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The History of Deer Management in Pennsylvania

by on November 29, 2010 7:44 AM

Editor’s Note: Gary Lewis Jr. is a senior at The Pennsylvania State University in the School of Forest Resources. Following his childhood passion for white-tailed deer, he decided to pursue a career in natural resource management. For the last two years Gary has worked as an intern for PA Forestry and Wildlife Consultants, LLC. He has also been active in the Quality Deer Management Association (QDMA), and is currently the vice president of the central Pa. branch of the QDMA. After graduation, Gary plans to attend graduate school to earn a master’s degree in wildlife ecology and management. He can be reached at garylewisjr22@gmail.com

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by Gary Lewis Jr. 

From the urban centers of Philadelphia and Pittsburgh, to the ridge and valley region of central Pennsylvania and the hardwood forests of the Allegheny plateau, the landscape of Pennsylvania is incredibly diverse. Equally diverse is the history of deer management within the commonwealth. To examine this diversity, this article is divided into distinct periods of differing deer management practices. By the end of this article, the reader should develop a deeper understanding of the historical management of Pennsylvania’s deer population.


Pre-European Settlement (-1610)
To assess the deer herds that roamed Pennsylvania prior to European settlement we must envision the habitat as it existed during that period. Opposed to the fragmented landscape we see today, “Penn’s Woods” was dominated by a nearly contiguous forest. These virgin old-growth forests had very little edge habitat when compared to the Commonwealth as it exists today. Because deer populations flourish at edges, the zone where two distinct habitat types come together, it is no wonder that the forests prior to European settlement supported far fewer deer than today.

It is also important to recognize that the pre-European deer herds had been managed by Native Americans for thousands of years. Given the fact that Native Americans typically hunted out of necessity, we can assume that there was no selective harvest based on sex. In essence, it is likely that both male and female deer had an equal chance of being harvested. For this reason, the deer herds prior to European settlement likely had a balanced sex ratio with equal numbers of males and females, as well as a balanced buck age structure containing males in mature age classes. Given the habitat, management by Native Americans, and presence of natural predators, it is likely that the historical deer herds existed in balance with the habitat, at densities at or below the carrying capacity of the land.

Market Hunting
Leading up to the beginning of the 20th century, Pennsylvania’s deer herds were crippled by the persistence of market hunting, the practice by which deer are harvested for the sale of meat. During this period, deer hunting was a completely unregulated entity. There were no established seasons or bag limits; hunters simply shot whatever they wanted, whenever they wanted. The meat was then sold on the market and used to fuel the industrialization of cities like New York and Philadelphia. By 1900, market hunting had decimated the Pa. deer herd. Accepted estimates place the population at the turn of the century at around 5,000 deer. To put this figure in perspective, in any given year motorists will hit approximately 100,000 deer on Pennsylvania roads. The near extinction of deer from the Commonwealth lead to the establishment of the Pennsylvania Game Commission (PGC) and subsequent restocking efforts.

Restocking Under the PGC
Formed in 1895, the PGC began regulating hunting in the Commonwealth. Restocking efforts began in 1906 and continued for two decades; over 1,000 deer were purchased from breeders in Pennsylvania and were also imported from several states including Michigan, Ohio, Kentucky, Maine, New York, and New Jersey. To ensure a viable deer herd was re-established, restocking efforts were combined with the establishment of hunting seasons and harvest restrictions. In 1907, the PGC established the “Buck Law,” which made it illegal to harvest an antlerless deer. Though it was met with resistance from hunters, the Buck Law was deemed necessary to ensure an adequate rebound of the deer population.

Here is a link to the History of Pennsylvania’s White-Tailed Deer Management as provided by the PGC: Click Here

Herd Expansion in the 20th Century
Following the restocking effort and implementation of the first “Buck Law,” the PA deer herd increased dramatically. However, these were not the only factors causing this population growth. Again, we must examine the habitat at the time to understand the root causes of the population expansion. The years 1890-1930 are often referred to as “The Clearcut Era.” As the name implies, during this time period almost all of Pennsylvania’s forests were cut down. When these clearcuts re-grew, they provided ideal habitat for whitetail deer. High quality food and dense cover were in abundant supply. When considered in conjunction with the illegality of harvesting females, it is no wonder the population grew exponentially. In 1923, the “Buck Law” was changed to allow for antlerless deer seasons. While its need at the turn of the century may have been justified, some argue that the “Buck Law” persisted too long, actually causing more harm than good. By 1930, Pa.’s deer herd had grown to record levels. For a detailed analysis of our state’s deer herd from 1900-1950, see Roger Latham’s 1950 Pennsylvania Game News article, “Pennsylvania’s Deer Problem.”

Though it was essentially repealed in 1923, the “Buck Law” had a lasting impact on hunter mentality. In his 1950 article, Latham claims that even though hunters opposed its inception in 1907, they also opposed its revocation. It appears that the illegality of harvesting antlerless deer led to a cultural stigma that frowned upon the harvest of a female deer. Undoubtedly, some viewed such a harvest as immoral. The cultural impact of the “Buck Law” persisted long beyond its revocation. To a large degree, this culture shaped the deer herds and their associated habitat for the remainder of the 20th century.

Herd Reduction and Antler Restrictions
Except for brief declines in the 1930s and 1970s, the Pa. deer population grew continuously during the 20th century. This growth was often coupled with an inverse relationship regarding forest health. Throughout the majority of the Commonwealth, the health and productivity of the habitat had been decimated, and our forests were failing to regenerate the existing canopy. The deer herd was also suffering. Highly skewed sex ratios in favor of females were the norm, resulting from decades of selective harvest of male deer. Bucks, regardless of their age or size, had been viewed as a trophy and were pursued to a much higher degree than female deer. In fact, by 2000 Pennsylvania hunters were routinely harvesting 90 percent of the male deer before they ever reached their second birthday! In 2002, the PGC recognized the need for change and took action. Under the leadership of Dr. Gary Alt, the PGC established antler restrictions and increased the antlerless license allocation. The goals of these changes were to reduce the deer herd to a level that allowed the existing forest canopy to regenerate adequately, and to protect 50 percent of the yearling bucks (1.5 year old).

Current Situation (1999-now)
In Wildlife Management Unit 2G (which includes all or parts of McKeen, Potter, Tioga, Elk, Cameron, Clinton, Lycoming, Clearfield and Centre counties), approximately 90 percent of the yearling bucks survived the 2009 hunting season. The majority of our state has seen a drastic change in yearling survival and buck age structure. A much larger percentage of males are making it to maturity; as a result, most hunters are encountering more bucks, and a higher proportion of older bucks.

In 1999, Pa. hunters shot more antlerless than antlered deer statewide for the first time ever. As a whole, the state has seen a 25 percent reduction in total deer population from when herd reduction was implemented in 2002.  However, this figure varies tremendously by region. In some central portions of the state the population has declined nearly 50 percent. Conversely, suburban deer numbers are still extremely high, showing increases in some areas.  While the changes in our deer herd over the last decade have led to significant improvements in most areas, Pennsylvania continues to lead the nation in deer vehicle collisions, as well as new cases of Lyme disease. Beneficial solutions, such as the proposed deer reduction at Valley Forge National Park, have been halted by some who are uneducated in regards to its necessity. Furthermore, the vast majority of our forests have yet to regenerate. Though this problem can also be associated with other factors, such as the lack of fire, studies have shown that an over-abundance of deer is usually the number one factor preventing regeneration.

The history of deer management in the Keystone state is as diverse as its landscape. In the last century alone, a deer population facing extinction has grown exponentially to an estimated total population of approximately one million deer. On the whole, the management techniques that have been employed since European settlement have failed to manage deer responsibly on a biological and sustainable basis. The result has been a deer herd un-balanced with its associated environment. Great strides have been made at improving the situation. A large percentage of yearling bucks are being protected; the majority of the state is seeing a more biologically balanced buck age structure containing bucks in mature age classes. Herd reduction has led to considerable declines in total population. However, in most areas the reduction has not been substantial enough and/or instilled for an adequate length of time to allow the existing forest to regenerate.

We are at a critical juncture in Pennsylvania regarding deer management. If we continue working to protect young bucks and harvest enough female deer to balance the herd with the habitat, there will be considerable benefits. Realistic improvements regarding forest regeneration, crop damage, and other deer and human conflicts would be possible. Some of the benefits would include reducing the number of deer-vehicle accidents and possibly lowering Pa. car insurance rates. Also, hunters would benefit from a more balanced deer herd. Calling tactics, such as rattling and grunting, become more effective when the sex ratio is balanced due to the increased competition for breeding rights. Lastly, by protecting young bucks and balancing the buck age structure, there is a much better chance a hunter will encounter a fully mature buck. However, if the progress made since the beginning of the 21st century is reversed, the resulting problems may take decades to solve.
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The staff of StateCollege.com prepared this article. Reach us at (814) 238-6201.
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