Nature Impacts Deer Hunting Seasons

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The state's second year of deer seasons with antler restrictions appears to have led to more hunters seeing and taking bigger bucks afield. Unfortunately, bad weather on what are historically the three most productive hunting days of the two-week season apparently have cut into the success of hunters and a harvest designed by Pennsylvania Game Commission biologists to reduce the number of adult does in the deer herd.

"Early returns of harvest report cards submitted by successful hunters indicate that our deer harvest is down about 17 percent from the pace set in the 2002 firearms season," explained Game Commission Executive Director Vern Ross. "Much of the fall-off in harvest can be tracked to the season's first two days and the first Saturday, days when hunter participation is typically at its highest and, subsequently, so is the deer kill.

"Field reports from agency personnel note that cold, windy weather on the first two days of season, and a fresh, heavy snow on the first Saturday led to decreased hunter participation. Fewer hunters in the field meant that there were fewer people driving deer out of cover, and, consequently, those hunters in the field didn't see many deer."

Pennsylvania wasn't the only state where weather impacted deer hunting. Neighboring New York and West Virginia also reported sustaining deer harvest declines as a result of bad weather on key hunting days. Ohio also reported a harvest drop, but officials believe the decline, although influenced by inclement weather, also was spurred by a record deer harvest in 2002 and a reduction in the deer bag limit from three to two deer in 2003.

Further complicating hunting in Pennsylvania this year was a hard mast crop that was uneven statewide, as well as locally underdeveloped, nonexistent or wormy acorns.

"Combined, the weather and mast conditions changed deer movements and, subsequently, hunters in many areas were forced to play a continuous shell game trying to find them," Ross said. "The result, it appears at least preliminarily, is reduced hunter success."

The problems associated with the fall hard mast crop began materializing in the fall archery deer season, when many bowhunters reported they were having considerable difficulty finding deer or patterning deer movements.

Acorns, in the wooded areas, according to field reports, just weren't available in the amounts foraging deer seek out and consequently neither were many deer. Most deer seemed to reposition themselves in or near areas with fields of corn, hay or soybean.

Many farmers were forced to leave crops standing longer into the fall than they usually do, because rainy weather continually soaked fields making them unready for harvest. What resulted was an unexpected overabundance of all-you-can-eat food centers that deer quickly took advantage of. That change in deer behavior threw many hunters - including veteran hunters - off their game.

Pennsylvania wasn't the only Northeast state to experience a hard mast shortfall. Officials in New Jersey, Ohio and West Virginia also reported poor acorn crops.

Overall, archery deer harvest report card returns for the early season were down about eight percent from 2002. Some of that was attributable to rain, but hard mast shortcomings are believed to have played a significant role. What led to the mast crop deficiencies in many areas is unclear. But contributing factors may include, early frosts, drought, rainy weather, forest pests, wind storms or naturally occurring nut crop cycles.

"News about antlered bucks harvested during the recently-concluded firearms season was very promising," explained Dr. Alt. "Many agency deer-check teams reported seeing larger racked bucks at the meat processors they visited, as well as a significant increase in 2.5-year-old bucks, which is indicative of the positive effects antler restrictions are having on the state's buck population."

Agency deer ager Randy Fickes noted in a report that bucks being checked at processors in Blair and Huntingdon counties were definitely increasing in size.

"The comments we heard about the size of bucks - both in weight and antler size - were overwhelmingly positive," Fickes said. "There were few negative remarks. I know for the first 20 years that I aged deer, about 20 percent of the bucks were two and a half-year-olds. Last year, that jumped to about 38 percent. This year it was 50 percent. Pretty amazing!"

Mike Kammerdiener, another agency deer ager, also noticed a change in bucks in Cambria and Indiana counties.

"Yes, there was a big time change in the age structure of bucks," Kammerdiener said. "Upwards of 50 percent of the bucks we aged were 30 months or older, which is a big change from the 15 percent in previous years. Antler restrictions definitely increased the age of these bucks!"

While complete figures won't be available until later this month, a preliminary review shows that fewer protected bucks were shot in mistake for legal bucks during the season. The findings illustrate that hunters have made the transition to antler restrictions with little trouble over the past two years.

"It's pleasing to see that hunters have quickly adjusted to antler restrictions and that they really do support the direction they are taking deer hunting in Pennsylvania," Alt said. "Pennsylvania's deer program is truly moving ahead, thanks to hunters and their willingness to work with the new deer program."

On a sad note, the safety record of hunters slipped slightly during the recent firearms deer season. Preliminary reports indicate 19 hunters were involved in hunting-related shooting incidents, including three fatalities. Four of the HRSIs involved in-line-of-fire situations and one was caused by a stray bullet. However, 11 cases involved accidental discharges, including one self-inflicted fatality and one two-party incident that resulted in a fatality. There were three incidents in which the cause was not identified yet, including one two-party incident that resulted in a fatality.

The Game Commission also would like to remind hunters that agency staff anticipates no significant changes for the 2004-05 deer hunting seasons. The first day of fall archery deer season has tentatively been scheduled for Oct. 2, and the first day of the rifle season has tentatively been set for Nov. 29. All seasons will be preliminary approved by the Board of Game Commissioners when it meets in Harrisburg on Jan. 25-27. The Board will take up final adoption of 2004-2005 seasons and bag limits at its April meeting, including establishing antlerless deer license allocations.

Hunters are reminded that anyone who takes deer must complete and submit a deer harvest report card to the Game Commission. After reviewing the harvest report cards from all 2003-2004 deer seasons and data collected from deer aging teams, the Game Commission expects to have the 2003-2004 calculated deer harvest summary available by mid-March. Watch for it on-line at www.pgc.state.pa.us.