Woods and Waters: Pennsylvania Game Commission’s new deer predator study set to begin in Centre Region

Newly-born fawns will be fitted with radio collars to study survival rate and cause of death this spring in a study by the Pennsylvania Game Commission.
Newly-born fawns will be fitted with radio collars to study survival rate and cause of death this spring in a study by the Pennsylvania Game Commission. For the CDT

A $1.1-million Pennsylvania Game Commission white-tailed deer fawn mortality study is set to begin in January. Centre County will again play a lead role in this study, just as it did in a similar study that was conducted 15 years ago.

For the first time in my memory, the Game Commission consulted with leading deer biologists from around North America. The U.S. Forest Service, Penn State University, the University of Georgia, Mississippi State University, the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation, the University of Alberta, the Quality Deer Management Association and others provided input into the development of the study's methods and goals.

The new, three-year study will take place in two areas — the Susquehannock State Forest (Clinton, McKean and Potter counties) and — a little closer to home — in the Rothrock and Bald Eagle state forests (Centre, Huntingdon, Mifflin and Union counties). In addition to determining the rate of fawn survival and identification of the predators responsible for mortalities, this project will measure the relative abundance of the various predators within the study locations — a new focus. According to the commission, this data will be useful for interpreting any differences in survival noted during the study.

According to a PGC news release, the study areas were selected in part to save money. The new study is a bit different than its predecessor. It will be conducted in conjunction with ongoing deer research, which, among other thingsm has helped to reduce costs. The connection to existing projects will also help researchers to more efficiently and effectively locate newborn fawns.

“We know fawns are more vulnerable to mortality in the first week of life,” said Kip Adams, a wildlife biologist for the Quality Deer Management Association. Locating fawns early will help to provide accurate data.

“There are now small transmitters that can be implanted into captured does, and when a fawn is born, a signal is sent alerting researchers and leading them to the exact location, improving monitoring,” Adams added.

Does will be captured this winter and tiny transmitters will be implanted. This will signal when fawns are born — making the fawns easier to locate and equip with radio-collars. Some of the does to be used are already wearing GPS collars as part of a separate study regarding deer movement.

The original study

A total of 218 fawns were captured and radio-collared for the 2000-2001 study that investigated fawn survival. The two study areas at that time were the Quehanna Wild Area (primarily in Clearfield County) and Penns Valley, in Centre County. The research was designed to evaluate survival on the privately-owned farm country in Penns Valley as compared to the mostly-forested public land in the Quehanna area.

That study found that about 54 percent of the fawn deaths were the result of vehicles, poachers, accidents and disease. Forty-six percent of mortalities were the result of predators — roughly 1/3 from coyotes, 1/3 from black bears, and 1/3 by predators unknown. The percentages differed in the two study areas, with bears taking more fawns in the Quehanna area. At the time, biologists associated with the study hypothesized that the poorer habitat in the Quehanna area is what likely caused the differences.

Is new study needed?

The original study was important to our understanding of deer populations here in the Keystone State, but what about this new endeavor?

The agency news release notes that predator populations have changed during the past 15 years. It is true that bobcat and fisher populations have increased, but neither of those animals was found to be a major killer of fawns during the first study. Coyotes and bears were the major predators in the 2000-2001 study.

According to PGC bear biologist Mark Ternent, our black bear population was approximately 15,000 in 2001. Now, it stands at 18,000. While this is an increase of 3,000 bears, based on harvest records, it appears that most of this growth has been within new areas of the state, rather than an increase in places already hosting high bear numbers.

With coyotes, the answer seems to be less clear. Population estimates have been wide-ranging. Matt Lovallo, who supervises the Game Commission’s game mammals section, noted in the news release that there has been an increase in the coyote population, but no specifics were provided. According to Commission estimates, a record of over 40,000 coyotes were shot or trapped in 2012.

Game Commission biologists calculate the percentage of young-of-the-year fawns in the deer harvest each fall. Any decrease in the percentage would indicate that fewer fawns are surviving. While this number has dropped in many other states, it has stayed about the same in Pennsylvania - reflecting that fawn survival is not an issue here. So, why are we doing the study?

Simply put, the Board of Commissioners runs the Game Commission and a majority of the board wants it conducted. The commissioners claim that hunters and legislators want the study to be done.

“Hunters have made it clear: The question of how many fawns are lost to predators is on the minds of many, and this study could well help answer that question,” emphasized Game Commission Executive Director Matthew Hough.

Possible results

Is anything positive going to come out of this study? I cannot answer that question, but I have my doubts. What will happen if the study finds that a higher concentration of predators is linked to lower fawn survival? While I would not view that as earth-shattering news, the question remains — what would the Game Commission do with this newly-discovered knowledge?

Despite this uncertainty, I still support the $1.25 or so of my license money (my share of the $1.1 million) that will be used to fund the study. It is a small price if some new practical knowledge results. I will end by echoing the same concern that was shared by commissioner Ralph Martone in May: “Will hunters critical of the Game Commission accept any results that do not agree with what they think the results should be?”