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Thinning the herd benefits deer

Wednesday, November 21, 2001

By Michael Dongilli

The trouble with deer -- and Pennsylvania has an estimated 1.5 million of them -- is that they do three things extremely well: eat, breed and adapt.

"All over the eastern part of the country, the deer has learned to thrive and survive in urban and suburban areas," said Gary Fujak, a Pennsylvania Game Commission wildlife conservation officer.

"They've gotten habituated to humans, and a lot of people are well intentioned but misguided, and it's not in the deer's best interest. They're artificially feeding them with mineral and grain blocks and that just supports artificial population which compounds the [problem]."

Even unfed whitetail deer have non-discriminating tastes, eating a variety of leafy herb-like and woody plants. One study that examined the stomach contents of deer killed by vehicles identified 100 different plant species.

It's not uncommon for home vegetable gardens and landscapes to suffer total destruction from hungry herds unafraid and, in the winter, often forced into the easy pickings of a plentiful backyard. Annually, property damage estimates are in the millions statewide.

The spreading of Lyme disease also blemishes the deer's bio, and nearly everyone knows the catastrophe that can occur when deer and vehicles get in the same space.

Deer can be dangerous in other ways, too. "I've got confirmed reports from people, their dogs have been trampled to death by doe who thought that the dog was a threat to their fawn," Fujak said.

"There have been bucks that have shadowed and followed people on riding mowers who have to run for fear of getting attacked. Deer hoofs are pretty lethal weapons. Bucks are very aggressive during the mating season. You don't want to get one cornered."

Nor can they go unmanaged. In Allegheny and surrounding counties, an abundance of deer are threatening not just people and their plantings, but the very surroundings that permit the herd's healthy survival. A spontaneous deer zoo on your lawn might seem natural and a harmonious bond with nature, but more than likely it indicates a breed in distress, struggling to stay strong in the wild.

Deer are actually better off when there are fewer of them -- then there's enough for them to eat. It's also better for the plant life decimated by their overpopulation.

According to Fujak, the best way to bring it all back into a better balance -- though it is at times unpopular -- is to shoot them.

The Game Commission has addressed the problem aggressively with more and expanded seasons and regulatory changes designed to thin the herd methodically and compensate for poor buck-to-doe ratios in many areas.

The whole process is about to kick into high gear.

An average of 1 million Pennsylvanians apply for hunting licenses each year, and the greatest numbers will head into the woods on Monday for a combined antlered and antlerless season.

Archery and muzzleloader deer hunters have already been roaming the woods. Bow season ran from Sept. 29-Nov. 10, and muzzleloaders could hunt Oct. 13-20.

All will get a late season chance Dec. 26 through Jan. 12.

Last year, hunters took more than half a million deer. In a typical season, though, they bag only 20 percent of the young "button" bucks and roughly 30 percent of the available does. That leaves about seven of every 10 of the extremely fertile adult females still kicking and ready to bear new fawns.

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