Sunday, January 29, 2012

Three Years of Expanded Crossbow Use Has Had Limited Impact on Deer

Sunday, January 29, 2012
The crossbow is here to stay -- almost. Last week the Board of Game Commissioners proposed making the sporting arm permanently legal for use in all archery seasons.

In 2009, when the crossbow was declared legal for use in archery deer and bear seasons, the board included a sunset clause requiring the agency to review its impact on wildlife before June 20, 2012. Commission spokesman Jerry Feaser said data presented to the commissioners showed the sporting arm had increased the deer harvest, but not at unsustainable levels.

"The report ... showed there was an increase in the deer and bear harvest due to crossbows," he said. "Was that increase unsustainable or counter to the agency's objectives in managing those resources? The answer was no."
In fact, while deer harvests have risen since 2009, horror stories of a massive crossbow kill predicted by some archers did not come to pass.

An internal Jan. 19 memorandum from Chris Rosenberry, head of the Game Commission's deer management program, showed that as a portion of the archery harvest, crossbow use has doubled since 2009, from 15 percent in 2007-08 and 2008-09 to 30 percent in 2009-10 and 34 percent in 2010-11. The percentage of deer taken with archery gear has increased from 14 percent in 2007-08 to 20 percent in 2010-11.

Additional data shows while the crossbow has been well received by hunters, its total impact on the deer population has been marginal. In the year following the crossbow's expanded use, resident archery license sales increased by less than 3 percent to 277,393 (plus another 11,792 for nonresidents). In 2011, sales rose to 285,244 (plus 12,218 nonresident). The estimated deer harvest rose from 308,920 in 2009-10 to 316,240 in 2010-11 -- up to be sure, but not the slaughter predicted by crossbow opponents.

Feaser said the "trump card" that led commissioners to remove the sunset clause was hunters' acceptance of the new sporting arm.
"Commissioners who voted 'no' initially to crossbows said you can't put the genie back in the bottle," he said."

The curious politics of the crossbow's legalization process contributed to Pennsylvania hunters' polarization on the issue through much of the last decade.
Before 2000, only hunters with disabled person permits could use crossbows in Pennsylvania. Legislation was passed that year removing the crossbow from the list of prohibited sporting arms.

In 2001, the Game Commission regulated crossbows in some hunting situations, and in 2004 the agency further liberalized its use.

In 2008, the agency legalized the crossbow during all hunting seasons except archery deer in most areas. It remained legal in Wildlife Management Units 2B, 5C and 5D.
The next year, an increasingly divided Board of Commissioners issued back-and-forth directives stalling and propelling the crossbow's momentum. In July, with one vacant seat, commissioners voted to restrict use of the sporting arm. Days later, in a burst of drama uncommon for the board, the swearing-in of a new member, Ralph Martone of New Castle, changed the equation, and in September a 4-4 stalemate all but guaranteed the continued use of crossbows.

At last week's board meeting, Martone was elected president of the Board of Commissioners.

At the height of the crossbow debate, critics of legalization were convinced that with relative ease of use right out of the box, the crossbow would overwhelm the woods during archery deer seasons, resulting in an overharvest from which whitetails could not recover.
So far, at least, that hasn't happened. The rifle harvest is the primary regulator of deer populations, said Rosenberry, in a 2010 interview. Yearly reports and archery harvests, he said, had less bearing on long-term management plans.

"From a biology standpoint, the crossbow and statewide harvest estimates don't matter," he said. "What matters is what's happening unit by unit. ... We don't control the deer, we don't control the hunters, we don't control the environment. We set [antlerless] allocations, and [a given year's] harvest estimate is one piece of the information that we work on."
"We have to remember that's two years of data," said Jennifer Sager, president of United Bowhunters of Pennsylvania. "In other states, impact hasn't been realized until five or six years."

Steve Mohr of Unified Sportsmen, which was neutral on the issue in 2009, said the ruling, "shouldn't be a problem as long as the Game Commission adjusts the number of antlerless allocations accordingly."

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