The Deer Wars

The battle over Pennsylvania's whitetails is getting ugly.

Field & Stream Online Editors

Gary Alt, wildlife biologist, and Greg Levengood, financial adviser, are Pennsylvania deer hunters with a lot in common. They have spent most of their 50-odd years pursuing whitetails in the same storied woods that their fathers and grandfathers hunted before them, and that their children will hunt in after they are gone. They count times spent deer hunting among the most meaningful of their lives.

And each thinks the other is a serious threat to that tradition.

"What Gary's plan has done here in Pennsylvania is guaranteed to kill hunting," says Levengood. "We're fed up with it."

Alt, the former Pennsylvania Game Commission deer management section supervisor, has the opposite opinion. "That attitude poses a bigger threat to the future of hunting than antihunters do," he says. "Right now in Pennsylvania, some hunters are the sport's worst enemy."

Levengood and Alt represent the opposing sides in a civil war that has broken out among Pennsylvania's million-plus deer hunters. And in a state where deer hunting ranks with God and family (no one will say in what order), the battle has spilled over into the mainstream media, politics, and courtrooms.

Both sides agree it's all about two things: how many deer should be in the woods, and-perhaps most important-who should decide what that number will be. But that's where the common ground ends.

"Hunters pay for this management," says Ralph Saggiomo, president of Unified Sportsmen of Pennsylvania, who's been chasing Keystone whitetails since 1946. "We pay for most of the 1.5 million acres of public hunting lands the state is privileged to have, and our wishes should be heard."

TO HELL WITH HABITAT
The conflict started in 1999 when Alt left the state bear program he'd steered to national acclaim and took the deer position, traditionally one of the hottest seats in state service. Alt knew the risks but was eager to start.

"I could see what the lack of science-based management was doing to that sport and its future," he says. "If I had to sacrifice my career, it would be worth it."

Alt felt that his state was stuck in a politically mandated program of raising more deer than the habitat could support. That mind-set had its roots in the 1920s, when much of the eastern United States was restocking deer in conjunction with reforestation, and Pennsylvania's deer population was low to nonexistent in parts of the state. [NEXT "Story Continued Here..."]

"Governments were very protective of deer then, so the tradition of never shooting the does took hold," Alt says. "In a few years, hunters were used to seeing hundreds of deer. That's what they've wanted ever since-and to hell with what it's doing to the habitat."

Alt believes that overbrowsing by deer has hit other wildlife hard, including game species like grouse and wild turkey, and that it has been setting up a collapse for deer as well.

"Deer explosions are like forest fires: Where they crop up first is where they burn out first. The areas where [BRACKET "their numbers exploded"] in the 1930s-the north-central counties-now have the lowest deer densities. There is no understory there," he says. "If you put up a fence in that area around even a small section of forest to restrict deer, the results are staggering. Inside the fence it's a jungle, outside nothing but ferns." Alt concluded that overbrowsing was a serious problem and a population crash would occur in the rest of the state if regulations were not changed.

By 2002 the Pennsylvania Game Commission agreed that a new approach was needed in order to protect the forests and improve herd health by balancing the buck-to-doe ratio. So they voted for new regulations to increase the harvest of does and restrict that of bucks. The traditional 12-day buck season and separate three-day antlerless season was dropped in favor of 12 days of coined buck and antlerless hunting; additional doe tags were available for special management areas; and the standard rule of at least one spike 3 inches long became 3-points-per-side in most areas, 4 points in others.

A "DECIMATED" POPULATION
The impact was immediate: The buck harvest dropped by 19 percent, and the antlerless harvest jumped by 25 percent. The blend of increased doe tags and higher antler restrictions resulted in bigger bucks, a benefit that gained Alt support among many, like Susquehanna County hunter Brian Sipe. "We've seen an increase in the size of bucks on our property," he says. "We're big supporters of the change, and Gary Alt."

But something else happened as well. Hunters used to seeing 20 to 50 deer a day were now seeing four or five a week. The decline was greatest in the north-central counties. Frustration turned to anger, and Unified Sportsmen of Pennsylvania grew and became vocal.

[NEXT "Story Continued Here..."] "We were against that plan from the beginning," says Saggiomo. "We knew it was only a matter of time until they decimated the deer population on those lands."

Unified claims that the game managers have it wrong-that the habitat isn't suffering from overbrowsing but from acid rain due to power plants. "We have the highest acid deposition in the country, and a forest canopy in places where sunlight can't hit the ground. Under those conditions it looks like deer overbrowsed," says Levengood, Unified's chairman.

Alt disagrees, saying that the north-central part of his state is likely suffering from recent severe winters-and poor herd health due to overbrowsing. "I wasn't in charge of Vermont, New Hampshire, and New York, so why is the number of deer in those areas also down?"

Many hunters became even more uneasy last winter after a report came out from the Deer Management Forum, a committee that included hunters and deer biologists, but that was convened by Audubon Pennsylvania and also included nonhunters. The report supported Alt's methods and suggested that stakeholders other than hunters have a voice in the decisions.

"There is a fear of losing control of what we love, have fought for, and have paid for," says Ray Martin, a board member of the Pennsylvania Federation of Sportsmen's Clubs. "But we're willing to give the management plan a chance. We hope the commission can fine-tune this thing."

The game commission would try-but without Alt. He resigned in December citing political pressure.

LIFE AFTER ALT
On April 26, the commission gave final approval to its new regulations. While it left the 12-day buck-and-antlerless framework in place, it reduced the antlerless license allocation on wildlife management units from 880,000 last season to 720,000 this year. Some of the most significant reductions were in the controversial north-central portions of the state. The commission, however, also authorized additional doe harvests on certain deer-damaged public and private lands, which could result in an additional 24,000 doe tags.[NEXT "Story Continued Here..."]

It wasn't enough for Unified, which wanted to revert to the three-day antlerless seasons of the past. The end result, says Saggiomo, was "no change at all." And his organization is beyond unhappy. They have consulted a lawyer and plan to bring their cause to state court. "We're not anti-commission," he says. "We want them to be independent and free from outside influences. But they should be concerned about hunters first. That's their job."

Alt was equally unhappy. "There's one word that comes to my mind for this action: malpractice," he says. "This might make a small but vocal minority of deer hunters happy, but it ignores the broader responsibilities of the agency to the state, and to the other wildlife that use these forests. The commission couldn't take the political heat. That's why I resigned. I didn't want to be part of this organization when they turned their back on scientific wildlife management. This is no longer just about hunting-it's a social and environmental issue that is 100 times larger than our sport. If we can't act responsibly, we'll be out on our ear."

But hunters like Ray Martin worry that the drop in deer could also claim the sport's future. "When you take kids out and they don't see deer, they lose interest, and they're our future," he says. "We have to be sure. And right now, I don't think anyone is sure in Pennsylvania." hy I resigned. I didn't want to be part of this organization when they turned their back on scientific wildlife management. This is no longer just about hunting-it's a social and environmental issue that is 100 times larger than our sport. If we can't act responsibly, we'll be out on our ear."

But hunters like Ray Martin worry that the drop in deer could also claim the sport's future. "When you take kids out and they don't see deer, they lose interest, and they're our future," he says. "We have to be sure. And right now, I don't think anyone is sure in Pennsylvania."