Sunday, April 18, 2010

PENNSYLVANIA NEWS: WMI Audit Complete, Transparency Sought

A scientific review designed to deflate some of the controversy over the management of deer in Pennsylvania may instead promote it.

The Wildlife Management Institute recently completed a review of the Game Commission's methods for managing deer in the state. It was largely complimentary.

Scot Williamson, vice president of the Washington, D.C.-based institute, told members of the General Assembly's Legislative Budget and Finance Committee Tuesday at the state Capitol that the commission's deer program is "scientifically sound" and based on a "credible model."

"But there is room for continuous improvement," he said.

It was one of his team's recommendations for making things better that has already sparked lots of debate.

Williamson pointed out that Game Commission biologists have been estimating deer populations both statewide and within each of the state's 22 wildlife management units. They have not been making those numbers public, however.

He suggested that needs to change.

Keeping the numbers hidden "has weakened the trust placed in the Pennsylvania Game Commission by the public and has affected the agency's credibility."

Carl Roe, the commission's executive director, defended the agency's practice of staying away from numbers.

For decades, the commission estimated deer populations and released those to the public. That did nothing to eliminate controversy over whether the number of deer in the wild fit the available habitat, he said.

That's why the commission has more recently tried to get hunters and others to look at deer impacts rather than deer numbers alone, he said.

"In reality, that actual estimate is irrelevant to (the deer herd's) effect," Roe said.

"We trained (hunters) to look at deer numbers per square mile. We're trying to shift that to get them to look at forest regeneration.

That's all well and good, said state Rep. Dave Levdansky, the Allegheny County legislator who requested this deer audit be done. But he said the commission should share its deer population estimates, too.

"That's like saying it's important to know whether the balance on my credit card is going up or down over time, but not what the actual balance on my American Express is," Levdansky said. "No, I think they're both important."

Regardless of whether the state talks about deer in terms of numbers or impacts, though, the question of whether the deer herd is the right size figures to go on.

The audit points out that the state's deer herd has been reduced by 25 percent since 2002. Rep. Bob Godshall, a Montgomery County Republican, said Tuesday he thinks most hunters would say the herd's been shrunk considerably more than that.

He called the reduction "the decimation" of the deer population.

Yet Bill Healy, a retired U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service research biologist who collaborated on the report, said problems with forest regeneration — which has many causes — can only be addressed when deer are in balance with their food supply, and Pennsylvania may not be at that point yet.

"A 25 percent reduction looks like a big change. But it may not be quite enough," Healy said.

Deer recommendations

The Wildlife Management Institute's audit of the Game Commission's deer program called for some change. Its recommendations include:

» Discontinuing its use of counting deer embryos to measure deer health. That can work, but only if the commission were able to collect far more embryos than it is now.

» Expanding the monitoring of forest conditions to determine whether the deer program is leading to more forest regeneration.

» Refine its citizens advisory committees to include more non-hunters and/or have the committee on a statewide basis.

» Counting deer taken in the red tag, DMAP and urban deer programs more fully in its harvest totals.

Source: Pittsburgh Live

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