As we plod through a rather soggy March, the Pennsylvania Game Commission has finally released its “estimated” harvest numbers.
Although more hunters reported their harvests during the 2015-16 deer seasons, the commission’s harvest estimates are based on more than 24,000 deer checked by Game Commission personnel, and more than 100,000 harvest reports submitted by successful hunters.
As I write this, the commission reports that “agency staff currently is working to develop 2016-17 antlerless deer license allocation recommendations, which will be considered at the April 5 meeting of the Board of Game Commissioners.” Wayne Laroche, Game Commission Bureau of Wildlife Management director, said that in addition to harvest data, staff will be looking at deer health measures, forest regeneration and deer-human conflicts for each Wildlife Management Unit (WMU).
You will note that predation from both black bears and coyotes aren’t listed as a consideration.
The commissioners will be asked to set the number of antlerless licenses at their April meeting, and as always will be bombarded by those who want more deer, and those who want fewer.
According to the report, hunters harvested an estimated 315,813 deer – an increase of about 4 percent compared to the 2014-15 harvest of 303,973. Those estimates concluded that 137,580 were antlered deer – an increase of about 15 percent compared to the previous license year, when an estimated 119,260 bucks were taken. Hunters also harvested an estimated 178,233 antlerless deer in 2015-16, which represents about a 4 percent decrease compared to the 184,713 antlerless deer taken in 2014-15.
I find it rather amazing that “estimates” can be so precise, but will not question their validity. The commission credits the increase in buck harvest to antler restrictions, something that was designed to allow bucks to reach an older age. According to the Pennsylvania Game Commission, 59 percent of whitetail bucks taken by Pennsylvania hunters during the 2015-16 deer seasons were 2 1/2 years old or older, making for the highest percentage of adult bucks harvested in decades.
Game Commission Wildlife Management Director Wayne Laroche pointed out the trend of more adult bucks in the harvest started when antler restrictions were put into place. More yearling bucks are making it through the first hunting season, even though they carry a rack. Season after season, a greater proportion of the annual buck harvest has been made of adult bucks.
In 2014-15, 57 percent of the bucks taken by hunters were 2 1/2 years of age or older. “But, to see that number now at nearly 60 percent is remarkable,” Laroche said. “It goes to show what antler restrictions have accomplished – they’ve created a Pennsylvania where every deer hunter in the woods has a real chance of taking the buck of a lifetime.”
It’s true that many bucks being harvested are now carrying larger racks, on the whole, than they had in the past, and most hunters I’ve talked to agree with antler restrictions. Taking the time to be sure the buck you have before you is legal is a common complaint, and more than one buck has either escaped, or was sent onto another hunter.
According to the commission, while the 137,580 bucks taken in 2015-16 is a sharp increase over 2014-15, it compares to a 2013-14 estimate of 134,280 bucks. In 2014-15, a number of factors, including poor weather on key hunting days, and limited deer movement due to exceptionally abundant mast, contributed to a reduced deer harvest overall.
Although the number of bucks taken was higher than last year, the number of antlerless deer taken decreased significantly. The Game Commission was quick to give their explanation: “The decrease in the 2015-16 antlerless harvest was a predictable outcome, given that 33,000 fewer antlerless licenses were allocated statewide in 2015-16, compared to the previous year.”
“Reducing the allocation within a Wildlife Management Unit allows deer numbers to grow there. Records show it takes an allocation of about four antlerless licenses to harvest one antlerless deer, and the success rate for antlerless-deer hunters again was consistent at about 25 percent in 2015-16.”
Hunters harvested an estimated 178,233 antlerless deer in 2015-16, which represents about a 4 percent decrease compared to the 184,713 antlerless deer taken in 2014-15. Keep in mind however, that in 2014-15, the same factors affecting the buck harvest that I mentioned previously, also contributed to a reduced deer harvest overall.
The antlerless harvest included about 63 percent adult females, 20 percent button bucks, and roughly 17 percent doe fawns. The rates are similar to long-term averages.
An interesting fact that I gleaned from the reports is that the archery harvest for bucks continues to rise. I chose one at random from our sector of the state, and quickly noted that archery hunters took over half of the bucks in WMU 5B, which includes Lebanon County. The total harvest of bucks was 8,000, and archery hunters took 4,430 of those. But, when it came to antlerless deer, the figures show their success rate was much lower. Of the 11,500 antlerless deer taken, archery hunters only harvested 3,790.
What transpires at the commission’s April meeting is anyone’s guess. With a license increase on the way, and hunter’s trust at stake, the commissioners could issue the same number of antlerless licenses as they did last year, or they could cut them. Of course, with a wide variety of interest groups, they could increase them in many WMU’s.
As I reported before, harvest on private lands seems to far exceed those on public lands, and I don’t see that changing in the near future. The outcome of this meeting is considered by most hunters to be the most significant of the year, and I will keep you updated about the results.
In other news, it is time to check you fishing gear, as trout season(s) begins in a few weeks. Keep in mind that the “Regional Trout Season” opens on April 2, on all waters in Adams, Berks, Bucks, Chester, Cumberland, Dauphin, Delaware, Franklin, Juniata, Lancaster, Lebanon, Lehigh, Montgomery, Northampton, Perry, Philadelphia, Schuylkill and York counties.
What is now known as the “Statewide Season” begins on April 16. Make sure to purchase your fishing license if you haven’t already done so, and maybe introduce a youngster to this enjoyable sport.