Pennsylvania's Deer Dilemma


Mar 11, 2001
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Bob Frye/The Valley Independent


As Pennsylvania's white-tailed deer population swells to record size and increasingly comes into conflict with an expanding human population, people are asking - How much is enough?

When deer wear out their welcome
There are an estimated 1.6 million white-tailed deer in Pennsylvania today, according to the Pennsylvania Game Commission, spread across the state in every county, from the big woods of the state's northern tier to the suburbs around Pittsburgh and the parks within Philadelphia. That might seem like a wonderful thing. Who wouldn't like to see more deer, beautiful as they are with their mix of silky grace and coil-spring power? Lots of people, as it turns out. Farmers. Foresters. Bird watchers. Auto insurance companies. Biologists. Municipal officials. Even some hunters. All agree they want deer in Pennsylvania, but in the right places and in manageable numbers.

From boom to bust and back again
There's no question deer have gone from being abundant to being scarce to being abundant again in Pennsylvania over the last century and a half.

Pennsylvania's deer management debate is nothing new
Ninety years old today, Richard Gerstell is by his own admission not the man he once was. In a moment of frustration, struggling to recall some of the details about his career as a wildlife biologist with the Pennsylvania Game Commission, he apologizes and says he's been "out of the business for for quite a while."

No shoving, please
If Gary Alt enjoys a better fate than befell the likes of Roger Latham, he will likely have his abilities as a salesman and his good timing, as much as his scientific knowledge, to credit.

A voice wanting to be heard
Walking along the edge of his corn field, Sheldon Brymesser is dwarfed by most of the corn stalks. It's the first good summer he's had in three years, with just enough rain to keep things lush. Here and there, though, he finds spots where none of the stalks are more than waist high.

Kings of the jungle
White-tailed deer can dominate a forest to the detriment of other species, say some foresters and land managers. How to keep them in balance with the rest of the world - and how many deer you can have and still achieve that - are the questions.

Doing the dirty work
The staff at the Pocono Mountain Vacation Bureau Inc. works hard to bring visitors to the northeastern corner of the state because that means big money. Last year eight million tourists visited the Poconos, spending more than $1 billion dollars. As part of their message, bureau staff tout the area's natural attractions, including its wildlife. Having that wildlife lying mangled and dead on the side of the road doesn't help the cause.

Bambi vs. the Buick
If you were to ask Darrin Birtciel to describe the sounds of the opening day of deer season, he probably wouldn't mention the crunch of leaves under a hunter's foot, the bang of a rifle shot or the whoosh of a deer racing through the mountain laurel. No, he'd probably mention sounds like the screech of rubber on blacktop, the shattering of glass and the whine of a police siren.

Avoiding that deer-auto collision
Erie Insurance Group offers the following tips on how to avoid hitting a deer with your vehicle, or at least minimize the risk of personal injury.

Making history  

The men responsible for managing Pennsylvania's white-tailed deer are doing the work that will end up in the books of tomorrow right now. Will future authors hold them in high esteem for their pioneering work, or will they be looked upon as those who didn't act when action was necessary?

Kamikaze biologist
A suicide mission. That's what Gary Alt thought he might have volunteered for when he accepted the job as head of the Pennsylvania Game Commission's Deer Management Section. After all, the agency's history was littered with the bones of men just like him who had tried to tackle the same job and paid dearly.

Who's driving this thing?
The future direction of the Pennsylvania Game Commission is in their hands. The question in the minds of more than a few people right now is this - are they up to the task?

Commissioners Code of Expectations is suggested
Commissioner Sam Dunkle has proposed the development of a "Commissioners Code of Expectations" that would help "commissioners be the best commissioners we can be."

A look at the Board of Commissioners
The Pennsylvania Game Commission is an independent agency that, when its board is fully staffed, is led by eight commissioners. They are by definition to be state residents who are "well informed on the subject of wildlife conservation and restoration."

Pennsylvania Game Commissioners in profile
Biographies of the Pennsylvania Game Commission leaders.

Commissioners approve MAT benchmark evaluation
It was back in 1998 that the Pennsylvania Game Commission asked the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's Management Assistance Team to come in and conduct an evaluation of the agency and its operation. Now it's asking the MAT team to come back.

Help wanted: Hunters only need apply  

Will the day come when Pennsylvania's hunters are thought of by society at large as the tool by which they can produce and sustain a healthy environment? Maybe so if the hunters of today lay the groundwork for those who will follow.

Free to good home: Ecological service
Gary Alt was watching TV when a commercial for the Wall Street Journal came on. It began by showing two twin brothers as babies.

Biologists try to teach hunters the wisdom of doe hunting
Roger Cowburn grew up in the woods. By 1940, at the age of 12, he was a hunter and by 1955 he was guiding "flatlanders" - what he and his neighbors around Galeton, Potter County, used to call hunters from New York and southern Pennsylvania - when they came up to hunt.

The public vs. private land debate
Dr. Nicholas Spock can sympathize with people who say they have deer problems. The Shamokin, Northumberland County-area physician and member of the Pennsylvania Game Commission board has himself been victimized by deer with a hunger for easy pickings.

Surveying the scene
It seems obvious enough. Hunters hunt deer because they want to shoot one. Is that all there is to it, though? Or are there other factors that might move a hunter to go afield and then help determine whether his time out there is enjoyable? Finding that out is the goal of a study being undertaken by Dr. Grace Wang, an assistant professor of Natural Resource Policy and Administration at Penn State University.

Working together  

People around Pennsylvania are facing deer problems and they're using new ways to get a handle on them. From focusing on ecology to bringing sportsmen and landowners together, they're looking for solutions

Looking for limits
Fred Claycomb is not a hunter himself. He allows hunters who ask permission to hunt on his farm, though. In fact, he hopes a few come knocking. It costs him money when they don't. Claycomb is a Bedford County farmer. By definition, that means he has to put up with white-tailed deer. Lots of them.

Cooperation breeds hope
Doug Gilbert's brother moved on to greener pastures long ago. Doug just keeps plowing his. He lives on and works today the same Crawford County farm his relatives have since 1818. His parents still live there with him, too - he's 51, mom and dad are 84 and 86, respectively.

Proponents say Quality Deer Management will mean bigger bucks
Brian Murphy says deer hunting guides around the country love Pennsylvania hunters. Not because they're big tippers or great shots or just plain nice people. No, they love Keystone State hunters because their expectations are so low, they're easy to please.

Some sort of antler restriction a possibility in the near future
Most hunters, when they dream of shooting a white-tailed deer, dream of shooting a giant buck, one with large, heavy antlers with many long, wicked tines. In Pennsylvania, more often than not, what they get is something far short of that. But Gary Alt has a plan to change things.

Early returns indicate antler restriction working in Arkansas
Only one state in the nation, Arkansas, has a statewide antler restriction in place for its whitetails and it's relatively new. The program is entering only its third season this fall.

Growing the next generation of gurus
Ted Onufrak looks at Gary Alt and sees the best that a wildlife management agency can produce.

Quality Hunting Ecology being put into practice
When the state Department of Conservation and Natural Resource's Bureau of Forestry last year sought certification as a "well managed operation in which timber products are produced in a manner that sustains the timber resource, maintains the forest ecosystem and meets minimum financial and socioeconomic criteria," it found it had one big problem - white-tailed deer.

City slicker deer  

They look like their country cousins, but these deer are special. Even more special are the circumstances under which the people in charge of controlling them must operate. Having too many deer in the suburbs and cities means a whole new set of challenges.

Hunters discreetly solving deer problems in Fox Chapel Borough
It used to be the joke in Fox Chapel. Anytime a motorist had to call police because he'd driven off the road or hit a pole or wound up in a ditch, his defense was the same - he'd swerved to miss a deer. The whitetails were convenient scapegoats. There were so many, and they were so obvious, who could doubt your story? It was seemingly foolproof.

Too good to be true?
It sounds like a heavenly dessert - "pie in the sky." You may not find it on a restaurant menu, and it doesn't come with ice cream, but it's what you're asking for if you think PZP, an animal contraceptive vaccine, is going to eliminate dual worries about having too many deer and nothing to do with them.

Whitetails wander where men once went hungry
Jim Morrison had a distant relative who was with George Washington's army at Valley Forge. He thinks about that sometimes as he drives around the park, amazed at the amount of suffering those soldiers must have endured.

Culling deer means preserving history
When Jim Morrison, president of Valley Forge Citizens for Deer Control, talks of the need for controlling deer in Valley Forge, he points to Gettysburg National Military Park as an example of how things can work.

Taming aggressive whitetails
Mention "aggressive" animals and creatures like grizzly bears might come to mind. Or tigers. Maybe even a small but ferocious weasel.

Deciding which way to go
Buicks. Explorers. Volkswagen Beetles. Pickup trucks. Saturns. Geos. They are tools one and all, and not just for getting from place to place, at least in Philadelphia.

Harvesting deer with scalpel-like precision
He rolls in under cover of darkness, rifle at the ready. It's loaded with ammunition of his own design, formed on a lathe and shot into skulls to see how they fragment. He's got a suppressor on this rifle, too, for silence.

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