Hunters Support Historic Deer Season

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Pennsylvania's two-week rifle deer hunting season - the second with concurrent antlered and antlerless deer hunting and first with new antler restrictions - ended Saturday, Dec. 14, without much fanfare as hunters hung up their rifles and focused on the approaching holiday season. But the sacrifices hunters made over those two weeks should result in the greatest increase in the number and size of bucks in Pennsylvania's deer population in more than a century.

"Pennsylvania's hunters have been making history for the past two years with the changes they've helped implement in our deer hunting seasons," noted Pennsylvania Game Commission Executive Director Vern Ross. "Their cooperation and support have been fantastic, and as a result, Pennsylvania has started to change the age structure of its buck population to something that will improve the herd's breeding ecology and make hunting in the Commonwealth more exciting than ever.

"We've come to this rewarding juncture in deer management because of the tireless work of Dr. Gary Alt and the agency's deer management team; the resolve of the agency's Board of Game Commissioners to improve deer management and hunting; and the support of the vast majority of the state's deer hunters. Other important supporters in this effort include the legislators in both the state Senate and House, and officials from a number of conservation and sportsmen's organizations across the state."

Hunters in other states are already starting to look to Pennsylvania and its progressive whitetail management program and asking why something similar isn't happening in their states. While here in Pennsylvania, more and more hunters continue to express their enthusiasm for the agency's new approach to deer management and patiently wait for the benefits of antler restrictions.

The recently concluded two-week firearms deer season (Dec. 2-14) proved to be an educational season for many hunters as they adjusted to hunting with new antler restrictions and continued to become accustomed to concurrent antlered and antlerless deer hunting seasons. Game Commission officials throughout the state heard a great deal of positive comments about the changes in deer hunting, particularly antler restrictions. But there also were a few bumps along the way for some hunters as the season ran its course, mostly with antler restrictions.

While complete figures are unavailable at this time, a preliminary report shows that only a small percent of protected bucks were lost to hunters who shot them in mistake for legal bucks - bucks with at least three or four points to one antler - during the season. In an overwhelming majority of the cases, the hunter was required to pay a $25 restitution fee and was able to keep the deer, minus its antlers.

Where carelessness or negligence was determined to be the cause of the mistake kill, hunters were fined $500. However, the Game Commission's Bureau of Law Enforcement has decided it will not seek license revocations for those hunters who voluntarily turned in their deer. License revocation is standard protocol for violators who kill a deer illegally.

"In a perfect world, no one would have received a $500 fine because everyone would have taken legal deer," explained Game Commission Law Enforcement Director Dave Overcash. "We expected mistake kills and we expected some hunters to show disregard and contempt for the new regulations. When hunter statements or investigations into mistake kills documented carelessness or negligence, officers were left with no choice but to cite the individual.

"Still, most hunters who reported mistake kills to the Game Commission paid $25 restitution and got to keep the deer. It was a transitional year for hunters and wildlife conservation officers. In most cases, we gave breaks where we could. But sometimes a firmer penalty was needed to deal with those individuals who willingly violated the law."

Interestingly, some hunters brought in "mistake kills" that turned out to be legal bucks. Hunters involved in these situations said they just wanted to confirm they were compliant with the new antler restrictions. Hunters who shot small bucks in mistake for antlerless deer were not permitted to keep the deer.

One pleasing development in the 2002 deer seasons has been the dramatic decline in the number of hunting-related shooting incidents (HRSIs) involving one hunter shooting another hunter in mistake for game, or where the victim was either in the line of fire or struck by a ricochet or stray shot. Of the 10 reported HRSIs, only one was a fatal incident involving a hunter shooting another in mistake for game and one non-fatal incident involving a hunter who shot another hunter who was in the line of fire. The remaining incidents involved hunters who were handling a firearm in an unsafe manner or accidentally discharged their firearm.

Last year's two-week concurrent deer season resulted in 14 HRSIs, of which three fatalities and five non-fatalities were caused by a hunter who shot another in the line of fire, or was the result of a ricochet or stray shot. During the separate two-week buck and three-day antlerless deer seasons in 2000, there was a total of 19 HRSIs, of which 12 non-fatal incidents were caused by a hunter who shot another in mistake for game or who was in the line of fire, or was the result of a ricochet or stray shot.

"While the Game Commission views one HRSI as one too many, the decline of such incidents over the years can be directly attributed to the mandatory requirement that hunters wear fluorescent orange and mandatory Hunter-Trapper Education certification for all first-time hunters," said Keith Snyder, Game Commission Hunter Education Division chief. "However, the recent declines in HRSIs during the rifle deer season suggests that the expanded deer hunting opportunities giving hunters more time to hunt and antler restrictions requiring hunters to more carefully examine their target may be another influence on improved safety."

Another positive development in the 2002 deer seasons has been the number of large bucks being taken by hunters. Alt chalks up the occurrence to a variety of factors.

"The contributing factors to this year's big buck bonanza range from hunter behavior and weather to fall food supplies and regulatory changes," Alt explained. "The 2001 deer season - our first concurrent seasons deer hunt - was impacted by warm weather and rain, which reduced hunter movement and participation and consequently reduced deer movements and impacted hunter success. Some hunters also surely were satisfied with taking a doe and didn't hunt bucks or held out for a bigger buck. Other contributing factors include last fall's tremendous acorn crop; a mild winter; and the fact that many hunters this year had to hold out longer for a buck - instead of shooting the first buck to walk by - and are subsequently increasing their chances of taking a larger buck."

"If you thought this year was special, wait until next year. We anticipate a doubling in the number of bucks reaching at least two and one-half years of age - most of which will have eight or more points. Antler restrictions, we believe, were in the best interests of the deer resource and hunters. It's an exciting time to be a hunter in the Commonwealth."

Alt is quick to note that hunters and the agency's Board of Game Commissioners are the main reason the state's new deer management program is moving forward.

"Without the support of hunters and the Game Commissioners, this agency's program could not be improved," Alt said. "We need that continued and growing support to keep Pennsylvania heading in the right direction."

Hunters who take deer must complete and submit their deer harvest report card to the Game Commission. After reviewing the harvest report cards from all 2002-2003 deer seasons - including the late statewide flintlock and archery deer seasons and Special Regulation Area counties antlerless deer season (Dec. 26-Jan. 11) - and data collected from the deer aging teams, the Game Commission expects to have the 2002-2003 calculated deer harvest results available by mid-March.