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Discussion Starter · #181 ·
Nesting or Fledging?
APRIL 28, 2021
Ah spring! With longer and warm days, it’s time to get out and enjoy it.
Bucks are on board with this train of thought. May is a time to stretch your legs. Find some buds. Relax and breathe a sigh of relief. They have successfully navigated another hunting season and made it through the hardest time of year.
Deer are experiencing a long awaited and deserved vacation but not all deer. There is no time for rest if you’re a doe. Seriously, when was the last time you saw your mother with a free minute?
Does are staying put. No spring fling for them. They need to get ready for fawning. Like bucks, they made it through another hunting season and the leanest time of year all while growing a set of twins.
Looking at the home ranges of our collared deer, you can see the differences between the sexes. As doe ranges dip to their lowest, bucks see a bit of a spike in May. And why not, they don’t have a care in the world. But does have the social constraints of fawn rearing limiting their movements.

It’s no secret that does shrink their home range post-partum. And while bucks are reconnecting with the guys forming bachelor groups to hang out all summer, does cancel all social engagements. The life of a dedicated (or trapped?) mother.
There have been many studies done to track deer movements and home ranges. Duane says, “Maybe too many?” Whereas it may be logical and intuitive that females with fawns shrink home range size in the summer, there are studies out there that found no difference or the opposite to be true. Some studies found that age plays a role in home range size as well. Home ranges of female roe deer decreased with increasing age. The same was documented for male white-tailed deer.
Looking at the range sizes of our collared deer we can’t really make too many generalizations. Like everything else, it’s not that simple and there are many factors at play. Individual factors like body size, sex, age, reproductive status. Habitat factors like forage availability, water, fragmentation. Environmental factors like season and weather. And even population factors like density – all play a role in how a deer “buys” his or her home.
Is it a quiet ½ acre lot in a subdivision or an estate in the countryside?
Are does nesting as we head into peak fawning season? Or are they following the buck’s lead?
The answer, like always, is “It depends.”
-Jeannine Fleegle
Wildlife Biologist
Deer and Elk Section, Game Commission
 

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Discussion Starter · #182 ·
Deer Crew Diaries – Entry 21-14
APRIL 29, 2021
[Comments in brackets are by Jeannine and Duane]
This week we made our fifth attempt to activate the release mechanism on one of the collars that is nearing the end of its battery life. It’s much easier to get to where the deer are now that the 2 ft of snow is gone, quieter too — we were able to sneak up and get eyes on the deer [an extremely rare occurrence!], but the collar didn’t release this time either. [skunked again!]
A couple days later we got a mortality alert from a doe collar and went to investigate. We found the carcass floating in a pond. This provided a good opportunity to test our blow-off device, so we plugged in the collar release code and fired! After using words like “detonate” and “blow-off mechanism,” I expected something more dramatic. But all we heard was a tiny “click”, and the collar popped open.
On Friday evening we finished up our last FLIR surveys. With our work for the season done, the three technicians set off on Saturday morning to report to their next jobs in Minnesota, Montana, and California (making cross-country drives every few months is just part of the wildlife tech lifestyle). Thank you to Haley, Morgan, and Jake for their tireless hard work and enthusiasm that helped make this season a success!
Coming up this week is data management, equipment repair, and truck maintenance – all the boring parts of field work.
-Amanda
Northern Field Crew Leader
Game Commission Deer and Elk Section

From the Southern Crew:
Hi all,
Another week of evening and nighttime FLIR surveys. We are still seeing plenty of porcupines but the crew finally spotted a bobcat! Since we haven’t seen a bobcat yet on any of our surveys, it took a hot minute for us to realize what it actually was. It wasn’t until we shined the spotlight out the window which caused him to run across a downed tree that we collectively realized we were watching a bobcat the entire time! That has been the extent of our excitement during our surveys.
Towards the end of the week we finished our first round of surveys so now the plan is to run them in reverse direction until my crew runs out of hours finishing up their time with the Game Commission! It’s hard to believe that they are almost done.
The crew and I also took a quick trip over to Harrisburg to drop off a surplus truck as well as pick up 2 more. It all went relatively smooth until one had a dead battery and we found ourselves with no jumper cables. Thankfully somebody else recently dropped off a surplus truck which had jumper cables sitting inside! Thanks to whoever forgot those cables!
Have a good week!
-Levi
Southern Field Crew Leader
Game Commission Deer and Elk Section
 

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Discussion Starter · #183 ·
Deer Crew Diaries – Entry 21-15
MAY 6, 2021
Field season is over, and the crews have pretty much disbanded. There is a lot of anxiety associated with deer trapping and it’s always a relief when we have a successful and productive year. Thanks to all!
I asked the crews for some of their favorite pictures this season. They are included in this post.
[Comments in brackets are by Jeannine and Duane]
Last week was mostly spent on clean-up from the winter season, and prep work for the summer season. I returned all the FLIR survey equipment and data to Tess at Penn State. I also spent quite a few hours cleaning our rocket-net rockets. At the beginning of the season we found a bunch had seized shut, but some PB Blaster and a table vice grip helped us get them open.

But even automotive grease on the threads wouldn’t stop them from randomly seizing again. Clearly the threads needed a good scrubbing. They also had rust, powder charge residue, and remnants of the plastic charge bags from seasons past inside them. So I opened them all up, scrubbed the inside of each tube out until the water no longer ran black and smelly, and attacked the threads of the tube and cap with a wire brush wiping away all the old gritty grease. Finally, I re-greased each rocket and replaced the caps (loosely this time!). They’re sitting on the shelf, good as new, waiting for next season.

On Friday I visited the first of the deer-exclosure vegetation monitoring plots that we’ll be collecting data on in a few weeks. I carried some fencing, t-posts, and zip ties with me to repair the ones that were sagging or had fallen over.

Everything is now fully green here, especially after all the rain we’ve had these past couple weeks. The streams are swollen with rainwater and if things don’t dry out soon, I’m going to need waders to access some of the veg plots. The migratory songbirds are back too. I’ve been hearing lots of warblers in the woods this week!
-Amanda
Northern Field Crew Leader
Game Commission Deer and Elk Section

From the Southern Crew:
Hi all,
Last week was another slower one as my crew mostly fixed some of the clover traps up by day and then they piled into the truck with all the equipment to do their FLIR surveys in the evening. I actually had the second half of the week off!

In the field, no news is good news as my crew would still always check in with me before they ventured out for work and then again once they returned to Penn Nursery for the night. With our FLIR surveys finished and the equipment all returned to Tess at PSU, it’s just another chapter finished for this year’s Deer Forest Study.

Bailey is the one crew member remaining with only a few hours left to work and she’ll be finished up before we know it. Both Sammie and Makayla are officially finished working for the study and have moved on to their next positions in the wildlife field. Sammi is heading up to Minnesota where she will be helping with a study on Monarch butterflies while Makayla is heading over to the Idaho panhandle to do habitat work! Based on what I’ve seen them do this season, I know that they’ll excel in any position in this field and that they would be an asset if they came back to trap deer!
-Levi
Southern Field Crew Leader
Game Commission Deer and Elk Section
 

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Discussion Starter · #184 ·
For the last week, I’ve been watching some very active and persistent carpenter bees. There is much chasing, bouncing off window glass, and hovering as they menacingly stare me down as I sit behind my computer.

Image by Dawn Howeth from Pixabay
It’s mating season of course. Emerging from their overwinter slumber, males and females are busy making baby bees and constructing brood tunnels. I witness the flurry of activity every day. Eggs will be laid, larval will hatch, and then, in late summer, a new generation of adult bees will burst onto the world to grab a bite to eat. After which they will all head back into a borrow for their winter nap. Cycle complete.

It’s easy to observe the life cycle of many animals. Many of those cycles are defined by the season. For deer, fawns are born in the spring; antlers grow through the summer; breeding occurs in the fall; winter comes; antlers drop; and everything starts over again. Cycle complete.

There’s another large and active group of organisms breeding right now besides the bees.

Has your nose been itching? Have a sneezing fit? Eyes look like you’ve been in a smoky bar all night?

I’ve been getting pollen alerts on my phone for weeks now. It seems like every plant, bush, and tree in the northern hemisphere is having sex. They are in the business of making babies too. It’s just not as exciting or obvious.

All that “love” in the air is on its way to making seeds but those seeds won’t be participating in the love fest for years. Trees grow slow. We can’t watch the cycle unfold like we do with carpenter bees or deer. And that’s kind of a problem. It’s hard to study and learn about something that will outlast your career.

The Deer-Forest Study is entering into its 8th year. That’s about half the lifetime of some of our tagged does and longer than the life of many of our bucks. But that’s not even halfway to an acorn being produced on an oak tree.

We love deer but the other half of the Deer-Forest Study is, of course, the forest. We are trying to learn how deer and forests interact and what other factors might be involved. And trees grow slow.

Before trees are trees, they are saplings. And before that they are seedlings (aka deer food). Forests need seedlings to feed deer and saplings to become trees in order to make more seedlings. It’s the circle of life – plant style. How many seedlings make it to sapling stage? And how long does that take? We asked Phillip Jones, a Post-Doctoral Scholar, working on these and other questions for the Deer-Forest Study.

Here’s what he had to say.

“Observing the shift from seedling to sapling is not easy. Most seedlings disappear from the scene long before reaching sapling size. For example, in fenced plots from 2014 – 2018, we tabulated 256 red oak seedlings < 1-foot tall, 111 between 1-3-foot tall, 8 between 3-5-foot tall, and only 1 > 5-foot tall. Even without the danger of being eaten by deer, most seedlings die before developing into saplings. During the course of the Deer-Forest study, we have seen pulses of seedlings come along after a good seed rain only to watch their numbers decline precipitously in subsequent years.

There is no easy answer to how long it takes a seedling to reach sapling size. Seedlings under a dense canopy may spend more energy developing their root systems as opposed to their aboveground shoots while they wait for a canopy opening to develop. If they get lucky and an opening develops (either through natural overstory death or removal through harvest), the strong root system may allow for quick growth to “take the gap.” Seedlings that develop under relatively open canopies reverse this trend, spending energy on aboveground development to beat out other seedlings competing for a place in the sun. Thus, two seedlings may be years different in age, yet still be of similar size.

Unless seedlings are tagged and followed individually, we can only estimate the time required for seedlings to develop into saplings that have grown out of reach of deer and above the light competition of dense shrub layers. Studies of sapling development often cut and section saplings, counting the number of growth rings at different heights to develop a growth history.

Beech and sugar maple saplings in central New York grew about 2 ½ feet in 5 years in stands cut to 73 ft2/ac, indicating an average of 20 years to reach 10 feet in height. In New Hampshire, 4 species common to northern hardwood forests took only about 7 years to reach 10 feet in ½-ac gaps created by selection cutting, illustrating the greater focus on shoot development when more direct light is available.

Our plots are now 8 years old. We hope to begin seeing visible differences in seedling and sapling development this season, particularly between fenced and unfenced plots. However, because our plots are mostly under developed overstories, it may take several more years to determine how much difference there is between the average fates of seedlings when protected from herbivory or treated to control competing plants or improve soil conditions.”

In other words, it depends. AND it’s going to take a lot longer for us to find those answers.

My carpenter bees have been zipping to and fro all day consumed with the business of making baby bees so they can zip around next year. Trees are consumed with this task too. They just can’t be bothered to conform to that kind of timetable.

-Jeannine Fleegle and Phillip Jones, Ph
 

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Discussion Starter · #185 ·
Make Good Choices
MAY 19, 2021
Some mornings, as I roll out of bed and check my email, I’m greeted with this message glaring up at me from the screen:

This means that someone had a rough night, and I get to figure out why.
The GPS collars we deploy each season provide us with movement data, habitat use data, and more; but the last and final bit of information a collar can give us is time of death. We just spent all winter putting out collars. Many (wo)man-hours and resources went into capturing each deer. And even though a mortality event provides its own data, I want these deer to give us plenty of GPS locations, to stay alive, and to make good choices!
These are…not good choices.



With roadkill already on my mind, Jeannine sent me a study that looked at 300,000 roadkill deer locations collected across 13 years on Pennsylvania highways. The collision locations were not random, but rather aggregated in certain areas. Why would multiple deer be hit along one stretch of highway every year, while few or no deer were hit less than a mile away?
To answer this question, researchers looked at the characteristics of roadkill deer locations from two-lane highways in Centre, Clarion, Huntingdon, and Schuylkill counties. Stretches of highways were identified as “high-kill” or “low-kill”. Then data were collected on the characteristics of each stretch of highway comparing the high-kill and low-kill sites.
Which factors predict a high-kill stretch of road? Mostly the things you’d expect – nearby woodland edges, few residential or commercial buildings, no fences to block deer, and low visibility due to road curvature or vegetation.
These results, though pretty intuitive, made me laugh. It’s almost as if the authors were describing Potter County and the area around the Susquehannock State Forest! Curving roads? Check. Forest running right up the road edge? Check. Few buildings? Check.
So, Pennsylvania drivers, be careful out there especially between dusk and dawn. Let’s see if we can’t keep these deer alive at least until hunting season, okay? I don’t want to wake up to another red mortality message.
And to the deer, please make good choices.
-Amanda Zak
Northern Field Crew Leader
Game Commission Deer and Elk Section
 

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Discussion Starter · #186 ·
The “Worst-Case” Deer
JUNE 1, 2021
Previously I shared some movements our collared deer make across roadways. Whether you’ve been personally involved in a deer-vehicle collision (DVC) or not, I think we’ve all seen deer make stupid decisions when it comes to crossing roads. For every deer I’ve seen fleeing the roadside away from me as I approach, I’ve seen one that waits until the last possible moment before sprinting across my path. Then there is the indecisive deer that can’t make up its mind on which way to run and does an about face halfway through its escape attempt!
A 2020 study by Font and Brown coined a term that I think fits this kind of deer well: The “worst-case deer”. They wanted to test the ability of autonomous vehicles (aka self-driving cars) to detect and respond to potential DVCs. To do so, they needed to create a virtual deer that could run across their virtual road. The authors reviewed much of the same literature on deer that I did to write my last blog post – papers on deer behavior near roads, deer reactions to humans approaching on foot and in vehicles, and deer response to predators. Using the data from these studies, they created a model that would simulate the many different ways a deer could behave as it crosses a road.
They ran this model again and again with the deer making different decisions each time, e.g. how far from the road it was when it decided to cross, how fast it accelerated, if it changed direction when it perceived the vehicle, how far from the vehicle it was when it changed direction, which way did it turn, and so on. A computer program took all these simulations and found the ones that would be the most difficult for a vehicle to avoid, in other words, the “worst-case” deer.
These worst-case deer scenarios were then presented to two autonomous car controllers – one that could only brake and one that could both brake and steer – to see how often they would result in collisions. I want to remind everyone of the saying “Don’t Veer for Deer”. Swerving to avoid deer can increase the severity of injuries, so we’re going to focus on the results of the brake-only controller.
When vegetation started 4 meters from the road edge, greatly obscuring a deer’s approach, collisions became unavoidable at a speed of 33.5 mph or higher. Even at 30 mph, collisions could only be avoided 50% of the time. As blocking vegetation moved back to 10 meters from the road edge giving the car more time to detect the deer, collisions were unavoidable at 42.5 mph. And when the deer could be seen freely by the autonomous car’s sensor, which can sense objects 60 meters away without any blocking vegetation, there was a 0% chance of collisions up until a speed of 51 mph at which point there was a 50% chance of a collision.
It’s important for us human drivers to remember that these are recommended speeds for a computer that doesn’t blink, never gets distracted by kids, phones, or radios, and doesn’t need human reaction time. The takeaway is that the posted speed limit doesn’t always fit the driving conditions. The simulations in this study were based on Pennsylvania highway dimensions and speed limits often 55 mph on two-lane highways. The risk of collisions at that speed was always high. You can think of the self-driving car’s camera range of 60 meters like the headlights on your car when you’re driving at night. PSA – Don’t drive faster than you can react to a sudden obstacle at the edge of your headlights.
Fortunately, the authors of the paper point out that we’re unlikely to ever encounter the worst-case deer on an actual roadway; the worst-case deer was programmed with every POSSIBLE deer movement, not just those that are probable.
So drive safe, everyone, and may you never meet the worst-case deer!
-Amanda Zak
Northern Field Crew Leader
Game Commission Deer and Elk Section
 

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Discussion Starter · #187 ·
Caution!
JUNE 23, 2021
We talk about deer movements a lot on this blog. Movements before the rut, during the rut, after the rut, during gun season, in rain, in wind, before storms, in storms, after storms, in heat waves, in summer, in fawning season, in January, in October – you get the picture.
Following animals around with various tracking devices is nothing new. Researchers have been studying animal movements for decades. The first studies were published in the early 1960s. Home ranges, habitat use, dispersal, migration, survival, and, of course, behavior.
Indeed, the wildlife profession has learned much from plotting points and drawing lines. We know that dispersal is a fact of life for the majority of yearling males, but yearling females have their own unique dispersal story. We know that buck movements skyrocket during the rut while females are quite content to sit and wait. We know that landscape features influence movements. We know that the leading cause of mortality for a deer is a hunter.
But can behavior be inferred from those points and lines? Can life history events like parturition (birth) or breeding be seen on a map?
Certainly we have tried. Since we have both males and females collared in the same area, could we detect a breeding event? We speculated once but speculation isn’t more than a good blog post in this field. But peer reviewed research is a standard by which all research is judged and now we have that too.
Movement and location data from the Deer Forest Study were recently analyzed to determine if two methods could identify male-female interaction events in the breeding season. My eyes nearly went cross from reading it and Duane suggested that if I paired it with a beer it would make more sense. It is pretty heady stuff (the paper, not necessarily the beer I was drinking).
Below is an example of some data that were available and used from The Deer-Forest Study – the home ranges of a male (purple) and female (orange) deer. Think of these lines as contours on a topographic map – the higher the “elevation” the more likely you are to find the deer in that location. The orange and purple points are when these two deer were within 109 yards (100 m) of each other.
If you only had the locations of the male, would you see a difference in his movements when near the female compared to when they weren’t traveling together?

I am here to save you some eye and head pain. Conclusion – you can’t garner behavioral insights from statistically analyzing location data from one sex (or even both sexes) when there is no validation of data.
You’re thinking how is that helping, right?
Ok, let’s try this. Just because you’re in the kitchen doesn’t mean you’re eating. Male and female movements are highly variable during the breeding season. That means that just looking at points on a map isn’t enough information to understand when males and females interact.
Some research has looked at male movement patterns and assigned or identified behavior likely related to breeding but without verifying this and with no female movement data to inform it, the conclusions are speculative. The methods previously used to describe and explain male-female interactions during the breeding season did not match up with the locations where we had known interactions of male and female deer.
When camera technology can be incorporated into deer collars – we’ll be able to ascribe behavior to specific movements and locations on a map. Then we’ll really learn something about deer behavior! Although I’m not convinced.
-Jeannine Fleegle
Wildlife Biologist
Deer and Elk Section, Game Commission

A copy of the scientific paper behind this blog post is available here.
 

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Discussion Starter · #188 ·
Magic 8-Ball
JULY 1, 2021
When it comes to the future of deer management, the Magic 8-Ball has all the answers. “Reply hazy, try again.”
A new book was published this month, Harvest of Fish and Wildlife: New Paradigms for Sustainable Management, and myself and two colleagues from Pennsylvania and Virginia contributed a chapter about some options for deer managers given our predictions about the future.
Because this book is about the harvest of wildlife, we focused on the primary tool that is used currently to manage white-tailed deer: the number of hunters. Armed with a Magic 8-Ball in hand, the wisdom of Yogi Berra (“It’s tough making predictions, especially about the future”), and a plethora of data, we see many changes ahead for deer hunting.
First, the national picture. Between 1991 and 2016, hunters remained >90% male and 97% white. In contrast, the U.S. population is 48% male and the non-white percentage of the population increased from 15% to 22%.
Fewer than 25% of hunters lived in a large metropolitan area (>1 million people) during 1991-2016, but in the general population the percentage increased from 43% to 57%.
What is changing even more is the number of hunters. Nationally, the number of big game hunters declined 20% between 2011 and 2016!
The changes in Pennsylvania and Virginia are similar, but we had more data to finely slice and dice and dissect. Both states have information on the number of hunters by age. We used data from 2008-2018 to look at the change in number of hunters, by age, each year. Assuming these trends remained the same, we projected hunter numbers out 10 and 20 years.
For Pennsylvania, the graph on the left shows the age structure of hunters. In 2009, the largest age group was about 60 years old (light gray line). However, by 2017, the largest age group was older and fewer in number (black line). Because hunting participation declines drastically after age 65, in 20 years the largest age group will be in their mid-40s and the total number of hunters will decline by nearly 50%. See the downhill ski slope in the graph on the right.
Pennsylvania Hunter Demographics and Predictions
The picture is nearly identical for Virginia, the only difference is that they started with nearly a quarter of the number of hunters that we have in Pennsylvania.
Virginia Hunter Demographics and Predictions
The loss of hunters from the Baby Boom generation will have a huge impact on the future of hunting. But so will the lack of recruitment of youth to hunting. During 2008-2018 the number of youth hunters in Virginia declined 7% per year.
We surveyed 41 states and provinces that hunt white-tailed deer. Thirty-one reported 10-year declines in number of hunters of 1%–34%, two reported no change, and six reported increases of 2%–11% (DE, ME, OK, TX, Nova Scotia, and Ontario).
Of course, there are ongoing attempts to recruit new hunters. We calculated Virginia would have to increase the number of youth by 6% every year, retain current hunters, and reactivate hunters who stopped buying a license by 2%. And what would all that effort do? Keep deer hunter numbers constant. Let’s ask the Magic 8-Ball what its prediction is of this occurring: “Outlook not so good.”
Pennsylvania is careening to where Virginia was 20 years ago, in terms of hunter numbers. Every year Pennsylvania hunters harvest upwards of 300,000 deer just to keep the population stable. How can we adjust to this loss and still manage deer? Virginia is the window to our future. So what are they seeing?
As the Magic-8 Ball says, “Better not tell you now.” Maybe next week.
-Duane Diefenbach
 

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Discussion Starter · #189 ·
Go Big or Go Home
JULY 8, 2021
Bigger deer harvests aren’t just about math. It’s about changing tradition.
Traditional white-tailed deer management generally involves the following:
  • Every license buyer can harvest an antlered deer
  • The antlerless deer harvest is regulated by some combination of:
    • the number of licenses issued
    • the number of days of hunting
This approach works fine in Pennsylvania, even today, where we have 660,000 deer hunters (14.8 hunters per sq. mile). But in Virginia where the number of deer hunters is only 185,000 (4.9 hunters per sq. mile) different strategies were needed – especially in areas like northern Virginia that are highly urbanized where there are 1,724 people per square mile.
Over a 20-year period, beginning in 1991, Virginia implemented a series of changes to increase the antlerless harvest. You’ll have to read our book chapter to see all the changes, but I’ll give you a taste of what they accomplished.
In 1991, hunters could harvest no more than 3 antlered deer per year. In addition, hunters could get 1 bonus deer permit that allowed them to harvest 1 either sex and 1 antlerless only deer. In 1998, the bonus deer permits were antlerless only and unlimited. Even then, they were only harvesting 1.2 antlerless deer for every antlered deer harvested.
Between 1998 and 2008 Virginia created more and longer antlerless deer seasons and doubled the number of antlerless licenses in the basic deer license from 2 to 4.
The big change came in 2008 when they required that hunters harvest an antlerless deer before they could harvest a second antlered deer. With this earn-a-second-buck regulation and unlimited antlerless licenses, by 2013 Virginia was harvesting 2.4 antlerless deer for every antlered deer. This more than doubled the antlerless harvest compared to 1991.
Deer managers know that earn-a-buck regulations are hated by hunters – such a regulation was poorly received in Wisconsin and eliminated. Why? It’s explained in this video [hint: does walk out into fields to feed first]
However, in Virginia it’s an earn-a-second-buck. That means if a hunter harvests an antlerless deer first the next 2 deer can be antlered – or the first deer can be antlered.
Virginia had the same regulations since 2014 and has maintained about 2 antlerless deer per antlered deer harvested. On public lands in Fairfax County, they accomplished removal of 30 deer/sq. mile on 30 square miles. These regulations are a far cry from the traditional approach to deer management. Unfortunately, with declining number of hunters even an 8-month-long deer season and unlimited antlerless harvest – the longest hunting season and most liberal bag limit in North America – may not be enough.
Should we rethink the North American Model of Wildlife Management? Should we commercialize deer meat and other by-products? Deer managers can come up with all sorts of ideas, but it is society’s role to decide what alternatives are acceptable for managing deer.
Like that Magic 8-Ball, I “cannot predict now” what might happen. Maybe “ask again later.”
-Duane Diefenbach
 

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Discussion Starter · #190 ·
Down with Dogma
JULY 22, 2021
Down with Dogma!
It is no secret that Duane and I love the blog. We’ve written a lot of posts over the years. And while we find great joy in creating content, we sometimes fall into a rut.
Like bucks at the end of December, we are out of gas. It takes a considerable amount of brain power to conceive a post. Sometimes its birth is quick and painless. Sometimes we are in labor for 37 hours questioning our life choices.
One of the best things about the blog is engaging with our readers. In the past, your comments and questions have sparked ideas and spawned subsequent posts. We’ve shared data gathered from the Deer Forest Study and research findings from other projects to answer all your burning questions.
We’d like to take that to the next level. Deer are the most widespread big game species in North America. Pursued and observed by millions each year for hundreds of years. The rhetoric that surrounds deer is long and storied to say the least. Repeated enough times, many take it as fact. But is there any basis for this baggage that deer carry?
We aim to challenge traditions, question conventions, and break from institutions built on shaky foundations. Down with the deer dogma that has plagued research, management, and hunting!
Send us your questions – in the comments below or by email ([email protected]). Get us out of our rut and into a new way of looking at deer.
-Jeannine Fleegle
Wildlife Biologist
Deer and Elk Section, Game Commission
 

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Discussion Starter · #191 ·
Pandemic Deer
AUGUST 9, 2021
If you’re feeling COVID fatigue and seeking refuge in nature, last week’s announcement that deer tested positive for antibodies to SARS-CoV-2 is a real buzz kill. The news is spreading like a California wildfire in July.
But do not despair. If you knew how many antibodies for which wild critters tested positive, you’d never eat sushi! That’s one reason it is not wise to handle wildlife. It’s for their protection as well as yours!
Let’s talk a little bit about what SARS-CoV-2 antibodies in deer really means and how disease surveillance in wildlife works. Disease surveillance is the ongoing, systematic, and continuous collection, analysis, and interpretation of health data. That’s a tall order fraught with difficulties when it comes to wildlife. Critters don’t readily line up for health checks annually.
And surveillance can look for different things. Disease surveillance can target the clinical disease itself or it can target the pathogen which causes the disease. What is the difference? If you don’t have lots of animals looking or acting sick, you could miss a big problem – like avian influenza in ducks or CWD in deer.
Disease surveillance takes 2 forms: passive and active.
Passive surveillance needs a trigger. When someone reports a dead or sick deer, the animal is collected and may be tested for a variety of diseases like EHD, rabies, and CWD to name a few. Or current bird deaths in the mid-Atlantic. Looking for diseases like this is akin to answering the question “if a tree falls in the forest and no one is there, does it make a sound?”
The number of things that needs to happen for that animal to make to the lab is anything but a sure thing. First, someone needs to know about it. Right now, there is a dead or dying deer, rabbit, squirrel, grouse, and warbler in the woods…and no one knows about it. Finding a dead or dying critter on the landscape is like trying to find a bite size snicker bar in my house. Never going to happen! Second, it needs to be reported to the right people and collected tout de suite. Just because you have a body in hand doesn’t mean it’s worth anything – a dead critter is a scavenger and bug buffet! Viable samples wait for no man. And lastly, it needs to get to the lab. Hospitals are not located on every corner and wildlife diagnostic labs are even fewer and farther between.
Active surveillance is that for which the army has been deployed looking for the enemy. The Game Commission collects deer heads each year to specifically look for the prion that causes chronic wasting disease (CWD) – testing lymph nodes and brainstems from thousands of deer that look completely healthy as well as those that clearly sick. The target has been selected and that is the only focus. This type of surveillance can be effective in finding a pathogen (the thing that causes the disease), but cost and feasibility of collecting representative samples can be a major problem as can the nature of the pathogen you are looking for.
Passive and active disease surveillance are like dance partners. They complement and support each other helping disease ecologists and wildlife biologists understand pathogens and diseases. Active research then fills in the knowledge gaps. If there is one thing history has taught us, it is that emerging infectious diseases are increasing.
White nose syndrome, West Nile virus, snake fungal disease, chytridiomycosis – are just a few emerging wildlife diseases whose discovery sent scientist on a quest to understand, define, mitigate, and manage them.
But let’s get back to those COVID deer and the surveillance that found them. There are many diagnostic tests used in surveillance that either directly identify the pathogen (PCR, microscopy, immunoassays, etc.) or indirectly identify infections (serology, CBC/biochemistry, histopathology, etc.). All are great tools, but you need to know how to use them.
In my hands, a router or a spokeshave are useless. Give them to Duane with a plan and he creates beautiful pieces of furniture.
Secretary desk with hand carved interior draws

But if you give me a pattern, a sewing machine, and a few hours, you’ll get a custom-made bag…or two.
1 orange and 1 blue handmade purse with strap

It’s about using the right tools and interpreting the plans and patterns. The same can be said of diagnostic testing.
USDA APHIS tested serum samples for white-tailed deer for antibodies to SARS-CoV-2. Antibodies were detected in 33% of the 481 samples. Samples were collected during 2020 in Illinois, Michigan, New York, and Pennsylvania. Samples tested pre-pandemic showed no sign of antibodies.
All this means is that deer have been exposed to the COVID-19 virus and exhibited an immune response which resulted in the formation of antibodies. It did NOT detect the virus itself. Serology testing is fab but it can’t tell us if disease occurred (did deer get sick with COVID?), if the animal is protected from reinfection (could they get COVID again?), or when it was exposed (obviously post January 2020 but when and how?).
Here is where interpretation becomes important. This active surveillance alerted us to the fact that deer have been exposed and their immune system had a response. Nothing more. Serology testing is like a smoke detector. It alerted us to smoke. Now we can look to see if there is fire by researching the follow-up questions: Can deer show signs of disease if infected with SARS-CoV-2? Do deer shed live virus? Can deer be a reservoir for the virus? And the big question, can infected deer spread it to people or other wildlife?
All of which cannot be answered from a simple antibody test. Misinterpretation or OVERinterpretation of diagnostic test results can create…confusion. Note this not limited to wildlife. The same can happen with diagnostic testing in people and pets!
White-tailed deer are the most abundant and popular big game species in North America. It’s important to understand how pathogens may move through the population and affect deer and other species.
But remember deer have always been walking biohazards (as are all wildlife). That’s why the advice has always been to avoid and limit exposure to wild animals. SARS-CoV-2 is just the new virus on the block. Rabies, anthrax, avian influenza, hantavirus – have been out there for years.
There is still much to learn about SARS-CoV-2, wildlife, and people. We don’t need to panic but we need to stay informed, cautious, and vigilant until science can provide us more answers.
I still eat sushi!
-Jeannine Fleegle
Wildlife Biologist
Deer and Elk Section, Game Commission
 

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Discussion Starter · #192 ·
The Dog Barked
AUGUST 16, 2021
A few weeks ago, we sent out a call. And, of course, you answered!
Many readers of the blog responded with topics they’d like to hear more about. I spent some time the other day sorting through and categorizing them.
Broadly, they broke up into movements (shocking!), behavior, browsing/habitat, agriculture/forest, harvest, disease, and soil quality.
We also had a sprinkling of topics that we covered previously.
There are a few things I want to make clear. We are not starting a new research project. So if it’s not something we are currently doing for the Deer Forest Study or other research does not exist, then you are out of luck. Another thing – we cannot tell you how, where, why, or when a buck will walk past your tree stand or favorite hunting spot. I guess all those posts on buck movements we’ve written in the past are not enough to convince you. Trust me – if we could predict movements, neither Duane nor I would still be in our current day jobs.
We can tell you a bit about the following though:
As you can see, some of the questions we received have been covered in past posts. In case you suddenly come up with a burning question and wonder did Duane write a post on that, go to the top of this page and type some key words into the search bar. With over 500 blog posts written over the past 7 years, there is a good chance we already answered your question!
We will try to cover the other topics suggested by readers in future posts. It should be a learning experience for everyone, including us!
-Jeannine Fleegle
Wildlife Biologist
Deer and Elk Section, Game Commission
 

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Discussion Starter · #193 ·



The Line in the Sand…or Forest
AUGUST 23, 2021
Recently a reader shared with us a video of one of our radio-collared bucks that is at least 6.5 years old.



At least 6.5 years old
Wouldn’t you love to set up a bunch of cameras to try and map out his home range? How would you do that? Is there anything we have learned with the Deer-Forest Study that might save you some time? That is, without quitting your day job, are there ways to narrow down where to look for that big buck?

Let’s check out some deer we’ve collared over the years and see if there are landscape features that influence where deer go (and don’t go).

We know roads affect deer movements. Our research in PA has shown that when deer disperse, they head away from roads and tend to stop before crossing a road. So we know roads can serve as home range boundaries. Here’s a buck home range July-September:


Streams can serve as boundaries as well. Below is an example of a female that didn’t like to get her feet wet.


My favorite deer, Hillside Doe, had a pipeline serve as a distinct boundary.


So here is something to consider – if you have a camera along a stream or near a road, odds are that you caught this deer on camera along the edge of his/her home range. A few strategically placed cameras could give you some insight into which side of the road is more likely the core of their home range.

But are there exceptions to these rules? Always!

Remember Hillside Doe and how the pipeline served as a hard boundary? Check out this buck, the pipeline is smack dab in the middle of his home range!


Even in the Ridge and Valley Region where many deer simply go up and over ridges in their daily travels, roads appear to influence their movements. Here is the July-September home range for Male 8909:


And a female:


So gathering intel on that deer in July, August, and September is going to provide some insights into whether his core home range is to the north or south of that east-west road. But all bets are off during the rut!

Male 8909 (above) seemed constrained by roads, but during October and November you could find him anywhere over a much larger area:


That means your August and September intel is not necessarily going to be helpful in the archery season. However, we know that most breeding is completed by Thanksgiving so come rifle season that buck is more likely to be back in his core home range.

Bottom line: bucks that show up on your camera in July-September means you are near their core area. Bucks that appear during the rut could be from almost anywhere!
 

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Discussion Starter · #194 ·
Free Ranging and…Organic?
AUGUST 30, 2021
If you read this blog, you are probably a deer fan. Deer are known as the ghost of the forest. But they aren’t too keen on labels. I can’t blame them. It limits potential.
Deer are the most widely distributed game species in North America. Since they get along well with people, you can find deer just about anywhere including agricultural areas. You’re thinking of course deer live in farm country. It’s an endless buffet. But North America and, likewise, deer distribution are very different today compared to pre-colonial times. Human-altered landscapes allowed deer to break free from the forest and see the world!
We’ve been growing crops for centuries now. And deer are well versed in the delicacies of corn, soybeans, alfalfa, and more. But seeds aren’t the only thing we’ve been spreading. Modern agricultural practices are chemical intensive. Pesticides are applied to seeds and sprayed on growing crops. And deer are really bad at reading the Safety Data Sheet (SDS) and even worse at following re-entry intervals.
What does that mean for deer and the people who eat them?
Neonicotinoid pesticides are the most widely used class of insecticides in the world. The first commercial neonic was patented in 1985. Their use became popular in the late 1990s. Of the 133 million acres of corn, soybean, wheat, cotton, and sorghum in North America, over 98% are treated with a neonic.
Neonics are popular because of their high specificity to insects and low toxicity to birds and mammals. But we should all know by now that if you pull one string in an ecosystem, it unravels much more than intended. Neonics have been implicated in the downfall of pollinators which caused the European Commission to ban the outdoor use of 3 neonics in 2018. The EPA released an interim decision for 5 neonics in January 2020 proposing additional personal protective equipment and restrictions on when they can be applied to blooming crops. Indirectly, neonics affect the food supply of insect-eating birds reducing bird biodiversity and act as an appetite suppressant to migrating birds delaying migration and reducing survival.
None of that is good news but what about deer? Neonics are absorbed by plants, highly water soluble, and persist in soils. Food, water, and dirt – all things consumed by deer.
Given the relatively recent arrival of neonics on the ag scene, there isn’t much research out there but there is some. The first paper to suggest that neonics might be affecting deer was published in 2011 when a rash of ruminants with brachygnathia superior were documented in Montana. This corresponded with other vertebrate species exhibiting developmental malformations strongly suggesting endocrine disruption by an environmental cause. It also corresponded with widespread use of neonics perhaps interacting with other pesticides. While there are data to support the disruptive effects of these interactions, the research only showed correlation, not causation.
In 2018, a review of the literature was published on the direct and indirect effects of neonics on vertebrates. While the toxicity (the amount needed to cause death in a controlled lab setting) varied from non-toxic to moderately toxic, the indirect effects were more concerning by manifesting as reproductive problems, such as reduced sperm production, adverse effects on the fertilization process, reduced rates of pregnancy, higher rates of embryo death, stillbirth and premature birth, and reduced weights of offspring. Other sublethal effects noted: genotoxic and cytotoxic effects, neuro-behavioural disorders of offspring (including those dosed in utero), lesions of the thyroid, retinal atrophy, reduced movement, and increased measures of anxiety and fear.
None of that sounds good but these are results seen in lab rats. And the lab does not always translate to the real world and rats aren’t deer (no matter what some people may say).
Those deformed deer from Montana prompted a more structured experiment to see if neonics were at play. Captive does and fawns were administered various field-relevant does of a neonic in North Dakota (2019) – levels that would be found in drinking water on the landscape. Here’s what they found:
1) control deer consumed more water than treatment groups [deer in treatment groups tried to avoid contaminated water]
2) imidacloprid [the specific neonic tested] was present in the organs of our control group, indicating environmental contamination
3) as imidacloprid increased in the spleen [which plays a key role in immune system function], fawn survival, thyroxine levels, jawbone lengths, body weight, and organ weights decreased
4) adult female imidacloprid levels in the genitals were negatively correlated with genital organ weight and,
5) behavioral observations indicated that imidacloprid levels in spleens were negatively correlated with activity levels in adult females and fawns
Ok – there is no getting around this one. Neonics definitely had an effect on our favorite vertebrate. I would be remiss if I didn’t point out this was a small sample (20 adult does and their corresponding fawns over a 2 year period) but this kind of intensive monitoring is difficult and expensive. However, 367 samples of free-ranging deer in North Dakota were tested from 2009 to 2017 using the same methodology and found neonic concentrations 2.8 times higher in the liver and 3.5 times higher in the spleen than in the captive deer used in this experiment.
So there is definitely evidence that neonics affect behavior (reduced activity) and suppress immune function (impair spleen function). Both of which play a role in individual survival. But will that affect deer populations?
One thing we do know at the Deer Forest Study is that as long as female survival is high deer populations are robust. But we also know that systems under stress (be they forest or species) are more vulnerable and less resilient in the face of threats (both known and unknown). Exposure to neonics and other chemicals cause a crack in the system. Is that one crack enough to crumble the foundation? Probably not but get enough cracks and you’re left with a tragic Surfside Condo collapse.
And I won’t even speculate on what this means for people who consume venison. Realistically, we probably have more avenues of exposure in our everyday lives that consuming deer containing neonics is pretty far down the list of concerns.
All of the deer in my freezer are harvested from an agricultural area using the standard 21st century pesticides. They are free ranging but probably far from organic.
-Jeannine Fleegle
Wildlife Biologist
PGC Deer and Elk Section
 

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Discussion Starter · #195 ·
She doesn’t look a day over 6
SEPTEMBER 20, 2021
Back in August I received a mortality signal from one of our collared deer in the Susquehannock State Forest, Doe 20063. There wasn’t much left of the carcass by the time I got there, unfortunately, but I did find her lower jawbone and take it home with me. I was hoping that while there was little evidence to tell me about her death, her teeth might tell me something about her life.
The method of aging a deer by the appearance of its teeth, often called the Severinghaus method so named for its developer, is the standard and was published in 1949. The premise is simple: The act of chewing vegetation wears away at the components of the teeth, leading to visible changes as a deer ages. The older a deer is, the more worn the teeth will appear.
In the decades since, this method of aging deer by tooth eruption (when the “baby teeth” are lost and adult teeth emerge) and wear has been thoroughly studied. And the consensus across the literature is this: While tooth eruption is a reliable way to assign ages between 6 months and 2.5 years, using tooth wear to estimate beyond that point is not.
Take Doe 20063 for example. Follow this guide to apply the Severinghaus method to the photos of her jaw (scroll down to the “How to Classify Deer by Age Group” section). What age would you give her based on the example images?
skinned lower deer jaw sideview showing much wear on teeth
Skinned lower deer jaw top view showing much wear

According to this guide, and many others like it, I would age Doe 20063 at about 5 to 6 years. But Doe 20063 has been known to the project for a long time and she’s quite a bit older than that. She was first captured and ear-tagged back in the winter of 2013 when she was already an adult, meaning she had been born in 2011 or earlier. That makes her at least 10 years old by the time she died this August.
Studies have found that the Severinghaus method tends to overestimate the age of young deer and underestimate the age of old deer. One study found that “79% of the biologists underestimated the age of the 9-10 year class sample by 3-4 years”. That’s a big difference and is precisely what happens with Doe 20063.
It turns out that many factors affect the wear rate of teeth. The original Severinghaus study followed the tooth development and wear of captive deer raised in the Albany, New York. Tooth wear rates have been found to vary across deer populations, likely due to regional differences in diet – the fiber and silica contents of browse along with the amount of sand and grit present on vegetation influence the rate of wear of teeth. So using example jaws from Georgia to age a deer from Pennsylvania isn’t the best idea.
And there are variations in tooth wear even within the same population. Males and females have been shown to exhibit different rates of tooth wear, with male teeth wearing faster than female teeth. Van Deelen et al. (2000) found that even though males may be up to 40% larger in body mass than females, their molars had only a 4% greater surface area, meaning they are consuming — and chewing — more food than females but on the same tooth surface area. Often the jaws used to train biologists in aging deer may include proportionally more males than females if they come from hunter-harvested deer, so biologists learn to age deer based on the wear patterns of males — causing them to underestimate female ages.
Despite the large body of research on ungulate dentition, tooth wear as an indicator of age in white-tailed deer has too much uncertainty for use in scientific pursuits. Now that you know what to look for, however, deer hunters may be interested in a taking a peek at their deer’s teeth this fall — just be prepared to tack on a confidence interval of ± a few years to your result!
-Amanda Zak
Crew Leader
PGC Deer and Elk Section
 

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Discussion Starter · #196 ·
What’s for Dinner?
SEPTEMBER 27, 2021
Below are two bucks feeding near a year-round scrape that I captured on the game camera. Can you tell what they are eating? If you’re a long-time reader of the blog, I’ve written about this plant before.

What they are chowing down on is a species of smartweed (Polygonum spp.). There are many different species of smartweed and they are not easily distinguished from one another. However, “weed” is a misnomer! Native vegetation can be more nutritious than something you can plant and fertilize. And these “weeds” are free!
Unlike people, deer are not nearly as judgmental about where and what plants grow on the landscape. A weed is simply a plant that people don’t want growing in a particular place. Many of the plants we deem weeds are beneficial to deer providing benefits such as fawning cover and a food source.
For deer, you want to promote the growth of forbs. Generally, forbs are any non-woody herbaceous plant that is a perennial. Smartweed is a forb.
If you are interested in creating habitat for deer, consider what is already growing there. A great source of information are books and materials available through the University of Tennessee Wildlife Extension. You also may want to listen to this podcast with Dr. Craig Harper, University of Tennessee-Knoxville, to find out what’s for dinner.
-Duane Diefenbach
 

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Discussion Starter · #197 ·
Purple Mountains or Amber Waves
OCTOBER 6, 2021
My summer vacation took me to the Adirondacks. The park is 6.1 million acres (larger than its neighbor state of Vermont) and unique in that about 52% of the land is privately owned. Private land within the park is governed by Adirondack Park Land Use and Development Plan and is designed to cluster development to minimize impact. It’s a vast, beautiful, and wild area spotted with small quaint towns.
view from mountain top in the Adirondacks

The state-owned lands are entirely forested, and the private lands aren’t much different. Needless to say, this is not a stronghold of agriculture.
When a deer biologist and a fanatical deer hunter go on vacation together, deer are often a topic of conversation. Every time we would travel past an open field or farm, the fanatical deer hunter would say “there should be some deer around here somewhere” and the deer biologist would respond “deer don’t need farms to exist on the landscape!”
In the 21st century, deer have become synonymous with agriculture. Some have capitalized on and fostered the belief that deer cannot make it without some sort of human enhanced landscape intervention which has given birth to an entire market: wildlife food plots.
But deer were living in those purple mountains long before modern man created those amber waves of grain. Yes, deer were just fine in North America before Columbus got lost, before the advent of the plow, and before the Whitetail Institute formulated 29 varieties of food plot seed mixes.
It’s not that deer don’t like the modifications humans have made. They don’t need them. Native Americans were manipulating the landscape to make it more appealing to deer long before Europeans arrived. Deer select for transition areas or edge between forest and openings. Those openings can be natural like prairie or created by fire or agriculture. Native Americans were doing both. By 1500, millions of acres had been cleared to plant maize and other domesticated plants and fires were regularly set to improve visibility and create grassy openings in the forest.
Estimates of pre-European settlement deer populations were 24 to 62 million animals. Present day deer populations fall within these bounds. In 1600, about half (46%) of the U.S. land area was forest which is about 13% more than we have today. If deer needed agriculture to exist, nobody told them.
Do deer like corn and soybeans? Sure. If someone offered you a steak dinner for free, would you say no? Better yet if someone came to your house and offered to cook you a steak dinner for free, would you say no? Remember deer are an edge species. Clear away some forest and plant a corn field and you just put a buffet in the living room.
But that’s not to say that deer in forested landscapes are going hungry. The Adirondacks support a population of 60,000-80,000 deer with annual harvests of over 11,000 animals. Given that many of us are used to deer densities exceeding 40 deer per square mile, the deer population in this forested region of New York may seem non-existent. But that’s because forest composition determines the number of deer it can support. Younger forests produce more food for deer. Older forests less. This is not good or bad. It is just the natural ebb and flow. Deer populations expand and contract in response to these shifts.
Humans are like the 2-year-old who comes into the room and crashes the block tower his brother spent all morning building. We have the ability to manipulate and change the environment on a large scale. By planting crops, cutting trees, or harvesting deer. But if we did none of these things, deer would go about their business eating smartweed and the like. Blissfully ignorant of what could or might have been.
A deer doesn’t know what is over the purple mountain or on the other side of the amber wave. They aren’t making plans to leave the forest or follow the harvest. They are happy where they are. Perhaps there is a lesson in that for all of us.
-Jeannine Fleegle
Wildlife Biologist
PGC Deer and Elk Section
 

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Discussion Starter · #198 ·
What Goes with Deer?
OCTOBER 12, 2021
Beer, of course!
The National Deer Association has a monthly Beer and Deer Webinar Series that is free!
This month I will be giving a webinar titled “How wise is conventional wisdom? How deer move during the rut and hunting seasons in the Big Woods.”
Time: 7pm (Eastern Time)
Date: Wednesday, October 13
Register for the webinar by going here.
 

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Discussion Starter · #199 ·
Unpredictable Prey
OCTOBER 29, 2021
You are a predator. Deer aren’t going to just stand there and wait to be eaten.
Humans often forget that we are part of the world around us and that our actions influence other species. Hunters understand that their activities can disturb their quarry. We often get questions like “how long” before a deer goes back to their “normal” movement pattern when disturbed.
There are several things to consider. First, what is “normal”? Second, what activity is considered disruptive? And lastly, does knowing this change a predator’s (i.e., a hunter’s) behavior?
Deer home range and movement patterns are fluid changing with season. We have shared endless posts about deer movement in the spring, home ranges in the fall, and vacations in the summer. Like you and me, pinpointing where a deer will be on a given day at a given moment is not a sure thing. Doctor’s appointments, grocery shopping, birthday parties, dog walks – variables that add nuance to our daily lives and locations. Deer are no different. All deer movement is “normal.” What hunters really want to know is will a deer walk by me on this day at this time. [If we could predict deer movement with that kind of accuracy, Duane and I would be rich and retired, the deer season would be about 2 hours long, and it would no longer be called hunting]
bucks walking through woods in fall

The impossibility of this task hasn’t stopped researchers from studying the effect of hunters on their prey.
One such study compared deer observations at varying hunter densities over 3 weekends of gun season in Oklahoma. Those in the high hunter density area saw the most deer overall but that number decreased precipitously after the first weekend. By the third weekend, hunters in those areas were seeing about the same number of deer as those in the low hunter density areas. While hunters in low hunter density areas saw fewer deer, the number seen remained relatively consistent.
Conclusion: Deer QUICKLY adjusted their behavior in response to perceived risk of predation by hunters on the landscape.
Another study in the same location looked at deer movements covering pre-hunt through post-hunt activity. Deer movement and space use declined over this entire period beginning with a 2-day scouting period which was 6 days before the hunting season. It continued as the 16-day hunting season progressed. Movement was the lowest following hunting season and then saw a slight increase 3 days after the close of the season. Use area followed the same pattern.
Conclusion: Once deer detect predators (hunters) on the landscape, they rapidly responded by moving less and using a smaller area with only negligible increases after those predators were removed from the landscape.
But these are not hard and fast rules. A review of deer response to hunting in the latest edition of what I affectionately call the deer “bible” shows just how variable and plastic our favorite animal is. Some studies show deer stay steadfast in their established home range while others display an increase in daily movement and change in home range use. Still others show no change in habits or shifts at all.
Hunting pressure, deer population, habitat type, age, sex, and individual deer experience all play a role in how a deer reacts when you step into the woods with your preferred hunting implement.
Do the findings from research in Oklahoma and elsewhere have any relevance to Pennsylvania? Does Pennsylvania have any data like that? Of course we do. Wait for it…
-Jeannine Fleegle
Wildlife Biologist
PGC Deer and Elk Section
 

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Discussion Starter · #200 ·
Goldilocks
NOVEMBER 10, 2021
Humans travel a lot. And the best way to get from Point A to Point B is an established route. When I get in the car to go to the grocery, I don’t draw straight line and drive it. I take the paved road to the Weiss.
Pennsylvania topography usually makes those paved roads snake and jog unless you are traveling east-west.
If roads and ridges affect my trip to the grocery, how might it affect hunters and the deer they harvest?
During the 2005 and 2006 hunting seasons, we studied harvest rates of female deer in two different areas of Pennsylvania: the Allegheny Plateau region around the Sproul State Forest and the Ridge and Valley Region around the Tuscarora State Forest. Both study areas encompassed private and public lands.
Following radio-collared deer, we were able to locate them on the landscape knowing how far they were from the road and mountain top. We also conducted aerial surveys during the hunting season to see how hunters were distributed across the landscape.
On the Allegheny Plateau around the Sproul State Forest, you have a flat plateau at the highest elevations and steep drainages to the Susquehanna River. Roads are mostly located at the highest elevations. The graph shows an elevation profile across the study area and the arrows indicate where roads are located – at the highest points.

Consequently, guess where you find hunters? Near roads and flat areas. Below is a graph showing the highest density of hunters are nearest roads BUT only on state lands. Private lands with less restrictions on things like ATV use likely made it easier for hunters to get around so they were basically everywhere!

In the Ridge and Valley Region, roads and topography are very different. We have roads that go along ridges, along valleys, and up and over ridges.

On public lands, there are more hunters because of the proximity to population centers and the road network provides access to all of the public lands.

How does this affect deer harvest in these areas? As you might guess, harvest rates are related to distance from road and steepness of slope on the Allegheny Plateau. But less so on private lands (stippled areas) because of confounding factors like ATV use.

In the Ridge and Valley Region, the only deer that survived slightly better were ones whose home range was centered on the side hill of a steep slope. Otherwise, it didn’t really matter where a deer was located. The roads in the Ridge and Valley are high, low, and go up and over ridges. If you leave your car, you can always walk downhill to a road. Not so on the Sproul State Forest!
So what can hunters learn from all these pretty pictures? I’m sure there’s not much you don’t already know, except for one thing.
On the Sproul State Forest there is a sweet spot for hunting deer. A kind of Goldilocks “just right” location. You need to get away from a road, but not too far. You have to go “just right” far.
“Just right” far is the right combination of topography and hunters. Too many hunters and they scare all the deer away. Remember high hunter density is great for the first day or two but after that the deer adjust and avoid you like the plague. Too few hunters and deer go about their “normal” business which isn’t necessarily moving in your direction. The map below is a prediction of where you are going to have the highest probability of harvesting a deer.

Now, you can’t take this map to the bank. Some of the bright orange areas may be mountain laurel thicker than pea soup. But we found that hunters were most successful if they hunted areas with slopes of 10-20 degrees (for every 100 feet of horizontal distance the land dropped (rose) 17 to 34 feet) and if they got 500-1000 yards from the nearest road.
Go beyond 1000 yards or on steeper slopes and you won’t find any hunters (at least you won’t find me there!). There may be deer but you’re going to have to play all your cards right for one to walk past you and hope that Lady Luck is smiling in your direction.
You have to get it “just right” to outsmart a deer.
-Duane Diefenbach
 
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