Deer-forest study valuable to hunters

The Pennsylvania Game Commission reported deer harvests of only 10 to 20 percent in study areas. “These are some of the lowest rates ever recorded during deer research in Pennsylvania,” said Duane Diefenbach.
The Pennsylvania Game Commission reported deer harvests of only 10 to 20 percent in study areas. “These are some of the lowest rates ever recorded during deer research in Pennsylvania,” said Duane Diefenbach. Photo provided

The deer hunting seasons are over for another year.

The late archery, flintlock and extended antlerless firearms seasons ended on Jan. 23. However, for a dedicated group of deer-forest researchers, another season — deer trapping season — has just begun.

Three years ago, the Pennsylvania Game Commission and the Pennsylvania Department of Conservation and Natural Resources Bureau of Forestry partnered with Penn State and Pennsylvania Cooperative Fish and Wildlife Research Unit to learn more about deer and the their relationship to healthy forests.

“This study is unique because previous forest studies only looked at one factor — either deer, competing vegetation or forest soils,” Cooperative Unit leader Duane Diefenbach explained. “We are trying to look at all three at the same time because that is what deer and forest managers have to do in the real world.”

The five-year research project is multi-faceted and is taking place in four state forest locations, each measuring 25 to 40 square miles. The two areas representing oak-hickory forests are local. One is southeast of Poe Valley State Park in the Bald Eagle State Forest and the other includes parts of Centre, Mifflin and Huntingdon counties in the Rothrock State Forest. The two large tracts representing the northern hardwood forest type are located in the Susquehannock State Forest in Potter County.

Immediately following the close of the last deer hunting season, the study crews started baiting deer and readying their rocket nets and Clover traps. So far, more than 200 deer have been trapped as a part of the study. More will be added to that total this winter.

“Trapping conditions have been terrible the past two weeks, but we have captured nine deer so far this winter — all by the northern crew,” PGC wildlife biologist Jeannine Fleegle said.

The goals and objectives for this study address the information needs and research questions of each collaborator. In a nutshell, the research will test the effectiveness of the Deer Management Assistance Program (DMAP) to increase the antlerless harvest and the ability of PGC and DCNR forest evaluation tools to accurately detect changes in vegetation in response to deer abundance. Yet another part of the study will measure the changes in hunter behavior and attitudes based on changes in deer abundance. So far, 4,900 hunters have participated in the study.

Some vocal hunters complain about seeing no deer on state land or that the public land is overrun with hunters. Current research does not bear out those widely shared negative opinions.

“In our study areas — even with DMAP — there are deer harvests of only 10 to 20 percent,” Diefenbach noted. “These are some of the lowest rates ever recorded during deer research in Pennsylvania. So far, only 16 percent of the collared adult bucks (at least 2.5 years old) have been harvested. I would have expected that to be at least 40 to 60 percent.

“Based on our surveys, 17 percent of the hunters stated that they saw too many hunters while hunting on state forest land, 33 percent indicated that there were too few hunters, and half of the hunters said that the number of hunters that they saw while hunting was about right,” Diefenbach added.

Another aspect that makes this study unique is the public’s ability to follow the research as it happens, courtesy of the Deer-Forest Blog: www.ecosystems.psu.edu/research/projects/deer/news. Both Diefenbach and Fleegle have provided a significant number of postings. The blog has had over 100 entries, including 18 within the past two months.

“The stories on this blog are read by almost 60,000 people every month,” Fleegle said. “I’m sure other blogs have 10 or maybe 100 times more readership, but even this level of success is something that surprised all of us. We weren’t sure one person would read it, never mind 60,000.

“The most important part of this study is that it will help us make better deer and forest management recommendations, but so far the public is enjoying the ‘gee-whiz stuff’ that is reported in the blog,” Fleegle said in a telephone interview.

The gee-whiz stuff? The blog reports on the research, but also includes related and unrelated discoveries about white-tailed deer. According to Fleegle, an Oct. 8, 2015, Diefenbach post about a buck returning to die at a location that he had visited only once before has been the blog’s most viewed post. Another interesting Dec. 21, 2015, post tells of two fawns being captured four days and over a quarter mile apart. Later DNA analysis proved that they are twins. A third deals with does that have lived in the study area long past their normal life expectancies.

On Jan. 20, the collar from monitored buck number 12786 sent a mortality signal. The heavily-antlered nine-point buck was found dead by the study team. The cause of death due to antler punctures from another buck. Several other posts have revealed the dramatic change in behavior that bucks show when the rut begins in mid-October. This is all valuable information for hunters and anyone interested in deer.

The importance of the study and the blog to hunters can be summed up by Jerry Paulukonis, a Luzerene County hunter.

“I must say,” Paulukonis wrote, “You all do a fantastic job with the studies and helping to educate people on the life of the deer. I consider myself a very educated hunter and even I have learned a ton from your blogs.”

If you have not done so already, visit the Deer-Forest website. Better yet, subscribe to the blog to receive announcements of each new entry.

Sayers Lake meeting

The Pa. Fish and Boat Commission will hold a public meeting from 6:30 to 8 p.m. Feb. 23 at the Environmental Center at Bald Eagle State Park. The meeting will discuss future angling regulations for crappies at Foster Joseph Sayers Lake. The public is invited to attend.

Mark Nale, who lives in the Bald Eagle Valley, is chairman of the board for the Pennsylvania Outdoor Writers Association. He can be reached at MarkAngler@aol.com

On the Web:

Read the Deer-Forest Blog: www.ecosystems.psu.edu/research/projects/deer/news