↓ Archives ↓

Posts Tagged → deer

The Ups and Downs of Pennsylvania’s Status as Trophy Hunting Destination

When I was a kid deer hunting, you would find a comfy seat somewhere under a hemlock or on a stump, and wait for the deer to storm by. The deer would eventually pass by in herds like caribou on the tundra, so many that you often lost count. Almost all were does, which were mostly off limits to hunting back then, and what you were looking for were any signs of antlers. Any flash of white on top of the deer’s head meant it was a buck, and therefore legal for harvest.

No matter how puny, how scrawny, how insignificant the antlers were, “getting your buck” was the goal, and several generations of Pennsylvanians were raised hunting in this low quality atmosphere. Herds of deer far beyond the carrying capacity of the landscape were the norm, as were pathetic excuses for a trophy, usually spike bucks or Y four-pointers, at best.

Fast forward forty years and Pennsylvania is now a true trophy hunting destination. It is unbelievable, really, the incredible successes in wildlife management our state has had. And every one of these achievements has come from outstanding planning by state wildlife biologists over decades.

For example, every year for the past fifteen years we have had bear harvests ranging from 3,000 to 4,000 animals, mostly taken within a three or four-day season. Some of our bears, a fairly high proportion, are gigantic, weighing from 500 to 800 pounds. These are eastern black bears the size of western grizzly bears; but they taste a lot better and they lack the aggressive personality of grizzlies.

Other examples of our wildlife management success are the trapping opportunities for otter, fisher, and bobcat, all of which were exotic, unimaginable, almost alien creatures when I was a kid. Someone you knew had seen one at some point in the woods, but they did not show up in traps, or dead on the roadside. Now? These three charismatic, very cool predators are either common or becoming common across Pennsylvania. There are enough of them to begin to alter prey populations, and forest growth, which means there are surpluses for sportsmen to pursue.

And our wild elk! Other states like Kentucky may have newer, much larger herds of wild elk than Pennsylvania, but they do not have the large human population or oversized road system we have here. Kentucky and the other states that have recently added wild elk can sustain larger herds. Nonetheless, Pennsylvania sees about 100 elk harvested annually, many of which are gigantic trophies on par with the best of western herds.

Finally, the biggest wildlife management success is our deer population. And it is our most controversial.

I have had a good deer season this year. Really, an outstanding deer season, in every way. Quality, quantity, time afield, hunting companionship, family time, scenic and remote places…what a fantastic few weeks it has been. How fortunate am I to have had this time, and it is only possible because Pennsylvania Game Commission biologists have done such an outstanding job of managing our deer populations (Quality Deer Management Association recognized the PGC this year  with an award for its incredible deer management).

Here is an example of the controversy surrounding deer hunting here. After sending a photo of one of the deer I took, using a beautiful 1935 German double-barreled rifle made at the peak of German sporting arms engineering, my older friend Jack wrote back to me “If you are not careful, you will clear your mountain of all game.”

In past years Jack has hunted with me at our place and would testify to the high quality deer we have cultivated there. Nonetheless he is anxious about harvesting “too many” deer.

And right there in his statement is the rub, the issue, the friction in our wildlife management here, overshadowing all other successes. Older generations tend to see does as sacred cows, off limits to harvest, whereas the younger generations tend to view deer management through the lens of biology, mathematics, and both habitat and social carrying capacity.

Never mind the other species listed above, just the high quality deer hunting alone makes Pennsylvania a true trophy hunting destination. People are now harvesting gigantic bucks unimaginable fifteen years ago, and that are big enough to hold their own against the long-time trophy deer hunting states like Kansas, Iowa, Illinois and Ohio. Pennsylvania’s deer management is working incredibly well, giving hunters a quality-over-quantity choice that works for today’s hunters and that rankles older generations used to “more is better.”

Deer hunting has gotten so good that, despite much stronger anti poaching laws, people are still going nuts trying to illegally hog up trophy bucks, afraid that if they do not get it, someone else will. Not too many years ago a fine young game warden was gunned down by a night poacher who was determined not to go back to jail (he did). Last week two 57-year-old men were caught shooting at deer from ATVs, and their reaction was to badly beat the deputy game warden and take his gun. They, too, are now in jail.

Older Pennsylvanians seem slow to catch on to our new status as a trophy destination. They act as if does must still be protected (they need not), and as if there are only a couple trophy bucks that must be poached before “someone else steals my buck.” In his recent book To Conserve and Protect: Memories of a Wildlife Conservation Officer, retired game warden Steve Hower recounts some of his experiences dealing with this backwards mindset.

Past PGC executive director Vern Ross used to say at every opportunity he had “Now, today, is the golden age of hunting in Pennsylvania!” Vern was correct then, and even more so now, as hunting opportunities are even better than when he was at PGC.

At some point the vast majority of our hunters will recognize and appreciate what an incredible thing we have now, right now, and instead of complaining about it, they will enjoy it and do what they can too support the PGC.

Some photos below from our bear and deer seasons; the buck photos are from the five minutes I was there on the second night of rifle season at Blue Mountain Deer Processing in Enola, PA. Just look at those incredible heads and huge steer-like bodies! Wow. Unthinkable not too long ago.

“Think those are big? You should have seen the huge ones that poured in here yesterday, on Opening Day,” said Dean Deimler, owner of Blue Mountain Deer Processing.

I have heard of several 160-inch and bigger racks being taken in the mountains, where too many people say “there ain’t no deer.” Like a lot of people, I would rather have a shot at a lifetime trophy buck of 160 inches than see a zillion scrawny spikes and forkhorns.

The young man is my son, who climbed high and steep right along with the adults, handling his firearms expertly and safely, himself taking three deer in two states this season and hunting bear as an adult for the first time. And that is the other ‘trophy’ from deer hunting…watching that next generation grow into an activity as old and as natural as our species.

Hunters Sharing the Harvest sets the Holiday Season tone

Pennsylvania is a long time big time hunting state, with such a great and famously known outdoors sports tradition that the iconic red and black “buffalo check plaid” wool coat made by Woolrich, Filson, and other long established wool clothing manufacturers was dubbed the “Pennsylvania Tuxedo” back in the 1920s.

Today our clothing may have improved since then, or may not have improved, depending upon whether you like your hunting pants to be flammable, or not, and I do not (which means I prefer wool in all outdoor clothing), but one thing remains steady: Pennsylvanians rightly love to hunt.

And just as much as we love to hunt, we are also generous with the fruits of our time afield. We have a long tradition of sharing the fruits of our hunting labors.

Well do I recall as a kid waking up in late November or early December to find some fresh venison left on our doorstep by one or two of our neighbors, all of whom had big farms and all of whom were big time hunters.

Back then in that area, kids brought fresh venison jerky to school to share and trade with other kids during and right after deer season; everyone had their own proprietary jerky recipe that they liked and were proud of. Sharing venison is a real longstanding Pennsylvania tradition.

Back in 1991, local hunter John Plowman had a vision to harness that generous spirit among Pennsylvania hunters and use it to provide for the needy. He started Hunters Sharing the Harvest, which today annually supplies well over a hundred thousand of pounds of fresh, free range, wholesome, lean, natural, organic meat to Pennsylvanians in need. That translates into about 667,000 annual “meals” for individuals and families in need.

Yesterday my son “harvested” his first Pennsylvania deer (see photo below), a young spike buck that junior hunters are allowed to take, as the rest of us are limited to bucks with at least three points to a side of the antler rack. As we had incredible good fortune yesterday, and took other deer, my son decided to donate his deer to Hunters Sharing the Harvest. My boy is enjoying the act of charity and contributing towards the basic welfare of his community.

Both Deimler (Cumberland County) and Sensenig (Dauphin County) are deer processors close by our home, so either one would be the logical place to drop off the young buck.  But Deimler has the advantage of being right down the road from Johnson’s Furs, where we have our furs tanned and where we buy our trapping supplies, so that is where the critter has been dropped off.  Mutli-tasking, ya know?

And that is the neatest thing about this Hunters Sharing the Harvest option: We get to share our cake, and eat it, too, in the charitable spirit of the Holiday Season.

 

 

PA deer hunters…spending 40 years in the desert

Last week, a guy in his late 50s posted a complaint on social media. He was both complaining about “not enough deer” to hunt in Pennsylvania, and also boasting about how he buys up as many doe tags as he can get, and then he tears them up, and then he uses them to file false deer harvest reports. He hopes this all will influence Pennsylvania’s science-driven deer management. One result of all this complaining by guys like this man is that the PA Game Commission is unable to get the license fee increase from the legislature that the PGC and most hunters want.

On the one hand, this self-defeating complaining and tearing up of doe tags is pretty much insane behavior, and a complete waste of one’s own precious time on Planet Earth.

On the other hand, that someone is so passionate about hunting and wildlife is a good thing. The question is, can this guy and the thousands of other unhappy hunters like him be educated about scientific deer management? Or are they so close-minded and emotional about this subject that they are immune to empirical evidence, logic and reason?

One result of our state’s scientific wildlife management is that we are now a major trophy hunting destination. Previously unthinkably enormous bucks and gigantic bears are within reach of those who are willing to hunt hard and smart. Bucks that rival and surpass those of the “best” whitetail states in the Mid-West. Black bears that are as big as Alaskan grizzlies. These are tangible signs of policy success, and that Pennsylvania is now an outdoor Promised Land after decades of hunters being happy with a pathetic forkhorn or even a spike buck.

On my westward drive along I-80 last week, and my drive south yesterday, from northwest Lycoming County down to Dauphin County, I saw dozens of dead deer littering the sides of the roads. Actually there were so many that I lost count. There may have been a hundred dead deer along the roads. Including along very rural roads in areas where many older guys complain there “ain’t no deer.” Obviously there are a lot of deer in these places, because they are not all being killed on the highway. These dead deer are the fruit of deer-car collisions, a very expensive and dangerous result of an overabundant deer population.

To be fair to the complaining hunters, the PA deer population in these places may be too high for the road system and not high enough for hunters’ desires. That is a very real possibility. It may be that the Pennsylvania road system is just too big, too widespread into rural areas, to allow many deer to survive into the Fall hunting season.

No, we are not going to shut down the public roads to stop the carnage, though it would make sense for Pennsylvania to put a moratorium brake on road building. We taxpayers cannot afford the operations and maintenance costs on the roads and bridges we have now, let along on any new roads and bridges. PennDot must re-direct its energies into safely maintaining the infrastructure we already have, like how about wildlife tunnels? And if the deer-car collisions are any indication, our public road system has been poorly planned and badly implemented; it has spiderwebbed out into the most rural areas and wildlife habitats. Thereby inviting expensive car collisions with wildlife.

I think this unhappy hunter situation is going to be like the ancient Hebrews’ 40 years in the desert. The older generation that cannot adapt to changing habitat, changing deer behavior, changing land use patterns and changing hunting methods is going to have to die off. Then the younger generation can get in the driver’s seat on deer management policy.

The younger generation understands and values science and biology in setting policy, like doe harvest tags, the crucial importance of getting buy-in and acceptance from the larger society around us (people unhappy about hitting overabundant deer; in Europe hunters are personally responsible for keeping wildlife populations at safe levels), the need to be multifaceted and flexible when hunting deer, etc. These complaining hunters represent the ex-slave mentality of those Hebrews who left Egypt and who could not learn to live as free men. Moses could not let them enter the Promised Land because they would infect everyone with foolish ideas and weakness. That would put the entire effort at risk. So he kept them wandering until that generation died out.

Sorry, old complaining guys, you are living in a broken past. You are slaves to an unproven, non-scientific, failed approach to wildlife management. If you cannot change your mindset and embrace reality, then you will be remembered as the lost generation that stood in the way of success and happiness.

And to be fair, this same broken thinking has haunted the Pennsylvania Farm Bureau’s approach to Sunday hunting. The older generation there has successfully blocked a 50% increase in hunting opportunity for decades, just because they think it is “wrong,” for no good, defensible reason. But that also is about to change, soon, as the fed-up younger generation of farmers, including religious Mennonites, takes this important policy issue in hand and directly bucks the older guys standing in the way of family success and happiness.

To enter the Promised Land, you must shed your slave mentality. I hope the anti-science hunters and the anti-freedom PA Farm Bureau folks will join us as we enter a glorious new period in Pennsylvania’s outdoor heritage.

Do you drink wine from a human skull?

Jakob-Creutzfelt Disease in Europe was traced back to a self-styled secret society in Italy, where members filed solemnly down into ancient burial crypts and drank local wine from the skull of a deceased past master.

No lie. Look it up if you like. Yes, people do strange things.

Even hundreds of years later, after the past master had died, the JCD ‘bug’ was still infesting that old skull of his, and the wine swilled from it carried the bug down the gullets of the secret society members and into their bodies. A lot of these secret society members died bizarre, horrible deaths, prompting health officials to investigate what was going on.

To date this is likely the only investigation in Italy’s history that was both scientific and professional. And that is because it involved drinking wine.

JCD basically eats your brain and leaves you a drooling, deficient, dying husk of a human being. You die pretty quickly, and it is an ugly death.

“Spongiform disease” is also how this kind of prion-based attack is known, because the person’s brain looks like a sponge, riddled through with holes where brain matter ought to be. Survival is not an option.

There is no cure, and the cancer-like prions use their protein shells to fully resist fire, cold, desiccation, Hollywood, and high cholesterol. Once a prion is present, it cannot be destroyed by anything human. Prions seem to live forever in the dirt under your feet, and possibly in food grown in that dirt, like corn and soybeans.

JCD is known as Mad Cow Disease among bovines, Scrapie among sheep, and Chronic Wasting Disease among cervids, like deer, here in America. In other words, there is a prion out there for every mammal, though this is a new science we are just beginning to understand.

For a long time the guy who discovered prions was said to be a fake. And then his work was replicated, and he became a celebrated scientist. The politics of “climate change science” do not apply to prions and human health, thankfully.

One thing is clear: Prions develop most among wild animals that are new to being domesticated, like deer. It is their bodies’ reaction to being unnaturally cooped up. Something in the wild animals’ artificially confined body is misfiring, going haywire, and imploding.

CWD has its genesis in the wildlife management equivalent of drinking wine from a human skull: In most states, including Pennsylvania, deer farms are not required to have two strands of metal fencing separating the confined deer from wild deer. Deer are not yet a domesticated species (if cows, sheep and goats are any indication, it will take another 3,000 years to domesticate deer), they are still wild, and they herd up for protection, as do all social animals.

As a result, wild deer approach the deer inside the deer farm enclosure, touch noses through the fence, exchange body fluids, and get CWD. The wild deer then leave and go off into the wild deer populations and spread CWD among otherwise healthy deer across the landscape.

As a result of this madness, CWD is spreading through Pennsylvania like wildfire, except no one is paying attention. Not really. Only the Pennsylvania Game Commission is trying to solve this crisis, and the agency is being stonewalled at every turn.

You know why?

Because the Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture is protecting a nascent $16 million annual deer farm business sector from having to install double fencing.

Do you know what hunting is worth annually in Pennsylvania? It is worth $1.6 BILLION, and a great deal of that is from deer hunting.

So here in Pennsylvania, we have a state agency, the PA Dept. of Agriculture, essentially preferring the complete shielding of deer farms from a necessary and responsible practice, and thereby sacrificing Pennsylvania’s wild deer herd and the huge sustainable, renewable economy built on managing those wild deer.

This poor policy from the PA Dept. of Ag is really bad government on display. This is Bad Government 101. Actually, this is failed government.

You cannot make this stuff up, and the CWD situation here highlights why political involvement in a democracy is so important. If you sit back and wait for someone else to solve problems, most often no one else will get involved. You have to lead the charge yourself, and thereby attract fellow supporters.

If you want to get involved, call the PA Dept. of Ag at this number, 717 -772-2853, and tell the nice person who answers the phone that you want DOUBLE FENCING at all deer farms. It is as simple as this.

And if you don’t give a whit about hunting or deer management, consider the impacts CWD will have on other wildlife beyond wild deer. It is an earthquake building under our feet, and we can stop it, if we want to.

Our Wildlife Management Comments Submitted to the PA Game Commission

Dear PGC Commissioners,

In so many ways the Game Commission is on an exciting path, really moving forward on policy, staff culture, and scientific wildlife management. It is an exciting time to be a hunter and trapper in the great state of Pennsylvania, thanks to you. Hunting and trapping are supposed to be fun, and the PGC should be able to maximize opportunities without sacrificing the natural resource base. If anything, the agency has been perhaps too conservative, too cautious.  In that vein, here are some small suggestions for improving hunting and trapping in Pennsylvania:

a) Make all small game seasons concurrent, start them in late September or early October and run them unbroken until mid February. The current on-again-off-again schedule is silly, an artifact from many decades ago. Our current small game hunting schedule leaves kids and oldsters alike out in the cold with nothing to hunt if they can’t get to deer camp, or if they do kill a deer and want to keep on hunting. Hunters deserve maximum opportunities that do not degrade or put wildlife populations at risk, and adding a few extra days won’t hurt anything, but they will help hunters tremendously. Put another way, the risk of changing this is very low to non–existent, and the benefits are huge. Well, what is the risk, really?

b) Allow the use of snares in rural WMUs and/or on private lands. Cable restraints are an important trapping tool under any circumstances, and especially so as we experience ever-increasing freeze-thaw-freeze-thaw winters, with rain no less. These weird winter conditions render traditional footholds nearly useless both early and late in the season. Cable restraints can function better than footholds under those conditions, but they just are not sufficient for the big coyotes we are encountering. Getting coyotes into cable restraints is tough enough, and holding them there is even tougher. Chew-throughs of our cables are common, where a snare would positively catch the coyote and hold it, bringing it to hand and into the bag. In rural areas (or on private land) there is a far lower expectation or risk of a pet or feral dog or cat being caught. We are ceding too much to the anti-trappers by prohibiting snares where they can do the best good. A pet is an animal that lives in a home. Eliminating a very useful tool because of some vague or low-probability worry is not good policy. We can do better, and snares are much better than cable restraints in general, and particularly in the northern Big Woods areas. Also, CR certification can only be done right in person, through hands-on training. This online certification is going to lead to problems, especially where CRs are used like snares.

c) Allow the use of body-grip (Conibear) traps outside water courses, specifically on running-pole sets for fishers, bobcats, and raccoons. Like the snare situation above, our trapping regulations are unrealistic, they are too conservative, penalizing law-abiding trappers because of vague fears that under reasonable circumstances will not happen. Securing body-grip traps up off the ground is well out of the reach of dogs and domestic cats. Separately, if a pet owner lets their animal out the door to run free, where it can trespass, be hit by a car, be eaten by a coyote or fox or hawk, or get hurt in a fight with another animal, then they do not truly care about it and it is not a real “pet.” Pennsylvania trappers do not deserve to be hurt because of others’ irresponsible behavior. Elsewhere in America, the use of bodygrips on running pole sets is very effective and humane. We can stick with the #160 size as the maximum.

d) Extend the fisher trapping season and areas. Trappers in Berks and Lebanon Counties have told me of catching fishers in their sets, and we are seeing them in Dauphin County. There is no good reason why we cannot extend where and when we trap these abundant predators. Incidentally, they eat bobcats and turkeys, and it would be silly to expect fishers to simply harmoniously co-exist with other animals. They are a voracious predator and they will have a disproportionate impact on predator and prey populations alike if allowed to expand unchecked. Fishers are cool animals and I am all for having them in our ecosystems. What is lacking now are the mountain lions and wolves that in the distant past would have eaten them, and kept them in balance with other wildlife. We humans now fulfill the role of lions and wolves. Let us at ’em.

e) Make sure bobcat populations can sustain these long trapping and hunting seasons. We are seeing a lot less bobcat sign and fewer bobcats on our trail cameras. This was the first year we did not get a bobcat through either trapping or calling in 2G and 4C, and while this may be just our observation, we are concerned. If bobcat harvests must be reduced, then we prefer that it come out of their hunting season. There is a ton of hunting opportunities in Pennsylvania, and not a lot of great trapping opportunities. Heck, muskrats are practically extinct, coyotes have eaten most of the red fox in the southcentral, and possums are clogging nearly every trap. Let us keep our bobcat trapping intact.

f) Reinstate concurrent buck and doe deer hunting. We are seeing a high number of deer nearly every place we hunt (WMUs 2G, 4C, 3A, 5C, 5D). Deer populations are definitely lower than in 2001, and deer are harder to hunt now than then, but the quality is unbelievable, and the herd can sustain both doe and buck hunting. Pennsylvania is now a real trophy destination, so keep up the scientific management, which would include allowing hunting on Christmas Day.

g) Expand the bear season by one day in WMUs 2G and 4C, or rearrange the season entirely. There are an awful lot of bears everywhere, especially in 2G and 4C. On the Friday before bear season starts, we see loads of bears having tea and crumpets in the back yard. They are watching football and hanging out leisurely in reclining chairs. Come Opening Day through Wednesday, we might see the hind end of a bear or two, or we might occasionally harvest a bear, if we work hard enough. By deer season opening day the following week, the bears are back to having tea and crumpets in the back yard, hardly disturbed by all our hunting efforts. Another way to address this is to make bear and deer seasons concurrent, at least for one week, and perhaps start that concurrent season the week of Thanksgiving.

h) Do more to end wildlife feeding. We continue to see mangy bears, and deer baiting under the guise of “helping” wildlife through artificial feeding. It’s not good for the animals, and can actually be bad. People also feed wildlife to entice game animals away from (other) hunters. This is a cultural practice that PGC needs to do more to end, through education and enforcing the bear feeding regulation.

Thank you for considering our comments. We do love the PGC and admire your field staff, especially.

Josh and Isaac First (father and son)

Harrisburg, PA

Being Human: What is Your Rite of Passage

A rite of passage is quintessentially human. It goes back to our very beginnings as a species.
Achieving some important goal that separates children from adults, dependents from the self-reliant is a critical step in being a whole, healthy human.
Few opportunities exist in today’s material West. Playing video games in a virtual reality is the opposite of achievement, the opposite of reality. Compare the virtual lifestyle to the refugee survivors in Iraq and Syria. The adults there who managed to get their families to safety. They are real people, survivors. They are due respect.
This coming Monday is the Pennsylvania deer season opener. For rifle hunters.
About 700,000 hunters will go afield here on Monday.
For the youngsters among them, killing a deer is an important rite of passage. Hunting skills are as old as our species, and to many these skills are sacred.
Just because Giant has cheap meat doesn’t mean humans should trade away the most important skill set we can have.
Never know when you’ll need it again.
What’s your family’s rite of passage?

Bear and Deer Seasons in the Rearview Mirror

The old joke about Pennsylvania having just two seasons rings as true today as it did fifty years ago: Road construction season in the Keystone State seems to be a nine-month-long affair everywhere we go, a testament to how not to overbuild public infrastructure, if you cannot maintain it right.

And the two-week rifle deer season brings out the passion among nearly one million hunters like an early Christmas morning for little kids (I doubt the Hanukkah bush thing ever took off).  All year long people plan their hunts with friends and relatives, take off from work, spend lots of money on gear, equipment, ammunition, food, and gas, and then go off to some place so they can report back their tales of cold and wet and woe to their warmer family members at home. These deer hunts are exciting adventures on the cheap. No bungee jumping, mountain cliff climbing, jumping through flaming hoops or parachuting out of airplanes are needed to generate the thrill of a lifetime as a deer or bear in range gives you a chance to be the best human you can be.

Both bear and deer seasons flew by too fast, and I wish I could do them over, not because I have regrets, but because these moments are so rare, and so meaningful. I love being in the wild, and the cold temperatures give me impetus to keep moving.

One reflection on these seasons is how the incredible acorn crop state-wide kept bear and deer from having to leave their mountain fortresses to find food. Normally animals must move quite a bit to find the browse and nuts they need to nourish their bodies. Well, not this year. Even yesterday I was tripping over super abundant acorns lying on every trail, human or animal made.

When acorns are still lying in the middle of a trail in December, where animals walk, then you know there are a lot of nuts, because normally those low-hanging fruits would be gobbled right up weeks ago.

After still hunting and driving off the mountain I hunt on most up north, it became clear the bear and deer were holed up in two very rugged, remote, laurel-choked difficult places to hunt. Any human approach is quickly heard, seen, or smelled, giving the critters their chance to simply walk away before the clumsy human arrives. All these animals had to do was get up a couple times a day, stretch, walk three feet and eat as many acorns as they want, and then return to their hidden beds.

This made killing them very difficult, and the lower bear and deer harvests show that. God help us if Sudden Oak Death blight hits Pennsylvania, because that will spell the end of the abundant game animals we enjoy, as well as the dominant oak forests they live in.

The second reflection is how we had no snow until Friday afternoon, two days ago, and by then we had already sidehilled on goat paths, and climbed steep mountains, as much as we were going to at that late point in the season. With snow, hunting is a totally different experience: The quarry stands out against the white back ground, making them easier to spot and kill, and snow tracking shows you where they were, where they were going, and when. These are big advantages to the hunter. Only on Friday afternoon did we see all the snowy tracks up top, leading over the steep edge into Truman Run. With another two hours, we could have done a small push and killed a couple deer. But not this year. Maybe in flintlock season!

And finally, I reflect on the people and the beautiful wild places we visited.

I already miss the time I spent with my son on stand the first week. He was with me when I took a small doe with a historic rifle that had not killed since October 1902, the last time its first owner hunted and a month before the gun was essentially put into storage until now.

And then my son had a terrible case of buck fever when a huge buck walked past him well within range of his Ruger .357 Magnum rifle, and he missed, fell down, and managed to somehow eject the clip and throw the second live round into the leaves while the deer kept moseying on by. When I found my son minutes later, he was sitting in a pile of leaves where the deer had stood, throwing the leaves around and crying in a rage that we needed to get right after the deer and hunt them down. The boy was a mess. It was delightful to watch.

I miss the wonderful men I hunted with, and I miss watching other parents take their own kids out, to pass on the ancient skill set as old as humankind.

It is an unfortunate necessity to point out that powerline contractor Haverfield ruined the Opening Day of deer season for about three dozen hunters by arriving unannounced and trespassing in force to access a powerline for annual maintenance in Dauphin County. We witnessed an unparalleled arrogance, dismissiveness, and incompetence by Haverfield staff and ownership that boggles the mind. I am a small business owner, and I’d be bankrupt in three days if I behaved like that. Only the intervention of a Pennsylvania Game Commission Wildlife Conservation Officer saved the day, and that was because the Haverfield fools were going onto adjoining State Game Lands, where they also had no business being during deer season.

Kudos to PPL staff for helping us resolve this so it never happens again.

Folks, we will see you in flintlock season, just around the corner. Now it is time to trap for the little ground predators that raid the nests of ducks, geese, grouse, turkey, woodcock, and migratory songbirds. If you hate trapping, then you hate cute little ducklings, because the super overabundant raccoons, possums, skunks, fox, and coyotes I pursue eat their eggs in the nests, and they eat the baby birds when they are most vulnerable.

 

Hunting licenses, 1976 and 2015

Since my first hunting license adorned my back way back in 1976-1977, a lot has changed in the Pennsylvania landscape.

For example, wild game then so abundant that you could go out and shoot a couple for dinner is now practically extirpated.

Why pheasants and quail disappeared from Pennsylvania is a big debate with no clear answers. Loss of farmland to sprawl, low density development is one. Changes in farming practices is another; fallow fields had the best habitat. A plethora of winged and four legged predators cannot be discounted. Successfully rebounding populations of raptors like hawks and owls for sure ate a lot of plump pheasants. But why a sudden and dramatic crash?

Conservation successes since 1976 are plentiful and say a lot about wildlife biology. Wild turkey populations, fishers, bobcats and other animals once thought completely gone are now firmly in our lives, whether we see them, or not.

An interesting dynamic is playing out at our hunting camp. This year we have a virtual carpet of oak and hickory seedlings unlike anything we saw over the past 15 years we’ve owned it. Why?

Conventional wisdom is the deer population is low, and it’s true that it’s lower than it has been in 15 years. That is, deer are known eaters of acorns and tree seedlings. Fewer deer means more of both.

However, another factor seems to be playing out with these newly abundant tree seedlings. Where we once had an incredible overload of tree rats, aka squirrels, the new fishers have eaten them all. Like all of them. Not one tree rat remains in our carefully cultivated forest of white oaks. We see fisher tracks. We neither see nor hear squirrels.

As squirrels are known eaters of acorns and hickories, it stands to reason that their absence means more acorns and hickories hatching into baby trees.

Add a long icy winter that appears to have crushed our local wild turkey populations, also known for eating nuts, and the right conditions emerge to help a forest rebound and grow some new stock, a huge challenge we aggressively tackle every year.

So, my son getting his first hunting license yesterday is now entering a landscape that in some ways is just as dynamic as the one I began hunting so long ago.  What a difference these landscapes were and are, and who would’ve guessed the fishers would be responsible for oak and hickory forests regenerating?

A lot has changed in our wildlife landscapes, and yet not much has changed in my lifetime. Different animals, same kind of population changes, variations, pressures. One thing I keep reminding myself: It’s all natural, these changes. And while some are painful to see, like the loss of pheasants, other opportunities open up. Never would I have imagined in 1976, nor would any PA Game Commission staff, that in 2015 my son would get a bobcat tag and a fisher tag with his license.

Totally different opportunity than chasing pheasants in corn fields, but still good.

Aggressive timber management necessary in the Northeast

When I tell some people how aggressively we try to manage standing timber (forests), they often recoil.  It sounds so destructive, so environmentally wrong.

It is not environmentally damaging, but I will be the first to admit that the weeks and months after a logging operation often look like hell on the landscape: Tops everywhere, exposed dirt, skid trails, a tangled mess where an open woods had stood for the past sixty to eighty years just weeks before.  No question, it is not the serene scene we all enjoyed beforehand.

This “clearcutting” gets a bad name from poor forestry practices out West and because of urban and suburban lawn aesthetics being misapplied to dynamic natural forests.

However, if we do not aggressively manage the forest, and the tree canopy above it, then we end up with tree species like black birch and red maple as the dominant trees in what should be, what otherwise would be a diverse and food-producing environment. Non-native and fire-sensitive species like ailanthus are quickly becoming a problem, as well.

When natural forest fires swept through our northeastern forests up until 100 years ago, these fire-sensitive species (black birch, red maple) were killed off, and nut trees like oaks, hickories, and chestnuts thrived.  Animals like bears, deer, turkey, Allegheny woodrats, and every other critter under the sun survived on those nut crops every fall.

Without natural fire, which is obviously potentially destructive and scary, we must either set small prescribed fires, or aggressively remove the overhead tree canopy to get sufficient sunlight onto the forest floor to pop, open, and regenerate the next generation of native trees.  Deer enjoy browsing young tree sprouts, so those tasty oaks, hickories, etc that lack sufficient sunlight to grow quickly usually become stunted shrubs, at best, due to constant deer nibbling.  Sunlight is the key here.

And there is no way to get enough sunlight onto the forest floor and its natural seed bed without opening up the tree canopy above it.  And that requires aggressive tree removal.

Northeastern forests typically have deep enough soils, sufficient rainfall, and gentle enough slopes to handle aggressive timber management.  Where my disbelieving eyes have seen aggressive management go awry is out west, in the steep Rockies, where 1980s “regeneration cuts” on ancient forests had produced zero trees 25 years later.  In fact, deep ravines had resulted from the flash-flooding that region is known for, and soil was being eroded into pristine waterways.  So, aggressive timber management is not appropriate for all regions, all topography, or all soils.

But here in the northeast, we go out of our way to leave a huge mess behind after we log.  Why? Because how things appear on their surface has nothing to do with how they perform natural functions.  Those tangled tree tops provide cover for the next generation of trees and wildflowers, turtles and snakes, and help prevent soil erosion by blocking water and making it move slowly across the landscape.

Indeed, a correctly managed northeastern forest is no place for urban or suburban landscape aesthetics, which often dictate bad “select cut” methods that work against the long term health and diversity of the forest, as well as against the tax-paying landowner.

So the next time you see a forest coming down, cheer on the landowner, because they are receiving needed money to pay for the land.  Cheer on the loggers and the timber buyers, the mills and manufacturing plants, and the retailers of furniture, flooring, and kitchen cabinets, because they all are part of a great chain of necessary economic activity that at its core is sustainable, renewable, natural, and quintessentially good.

An outdoor lifestyle, halfway through the season (to hunt is human)

Most of the readers who visit this blog are not outdoors folk. Feats, exploits, and the inevitable tales of woe, cold, and misery from the field would naturally bore, or at best morbidly fascinate, the non-hunter.

Nevertheless, here we go, for the first time here, on a midway retrospective of a singular hunting season still unfolding.

Hunting for most hunters is a way of life literally built into our genes. We do what humans have done since the rise of Homo Sapiens upon Planet Earth: Hunt animals that we eat, wear, and admire. While the Pleistocene ended only 20,000 years ago, it is marked by the full arrival of adept hunter-gatherers who had spent tens of thousands of previous years perfecting their lifestyle.

Humans have been hunters and gatherers for 100,000 years, or 60,000 years, depending upon how long one believes Homo Sapiens has been human.

We have been agrarian for what…10,000 years at the most generous definition of the sedentary lifestyle, but closer to 5,000 years for most humans.

After that, the most modern, most technologically advanced, most “civilized” humans have lived through the Industrial Revolution (400 years), the Technological Revolution (150 years), the Information Revolution (50 years and ongoing). Combined, that’s a total of 600 years out of a total of 60,000 years.

At our core we are all hunter-gatherers. Scratch our civilized surface, and right underneath we are all spear-toting, skin-clad hunters.

To hunt is innately human. Hunting makes us human.

In other words, although many people today look at our current effete, energy-intensive Western lifestyle and think of it as being the peak of human civilization, some of us see this civilization as becoming complacent, detached from the reality of natural resource management necessary to support this modern lifestyle, hypocritical.

When someone believes it is morally superior to have an assassin kill their meat for them than to kill it themselves, you’ve got an unsustainable logical break. Similarly, people want “the government” to protect them, and they want to prevent citizens from protecting themselves, and those same citizens cannot hold the same government accountable when it fails.
Western civilization is full of this weak thinking. In my opinion, Western society is becoming hollow, a shell, full of contradictions.

The hunting lifestyle is a powerful antidote. It is a dose of reality inserted into a cloudy drugged up dream.

So far, this season has been marked by time afield in the most beautiful places in several states with long time friends, new friends, my young son, other kids, and by myself. Like our Pleistocene ancestors, the feeling of the pack on my back and the game-getter in my right hand is about the most natural and satisfying feeling possible.

A number of deer have fallen to various firearms, a Fall turkey, a colorful pheasant; there’s a bunch of photos commemorating the times for the results-oriented. My best moment was late at night, checking a trap with my boy, and finding a large bobcat. There for about four hours, it had really no taste for humans and represented the wilderness in all its wildness.

Catching a bobcat is a real achievement in the world of hunting and trapping, and I confess it was with great mixed emotions that we dispatched it and brought it to Butch at Blue Mountain Taxidermy. Even if a bobcat is again in one of our traps during the short bobcat season, we will release it. One is enough for a lifetime.

One bobcat trophy represents a lifetime of time afield, or 60,000 years.