QDM in Pennsylvania - One Year Later
By: Kip Adams
Pennsylvania is widely known for its high deer densities, skewed sex ratios, poor buck age structure, and history of human/deer conflicts. However, with the implementation of a comprehensive statewide QDM program in 2002, this has started to change.
Will the Keystone State soon be considered one of the nation’s leading states for quality whitetails? While it’s too early to say, the results of the first year of the statewide QDM program are very encouraging. Let’s look at Pennsylvania pre- and 1-year post-QDM.
Prior to 2002, most deer were harvested during the 16-day firearms season, which began the Monday following Thanksgiving. The bag limit was one deer per hunter and the first two weeks (excluding Sunday hunting) were bucks-only. Legal bucks were required to have one antler at least three inches long or a forked antler.
The antlerless season occurred on Monday and Tuesday following the close of buck season (eventually ran Monday-Wednesday). This season framework led to high buck harvests and few bucks reaching their second birthday. It was also an inefficient system for controlling herd growth. The 1-deer limit prevented many hunters from participating in the antlerless season if they had already harvested a buck. Hunters were also pressuring does for two weeks before they were legal to harvest, which reduced success.
The largest stumbling block to controlling herd growth was the number of antlerless licenses allocated by the Pennsylvania Game Commission (PGC). Pennsylvania sportsmen demanded high deer populations and the PGC obliged by allocating fewer antlerless licenses than necessary to balance herds with available habitat. Throughout the 1990s, buck harvest increased and antlerless harvest decreased. A bad situation was getting worse.
Things began to change in 1999 when the PGC created a deer management section and appointed Dr. Gary Alt as supervisor. Previously, Dr. Alt was the state bear biologist and was widely known and respected by the state’s sportsmen.
In 2000, Pennsylvania held its first concurrent deer season. Junior and senior hunters could harvest a buck or doe on the final Saturday of buck season. The PGC also instituted a 3-day October antlerless flintlock season. These changes did not dramatically increase the antlerless harvest but they “greased the wheels” for future changes. PGC held its first concurrent season for all hunters in 2001.
The historical 2-week buck season was now a 2-week firearms season. The October antlerless flintlock season was also extended to seven days.
Pennsylvania’s pre-QDM deer herd was nothing to brag about. Deer densities were about twice as high as the PGC’s goal (39 vs. 21 deer per square mile of forest). Pre-hunt adult sex ratios were severely skewed in favor of does. The breeding and fawning periods were more than 100 days long. Hunters removed over 85 percent of the bucks (mostly yearlings) annually, and less than one percent survived beyond 3 1/2 years of age. There were over 40,000 deer-vehicle collisions reported annually, until the state stopped keeping records in 1998. There was approximately $100 million in annual crop damage, and widespread loss of forest understory, species composition, and regeneration.
Educating Pennsylvania’s Deer Hunters
Soon after being appointed, Dr. Alt began an ambitious statewide educational campaign to teach Pennsylvania’s hunters the basics of deer biology, ecology, and management. In three years, Dr. Alt gave over 200 lectures throughout Pennsylvania with at least one within 25 miles of every Pennsylvania citizen. Collectively, these lectures reached over 100,000 people, with several attracting over 1,000. Dr. Alt also distributed 35,000 deer management videos outlining the problems with Pennsylvania’s traditional deer management approach and changes that could improve the future of deer hunting.
During this time, QDMA membership began to skyrocket in Pennsylvania. Hunters eager to gain knowledge turned to QDMA for reliable, unbiased information on deer management. Eventually, PGC biologists and an increasingly educated hunter base convinced the PGC’s Board of Commissioners to institute antler point restrictions and increase antlerless license allocations to begin improving the state’s deer herd.
QDM in Pennsylvania — 2002
The 2002 deer season was designed to decrease buck harvest and increase antlerless harvest. A minimum of 4-points-on one-side restriction was implemented in 10 western counties and a minimum of 3-points-on-one-side restriction was implemented in the remainder of the state. The only exceptions were six special regulation (mostly urban) areas and exemptions for junior, senior, disabled hunters, and active duty military personnel. In these areas and for these individuals, the previous antler restrictions (3-inch spike or forked antler) still applied. Under the restrictions, legal points were defined as any antler projection one inch long or longer, other than a brow tine or the tip of the main beam, which counted regardless of length.
The PGC also allocated more than 1 million antlerless licenses, or approximately 150,000 more than the previous record in 1991. The 7-day October antlerless season was also changed from flintlock to muzzleloader and scopes were permitted.
The PGC biologists expected a 36 percent reduction in buck harvest in 2002. Actual buck harvest decreased 19 percent statewide (36 percent in 4-point counties and 16 percent in 3-point counties).
“A good mast crop and mild weather during the fall and winter of 2001-02 produced a higher percentage of yearling bucks with legal antlers, and hunters were more successful than expected,” said Dr. Alt. “The reverse should be true for the 2003 season given the poor mast crops and harsh weather during fall and winter 2002-03.”
The regulations protected nearly 40,000 bucks, or about twice as many as traditional regulations protected.
Hunters killed over 352,000 antlerless deer — about 70,000 more than in 2001. Hunters averaged 2.1 antlerless deer per antlered buck, a substantial improvement over previous years. The percentage of button bucks in the antlerless harvest remained similar (22 percent in 2002 vs. 23 percent in 2001). While this percentage is still higher than desired, it dispels the notion that hunters filling antlerless tags would harvest a much higher percentage of button bucks and thus remove future bucks from the herd.
There were 2,096 mistake kills reported — far less than the 5,000-10,000 expected by the PGC. This demonstrates that the average hunter is a far better sportsman than he/she is often given credit.
There were 12 hunting accidents during the first QDM season. One accident is too many, but it is encouraging that fewer accidents occurred under QDM than in previous years under traditional regulations. One of the best measures of success is public acceptance, and Pennsylvania’s sportsmen wholeheartedly accepted the new regulations.
“A large majority of our members accepted the new regulations very well and are very pleased with antler restrictions and results from the deer season,” said Ray Martin, Game and Trapping Committee Chairmen for the Pennsylvania Federation of Sportsmen’s Clubs.
In just the first year of Pennsylvania’s QDM program, the antlerless harvest increased 25 percent, the buck harvest decreased 19 percent, the percentage of button bucks harvested remained constant, it was the safest season on record, and hunters overwhelmingly favored the new regulations. Although Pennsylvania still has a long way to go before its deer herd is in balance with available habitat and has balanced sex ratios and good buck age structure, it is much closer now than it was just one year ago.