Pennsylvania Game Commission, Penn State Launch Latest

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Pennsylvania Game Commission, Penn State Launch Latest In Series of Groundbreaking Deer Research Studies

   FORD CITY, Pa., Dec. 12 /PRNewswire/

The Pennsylvania Game Commission and Penn State University recently launched one of the most extensive radio-telemetry studies of male deer dispersal and survival, and the effects of antler restrictions ever attempted in the United States.  To highlight the significance of this joint research project, representatives of the agency and university today demonstrated one of the dramatic capturing and radio-collaring techniques that will be used as part of this latest joint research project on white-tailed deer.

   "Pennsylvania's deer management program is evolving," said Dr. Gary Alt, Game Commission Deer Management Section supervisor.  "Knowledge gained from this three-year study, which will attempt to monitor 600 bucks in two study areas, will not only further scientific understanding of deer behavior, but also will provide a credible foundation for Pennsylvania's deer management regulations.

   "This study should answer two important questions: Will antler restrictions result in greater numbers of older bucks?  And, do hunters perceive there are better hunting opportunities?"

   Dr. Duane R. Diefenbach, Assistant Unit Leader for the Pennsylvania Cooperative Fish and Wildlife Research Unit, U.S. Geological Survey, Biological Resources Division at Pennsylvania State University, also noted that the project should yield a wealth of additional important information about the state's bucks.

   "We look forward to learning more about buck activity and movement patterns, antler size changes and antler rubbing and scraping behavior," Dr. Diefenbach said.  "And, all of this research data collection can be done without having a negative effect on hunters.  In fact, radio-tagged deer are legal to harvest, and we encourage hunters to take the opportunity to do so. All we ask is that they call the toll-free number on the transmitter or ear tag so that we can gain further valuable information about that deer."

   Over the next three years, the joint research project intends to monitor 100 bucks per year on each of the two study areas: one in Armstrong County and one in Centre County.  The bucks will be captured and fitted with radio-transmitters by Game Commission biologists and Penn State graduate students.  Deer will be captured using a variety of methods, including drop nets, walk-in traps, dart guns and helicopters.  The helicopter capture method, which was demonstrated as part of today's briefing, is being conducted by Hawkins & Powers Aviation Inc., based in Greybull, Wyoming.  The company has been involved with other helicopter wildlife capture programs for moose, elk and wolves.

   Specific project objectives are:

--    Determine the survival of bucks from six months to 30 months of age. How many bucks do hunters harvest, what are other causes of mortality, and are there regulation changes that might increase buck survival?  Combined with the two-year fawn mortality study, this objective should shed additional light on mortality causes for deer.

--    Monitor movements of bucks from six months to 30 months of age.  How far do bucks disperse, when do they disperse and how many disperse?

--    Monitor changes in male age structure because of antler restrictions.  How does age affect antler size and how does breeding behavior change?  Data already collected from studies in other states show that bucks grow their greatest sets of antlers between the ages of four and eight years.  Other studies suggest that age and quality of habitat (nutrition) play significant roles in antler development, as well as genetics.

--    Evaluate hunter satisfaction with antler restrictions.

   Funding for the joint project is being provided by the Game Commission, state Department of Conservation and Natural Resources and grants from three foundations being coordinated by Audubon Pennsylvania and Pennsylvania Habitat Alliance.

   Conducting this study also fulfills one of the promises Dr. Alt made during his series of public presentations last year on the changes being made in Pennsylvania's deer management program.  When he first proposed, then withdrew, an antler restriction proposal for the 2001-2002 deer seasons, Dr. Alt noted he was concerned that the current depleted condition of habitat in many areas may not be able to sustain the additional strain of tens of thousands of "protected" small bucks that would be added to the population. He wanted to reduce the antlerless population in 2001 to make room for an increase in the buck population in the future.

   "If the deer harvest, especially the antlerless harvest, is not adequate in 2001, statewide antler restrictions for 2002 would have to be delayed until
we get an adequate harvest," Dr. Alt said.  "However, this research project will proceed possibly with antler restrictions being imposed in the Armstrong and Centre county study areas."

   Second, Dr. Alt wanted the Game Commission to be in a position to evaluate the effectiveness of an antler restriction, whether it is implemented on a statewide or study area basis.  For example, "At what rate will an antler restriction move bucks into the older age class, and how large will those
bucks be the following year?"

   "By using radio telemetry, the Game Commission and Penn State will be able to learn what percentage of these bucks protected by an antler restriction
will actually survive, or make it, to the next hunting season, and document how large their antlers grow," Dr. Alt said.

   Another reason Dr. Alt suggested moving slowly on this front is because he doesn't know how many hunters support antler restrictions.  Based on a survey conducted by Responsive Management involving 1,009 hunters in March, 84 percent of respondents indicated they would either strongly or moderately support changes in regulations that would allow bucks to live longer and grow larger antlers.  Only 11 percent said they would moderately or strongly oppose; and another 5 percent didn't know or didn't support or oppose the effort.
   
   Other recent joint Game Commission and Penn State studies include the:

--    Hunter Movement Study, which was conducted this year during the rifle deer season in the Sproul State Forest in Northcentral Pennsylvania.  This study included hundreds of hunters carrying Global Positioning Units to monitor their movements during the hunt.

         Many more hunters were asked to mark their day's hunt on a topographic map.  The state Department of Conservation and Natural Resources Bureau of Forestry conducted aerial surveys to determine the distribution of hunters and amount of hunter pressure in the area.  This information will enable deer managers to better understand hunter movement and pressure across the study area, their success, and attitudes toward hunting issues in "big woods" habitats.

--    Fawn Mortality Study, which is perhaps the most recognized of the  several recent deer research projects.  Information about this  two-year study has been provided to the public through regular journal entries on the Game Commission's website, and involved capturing and radio-collaring 218 fawns in study areas in Centre and Clearfield counties to determine mortality causes.

   Other deer research projects conducted by the Game Commission's Deer Management Section, with the support and assistance of the agency's Wildlife Conservation Officers, were the:

--    Fawn Conception Date Study, which involved WCOs collecting and checking 608 road-killed does during 2000.  From this study, it was determined that the breeding cycle, or rut, of 1999 lasted five months, from Sept. 9 through Feb. 16.  Ninety percent of the does conceived between Oct. 16 and Dec. 16.  But, the peak of the rut occurred from Oct. 31 to Nov. 23, when 67 percent of the does conceived.

--    Antler Measurement Study, which included measuring the antlers on more than 4,000 bucks.  From this study, the Game Commission demonstrated that age and nutrition have enormous impact on the size of antlers.  In fact, of the 256 bucks measured in Pike and Wayne counties, 31 percent of yearlings were spikes, but none of the older bucks were spikes, which proved the age-old philosophy of "once a spike, always a spike" was false.  Even more surprising, 54 percent of the 2.5-year-old bucks in Pike and Wayne counties had eight or more points.

   "As we continue to move forward on deer management, we will look to the scientific data we are gathering in the field to determine which is the best course of action," Dr. Alt said.  "In Pennsylvania, we are fortunate to have many partners, such as Penn State University, the state Department of Conservation and Natural Resources and our many conservation-minded
organizations, to assist in this vital, yet time-consuming, research.

   "However, no matter what deer seasons and bag limits are put in place by the Board of Game Commissioners, hunters will ultimately be the deciding factor in how successful the deer management program will be."
 

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