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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.

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.