Sunday, June 07, 2009

PENNSYLVANIA NEWS: A View on Deer Management Policy from Latham's Acre

EMPORIUM, Pa.—Thousands of bright green buds reached through the forest floor or peaked from the tips of branches in the shady patch of forest. On the other side of the fence: a conspicuous absence of new growth.

By late April, spring sprouts were everywhere at Latham's Acre, one of a series of cyclone-fence islands erected nearly 60 years ago on a McKean County mountaintop at North America's east-west continental divide, about 50 miles northwest of State College.

The fenced "deer exclosures" were built in 1950 by Roger Latham, a biologist and head researcher for the Pennsylvania Game Commission before he became the outdoors editor of the former Pittsburgh Press.

Latham died in a mountain accident in the Alps in 1979, but each spring the sprouts return to Latham's Acre, demonstrating the level of forest regeneration possible in the absence of over-browsing deer.

The sprouts, and the lack of them outside the exclosure, provided a timely lesson for a dozen members of the Village Garden Club of Sewickley, based about 10 miles northwest of Pittsburgh. Members traveled over 150 miles northeast to Emporium to compare the impacts of deer over-browsing in McKean County with the white-tail problems they face at home in Allegheny County.

The spring growth at Latham's Acre coincided with new skirmishes in an ideological battle that pits the Game Commission against many deer hunters, who question the science behind a controversial plan to balance regional white-tail populations with habitat by manipulating hunting seasons, bag limits and antler restrictions.

A national study of white-tail management conducted by the Pinchot Institute for Conservation in Washington, D.C., found that Pennsylvania is ahead of many states in attaining parity in deer population and habitat, but problems exist with the program's methodology.

The Pinchot study examined agencies throughout the United States that use science-based methods to manage deer populations and maintain healthy forest ecosystems. It cited 2002-2003 stakeholder surveys conducted by the Game Commission in which Pennsylvanians told the commonwealth they ranked "healthy, sustainable forest ecosystems" as their top goal for deer management.

Pinchot researchers noted the state is one of only a few with a written deer plan, calling it "one of the most progressive deer management programs in the country." But they found the program's goals "fall short of what the public has said it wants." The study recommended the Game Commission take critical new steps, including:

—Developing better science-based indicators of deer impacts on forests.

—Employing more staff to focus on ecosystem science.

—Improving methods for determining public expectations on what deer management should achieve.

This April in Harrisburg, the state House Legislative Budget and Finance Committee hired another Washington, D.C.-based conservation organization to conduct an independent audit of the deer management plan. The audit stems from a House bill authored by state Rep. David Levdansky, D-Elizabeth, and unanimously approved by the House in 2008.

Levdansky, treasurer of the Budget and Finance Committee and member of the House Game and Fisheries Committee, said the goal is to "remove the guesswork" from the deer management program.

"This independent audit...will help us determine if we are harvesting the right number of deer, of the right age and sex ratio, in the right places," he said. "It has been a challenge to locate a qualified and objective company from outside Pennsylvania to perform the audit, which is important for obtaining an independent review."

A Game Commission representative said the agency welcomes the audit.

Up at Latham's Acre, in State Game Land 30, the ground is awash with new wildflowers, and fresh buds shoot from shoulder-high branches. Outside the fence, the forest is barren of new growth from the carpet of dead leaves to the browse line about 5 feet off the ground. Soil acidity, rainfall and other factors are identical on both sides of the fence. Game Commission Wildlife Conservation Officer John Dzemyan, who's worked on the mountain since the 1970s, hikes past muddy patches surrounding the exclosure pocked with telltale deer tracks.

State Game Land 30, like most of Pennsylvania, was clear cut for timber in the late 1800s and early 1900s, nearly decimating the deer population, said Dzemyan. As vegetation re-grew, the state became a white-tail smorgasbord and populations soared. But by the late 1930s, as forests matured and the canopy grew out of reach, deer found it increasingly difficult to find food. With natural predators removed and hunting managed to put unnatural numbers of deer in front of hunters, he said, a problem grew with the state's deer herd—too many to be sustained by habitat in some places, not enough in others.

The state game land is located in the heart of the Pennsylvania Wilds, in Wildlife Management Unit 2G, where the deer population has been intentionally reduced as part of the deer management plan.

"By going to some of these fenced areas you can see the difference," said Dzemyan. "You can get an idea of what kind of wildflower understory there should be over perhaps hundreds of thousands of acres up here."

A prolific understory, he said, is essential to the health of the deer herd and vital to other animals. Latham and the Game Commission were preaching deer control decades ago.

"But when it came to actually getting it done," said Dzemyan, "there was so much political and social pressure against that, due to misunderstanding, that we couldn't get it through. (Some in the Game Commission) wanted to keep that deer herd high, not understanding that keeping it that high was going to cause long-term problems."

After intentionally reducing the deer herd in 2G, the 2009-2010 doe tag allocation of 26,000 licenses reflects an effort by commission biologists to continue stabilizing the population. Dzemyan said he's seen deer numbers rising incrementally, but it's still "less than hunters are used to."

To Ann Coburn, president of the Village Garden Club, the absence of browse just outside Latham's Acre offered a stark contrast to the flower show inside.

"I was very impressed to learn that the reduction in the deer herd from the issuing of doe licenses has made a reduction in the number of deer and a noticeable gain in the quality and variety of plant life," she said. "The major lesson that we learned going north was how pervasive the problem of deer overgrazing is and how almost scary it was to see huge tracks of woods that are cleared bare, (much like) the limited tracts we have here in Allegheny County. In short, something needs to be done."

Source: York Daily Record