Sunday, December 14, 2014

Low Harvest During The Rainy Rifle Deer Season May Benefit Late-Season Hunters

 By John Hayes / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

White-tail deer are the masters of energy conservation. With their insulating hollow hairs and other weather-mitigating features, they're comfortable in snow and seasonably cold temperatures. * But in a miserable combination of rain, wind and cold, they're likely to bed down under cover and wait it out.

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Hunters also don't like rain, wind and cold. In miserable weather, they're likely to bundle up and hunt from a stationary post, leave early or just stay home.

When hunters don't push bedded deer, there's not a lot of shooting. Throughout Pennsylvania, that was the state of deer hunting during much of the two-week firearm season.

Many skilled hunters -- some who didn't see a deer during those cold, rainy days -- wonder how the probable low harvest will impact the late-season hunts and next year's doe tag allocations.

"I've been out every day. There's been less pressure from what I've seen," said Tom Fazi, education supervisor for the state Game Commission's southwest region. "I anticipate more deer being available during the late flintlock muzzleloader and archery seasons."

Fazi says his assessment is anecdotal -- deer processors he's spoken with say business was down during the rifle season, but overall it's comparable to previous years because of increased archery kills.

Game Commission deer harvest estimates won't be ready until spring. But several data points are worth considering:

■ More than half of the antlered deer killed during the two-week rifle season are taken on opening day. During the 2013-14 seasons 134,280 bucks were harvested.

■ Most hunting hours during the two-week firearm season are logged on the opening day and two Saturdays. Inclement weather Dec. 1 and Dec. 6 reduced hunting pressure, and it's almost certain that fewer deer were killed on those days.

■ In recent years, crossbow use has greatly increased the archery harvest. In 2013-14, 100,700 deer were killed by archers (the buck-to-doe ratio was about 50-50). This year, 7,600 more resident archery licenses were sold than in 2013.

■ Successful hunters are required by state law to submit harvest reports, but reporting has dropped to 25 percent. Harvest estimates are largely determined using other less accurate means.

■ Each year, Game Commission biologists submit to the board a harvest estimate, deer population estimate and recommendations for antlerless allocations and permits for the Deer Management Assistance Program, or DMAP, for each wildlife management unit. The recommendations are based on multiyear trends. Commissioners weigh that data against other considerations -- including the interests of other deer-population stakeholders -- and set seasons, allocations and permits.

Game Commission spokesman Travis Lau said harvest estimates from a single season, or even a single year, usually have little impact on allocations. A bad weather hunting season, he said, would most likely not impact doe allocations.
"Our deer team will tell you it's not necessarily important to have an accurate estimate of the population in one given year," he said. "What is important in management decisions is that you have an accurate understanding of population trends."
Council president Robert Schlemmer of Export said the board may consider a re-examination of antlerless allocations in some WMUs in 2015, but it's not related to weather's impact on the 2014-15 harvest.
Lau said a bigger concern is the increasing failure of hunters to file harvest reports, the most accurate data on deer killed in each WMU.
"I believe people get busy and forget, and there's an intimidation issue," he said. "It's around the holidays, they have a lot going on, and once they remember to report they realize they're beyond the 10 days the law requires and they're afraid they're going to get busted for it."
In fact, said Lau, in most cases the Game Commission does not enforce that state law. It's far more beneficial to get the harvest report, even if it's late.
"There's no talk of changing the law at this time among legislators," he said. "But last year when it came out that reporting was at 25 percent and dropping, there was some talk on the board of making the harvest report mandatory."

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