, once known as a "numbers" state for the both the number of hunters in the woods and the number of deer taken, the vast majority of deer hunters who headed to camp each fall during much of the 20th century were happy to put their tag on a spike or forkhorn buck. For decades, 1 1/2-year-old bucks made up about 80 percent of the antlered-deer harvest, according to Dr. Christopher Rosenberry, Pennsylvania Game Commission biologist. But that was before antler restrictions.
A NEW DAY DAWNING
With deer numbers skyrocketing out of control in the late '90s and one buck for nearly every 15 does across much of the state, some necessary changes in deer management were very much needed, and they came about in 2002. At that time, Dr. Gary Alt, well-known black bear biologist, moved from managing bears to managing the state's whitetail herd. His methods were simple: add antler restrictions and increase the allocation of antlerless licenses.
Much like other states in the Northeast, Pennsylvania hunters were taking nearly 75 percent of the antlered bucks from the deer herd each hunting season, with very little emphasis placed on harvesting antlerless deer. The predictable result was a serious overpopulation problem that was wreaking havoc on the habitat. Research information showed that the average buck field dressed less than 100 pounds, and the average doe was 10 to 20 pounds lighter still.
Though the anticipated results would take years to realize, some 1,017,154 Pennsylvania hunters went afield during the 2002-2003 hunting season with a totally different attitude. The total buck harvest dropped about 18.5 percent, from 203,247 the season before to 165,416 during the 2002-03 season. Of much more significance, however, was the fact that the antlerless harvest increased from 282,767 to 352,113 during that same period.
A REMARKABLE DIFFERENCE
Dr. Gary Alt, then chief of the agency's deer management section, believed that antler restrictions protected about 40,000 additional antlered bucks, nearly twice as many as had usually survived during past deer seasons. In addition, hunters took about 70,000 more antlerless deer than in 2001, helping to balance the herd.
During the 2006-2007 deer season, hunters took 135,290 antlered deer. Dr. Rosenberry says that the average post-antler-restriction harvest has consisted of a 50-50 split of yearlings and bucks 2 1/2 years old or older. The antlerless harvest has been declining somewhat since 2002, with the 2006-2007 harvest being 226,270 deer. According to the Game Commission, button bucks made up 23 percent of that harvest. While the Game Commission has been working to educate hunters not to shoot these six-month-old bucks, it's often hard for hunters in woodland habitat to correctly identify button bucks.
In addition to the herd realignment, other positive signs have come about as a result of this new management strategy. The doe:buck ratio dropped to less than two adult females for every adult male, according to Dr. Rosenberry. Reproductive rates for mature does averaged higher than in previous years. Weights were up, with many bucks field dressing at over 200 pounds. One road-killed buck in Jefferson Township in Fayette County pushed the scales to well over the 300-pound mark. An Elk County deer processor complained to Forester Bryce Hall that the deer were now too heavy to carry, forcing his employees to quarter the deer so they could carry them to the coolers. Dr. Rosenberry said rack size jumped to a statewide average of just over 7 points.
A BY-PRODUCT OF GOOD MANAGEMENT
Though not intentionally designed to create a "trophy" state, the Game Commission's management practices have allowed Pennsylvania bucks to grow to what would be considered trophy size in almost anyone's book. Bob D'Angelo, a certified scorer for Pennsylvania's record book, said he has seen three to four times as many bucks being eligible for the record book during the past few seasons as compared to the previous decade.
"Actually, we're measuring more racks in the upper 130s to mid-140s," Bob commented. "The minimum score to make the Pennsylvania records in the typical firearms category is 140 B&C. I suspect there are a lot more racks scoring in the 120s and lower 130s that guys aren't bringing in to score, even though they're still dandy racks, because they realize the racks are below that 140 minimum."
Bob added that the largest deer to come across his table thus far was a road-killed buck from Allegheny County that netted exactly 170 B&C.
"Guys who don't like antler restrictions complain until they take the biggest buck of their life, and then they say it's the greatest thing since sliced bread," he added.
Bob had to work harder than ever after the 2006-2007 season wound up. Just about every newspaper in the state having an outdoors page and every hunting magazine in the state ran photo after photo of big bucks. The Pennsylvania Game Commission Web site received dozens of pictures of big bucks from all across the state. (To see some of these impressive photos, visit www.pgc.state.pa.us and click on the hunter and trapper scrapbook section.) You can literally see the increase in the number of larger bucks harvested from year to year. According to Elk County Wildlife Conservation Officer Dick Bodenhorn, the largest taxidermy operation in that county had a blockbuster year during the 2006-2007 season. The business took in more whitetails to mo
unt that year than in any other of its more than 30 years in operation.
SOME LOVE IT, SOME DON'T
While the opportunity for taking a trophy buck has never been better, the number of hunters in the state continues to decline. In what has been termed the "deer war," many hunters have simply given up hunting because they think the Game Commission is mismanaging the resource. Others hold antlerless-tag burnings, accusing the Pennsylvania Game Commission of attempting to kill off all the deer.
From 1998 to 2005, the number of hunters in the state declined by 107,000. Recruitment levels of youth hunters in Pennsylvania are running at 60 percent. For every 10 hunters who give up hunting, only six are taking up the sport. And, of course, many baby boomers over 60 now are hanging up their guns and bows because of health issues.
In addition, the number of days spent deer hunting per hunter has fallen off. Numerous wildlife conservation officers have commented in their field reports that they now have a hard time locating hunters after the first few days of the season, even though they're still seeing numerous deer during those same patrols.
Some hunters like south-central Pennsylvania hunter and farmer Marshall Whitsel Sr. refuse to allow any doe hunting on their lands. "I only have 100 acres," Marshall says. "So I don't hold a lot of deer on my property. I figure with the amount of shooting that my neighbors do during the gun seasons that they keep the herd thinned down. I know many other farmers, mostly older hunters, who don't allow doe hunting on their properties either."
Another factor contributing to the decline of hunters is access to land on which to hunt. While Pennsylvania does have a substantial amount of public land, private land is rapidly being leased, posted or developed. With every acre of private land lost, public land must support an increase in the number of hunters using it, especially on opening day of deer season. Many hunters have become so fed up with the "pumpkin patch" look of the woods right after daylight in some public areas that they've put away their guns for good.
CHANGING THE OLD MINDSET
Mike Creamer, a representative from the Pennsylvania Deer Association, says that education is the key. "Making hunters understand the need for the recent changes has been a big obstacle in the deer management plan," Mike says. "Hunting and hunting methods are a tradition in Pennsylvania, and when you start messing with tradition, people don't like it."
Tradition, indeed, is still a factor in whitetail hunting in Pennsylvania, but many hunters have been slow to react to the changes. Accustomed to shooting yearling bucks, many hunters have yet to adjust to hunting the mature deer that are now found across the state. As any veteran hunter would expect, a mature buck is smarter and better at avoiding hunters, so he's much tougher to hunt.
Though many hunters blame their lack of success on the decreased population and argue that the Game Commission's population estimates are not accurate, ongoing research shows how easily deer avoid hunters. In the second year of a female white-tailed deer study that focuses on survival, researchers from the Pennsylvania Game Commission and Pennsylvania Cooperative Fish and Wildlife Research Unit at Penn State University said that hunters harvested only 17 of the 141 female deer monitored in the study.
In Wildlife Management Unit (WMU) 2G, located in north-central Pennsylvania, the density of radio-collared deer increased with steeper terrain. In WMU 4B, a ridge and valley region located in several south-central counties, graduate student Matthew Keenan said, "The density of radio-collared deer increased with steepness of terrain and with greater distance from the nearest road."
During the opening day of the 2006 firearms season, the average hunter density was 6.5 hunters per square mile in 2G and 5.5 hunters per square mile in 4B.
MORE MATURE BUCKS NOW
According to Steve Trupe, a private wildlife management consultant in the Keystone State, "Mature bucks are making up a larger percentage of the overall deer herd than most imagine. The majority of my clients use trail-monitoring cameras to scout their herd, and numerous photos of true trophy-class bucks are showing up. Nearly all of these photos were taken under the cover of darkness.
"Typical of mature buck behavior, it would appear that the only time these bucks are up and moving about during the hunting seasons would be during the rut, ahead of storm fronts, or when pushed from cover by other hunters," Steve added. "My neighbor gave up deer hunting on the last Friday of the season because he had not seen a legal buck on his property during the days he hunted. He filled his feeder outside of his house on Saturday morning and within a few days no less than four different 8-pointers had been spotted at the feeder by the man and his wife."
Steve reasoned, "It just goes to show you that hunting mature bucks is far different from hunting 1 1/2-year-olds, and that is something that hunters in Pennsylvania are going to have to adjust to if they want to fill their tags."
LOOKING TO THE FUTURE
What does the future hold for deer and deer hunting in the Keystone State? It's hard to say. A lawsuit against the Pennsylvania Game Commission filed by the Unified Sportsmen of Pennsylvania over the mismanagement of the deer herd has been thrown out of the court system with prejudice.
An urban management deer plan is starting to be implemented, with longer antlerless-deer seasons introduced in and around the cities of Pittsburgh and Philadelphia to help reduce human-deer conflicts. Baiting was legalized in late 2006 in an area in southeastern Pennsylvania to help hunters lure deer into safe hunting areas in this heavily populated section of the state.
Though trophy bucks are appearing regularly in the harvest across Pennsylvania, the Game Commission's goal is not to make it a trophy state. As Press Secretary Jerry Feaser put it, "Our goal in the deer management program is to improve deer health; improve habitat health, which deer and all other wildlife depend on; and to reduce deer-human conflicts."
However, as a result of these actions, Pennsylvania has produced more trophy bucks than ever before, and it certainly appears as though this trend will continue on into the foreseeable future!