Penn State Deer Research Guiding Wildlife Managers

Hunting is vital to Pennsylvania's economy, with an economic impact of $4.8 billion annually, according to the Center for Rural Pennsylvania. Much of that comes from white-tailed deer hunting, which is the favorite pursuit of many of the state's sports enthusiasts.
Vern Ross Executive Director, Pennsylvania Game Commission, Dauphin County

Vern Ross Executive Director, Pennsylvania Game Commission, Dauphin County

"The Pennsylvania Game Commission is always working to improve the conservation and preservation of our state's wildlife diversity. We are fortunate to count Penn State as one of our most trusted and important partners in conducting and analyzing much-needed field research projects."

With Pennsylvania's deer herd at an estimated 1.37 million animals, concerns have arisen about its impact on the state's forests, agricultural crops, ornamental shrubbery and gardens. Deer management has become a controversial issue important not just to hunters, but also farmers, foresters, auto insurance providers, timber companies, nature and wildlife lovers, and homeowners.

Hunting is the principal method of managing deer numbers, but the population of deer hunters is aging, and their commitment to the sport appears to be changing. Although Pennsylvania's hunter numbers are holding steady at just over a million, the hunting population is shrinking in many other parts of the country.

As the Pennsylvania Game Commission grapples with deer-management issues, wildlife managers need updated information on a wide range of related topics, from hunter habits to deer survival to genetics and antler growth. The commission has turned to specialists in Penn State's College of Agricultural Sciences to find the answers it needs to manage the deer herd.

The Payoff

Pennsylvania's deer management program evolves

Penn State is in the process of conducting several research projects for the Game Commission. Knowledge gained from these studies will not only further scientific understanding of hunter and deer behavior, but also will provide a credible foundation for the state's deer-management regulations.

Surveying deer hunters' attitudes

Researchers are conducting two studies with deer hunters and one with property owners. One survey asked hunters in central Pennsylvania what they think about habitat, hunting practices and various management approaches. A statewide follow-up effort seeks to describe in detail hunters' attitudes on issues such as antlerless deer hunting, antler size restrictions, hunting success and hunting-area fidelity. The third survey sought to determine why property owners post their land against hunting. The Game Commission believes that the opinions of deer hunters are important because hunting is significant in Pennsylvania, both economically and socially. These surveys will allow Game Commission officials to gain insight into deer hunter perceptions and characteristics.

Fawn mortality study

In the largest study of its kind in the nation, 218 fawns were captured, fitted with radio collars, then released and monitored on two study sites. One was a mostly agricultural, 200-square-mile area in eastern Centre County called Penns Valley; the other was a 100-square-mile "big woods" tract in Elk, Cameron and Clearfield counties known as Quehanna Wild Area. The study of fawn mortality started in May 2000 and concluded in April 2002. Once a fawn was collared, researchers monitored it daily or weekly, tracking movement and survival. When a collar signaled that a fawn had died, the researchers located the collar and examined evidence at the site of its death -- such as carcass condition, tracks, hair and matted vegetation to determine what killed the young deer.

Studying hunter movement

Hunter movement, success and attitudes were studied in Sproul State Forest in northcentral Pennsylvania in fall 2001. Hunters were asked to trace their hunts on a topographic map. Some were asked to carry a pocket-sized global positioning system (GPS) unit during their hunt. These units automatically recorded hunter movement. The study team downloaded the satellite information from the GPS units into computers for analysis. Hunter distribution in the forest was also documented using aerial tracking during the study period. This information will help managers better understand hunting practices.

Buck study

The College of Agricultural Sciences and the Pennsylvania Game Commission recently launched one of the most extensive radio-telemetry studies of male deer dispersal, survival and the effects of antler size restrictions for hunting ever attempted in the United States. A number of bucks will be fitted with tags so they can be tracked by satellites. Researchers expect the project to yield a wealth of additional important information about the state's male deer population. They want to learn more about buck activity and movement patterns, antler size changes, and antler rubbing and scraping behavior. Over the next three years, researchers intend to monitor 200 bucks per year in Armstrong and Centre counties. The bucks will be captured and fitted with radio-transmitters. Deer will be captured using a variety of methods, including drop nets, walk-in traps, dart guns and helicopters. Researchers want to determine the survival of bucks from 6 to 30 months of age. They want to know how many bucks are harvested each year, discover other causes of mortality, and assess whether regulatory changes might increase buck survival.

For more information about wildlife research projects, contact the School of Forest Resources at 814-865-7541 or visit School of Forest Resources' website.