Alt Comes Out of Retirement
Check out the latest from Gary Alt, PGC’s former deer guru:
Hunting focus hurts deer management, by Gary Alt
For those of us who drive, garden, own land or value
nature, the recent action of the Pennsylvania Game
Commission is cause for concern.
On April 26, the commission reduced the number of
antlerless deer-hunting licenses – the primary tool in
controlling deer populations – by 160,000. The most
severe cuts were in those state wildlife management
units where forest health and regeneration are most
threatened by deer overbrowsing.
For more than 75 years, the Pennsylvania Game
Commission has been hearing from biologists,
ecologists and foresters who say that deer need to be
balanced with their habitat at numbers the land can
sustain without long-term damage from overbrowsing.
Without this, we see more clearly than ever that we
cannot have safe highways, sustainable agriculture,
livable communities or healthy forests. But, so long
as the commission is funded primarily through hunters’
license fees, this will never happen.
Pennsylvania has more deer hunters than any other
state in the union. More important, it has the
greatest proportion of deer hunters to overall hunters
(93 percent). Deer hunters know that when they want
something from the commission – in this case, fewer
antlerless deer licenses to increase hunting
opportunities for those who are licensed – they
usually get it.
The commission’s very name identifies its primary
focus – game. In effect, Pennsylvania does not have a
wildlife conservation agency or even a wildlife
commission. Instead, conservation of our wild bird and
mammal populations is entrusted exclusively to the
game commission, an organization designed to promote
recreational hunting (primarily for deer) and whose
programs are funded through recreational hunting fees.
The result is that if you don’t hunt, you’re not a
participant in funding wildlife conservation in
Pennsylvania and have no influence in how our wildlife
resources and their habitats are managed. This may
explain why the state lacks a comprehensive wildlife
plan, a biodiversity conservation plan, an urban deer
management plan, or a plan for dealing with
fragmentation, sprawl or invasive exotic species and
their impact on native wildlife. It may also explain
why the commission spends less than 5 percent of its
budget on non-game and endangered or threatened
wildlife species. In contrast, Missouri includes all
of its citizens in the decision-making process and
funding by committing 1/8 of 1 percent of its sales
tax to fish, wildlife and forest conservation.
I am a hunter, but I am also a wildlife ecologist,
conservationist, and member of a community. I value
hunting as an important part of my life. However, I do
not believe that deer management should strive to
maintain irresponsibly high deer populations to
facilitate hunters’ enjoyment at the cost of habitat
quality, other wildlife species, or human health and
safety. Hunters should maintain deer at levels
compatible with their habitat and the broader
interests of society. The future of hunting depends on
our doing so. Nonetheless, we are failing in this
Some hunters and agency personnel suggest we need to
strive for compromise. We have already compromised our
ecology, economy, and even our safety by carrying too
many deer for too long. Pennsylvania drivers kill more
deer by accident (a minimum of 80,000 to 100,000 per
year) than hunters in many states kill intentionally
during hunting seasons. We rank second in the nation
for fatal collisions with deer. We have the
third-highest incidence of Lyme disease, and deer are
the breeding ground for the ticks that spread the
disease. And a growing number of homeowners have given
up on gardens, ornamental plantings and wildflowers
due to deer. A recent report by a group of scientists
and policy specialists commissioned by Audubon
Pennsylvania and the Pennsylvania Habitat Alliance
concluded, “The preponderance of scientific opinions
attests that the current high densities of
white-tailed deer have seriously degraded the
ecological condition of forests in Pennsylvania.
Moreover, until deer populations are reduced and
maintained at lower levels, it will not be possible to
restore key elements of forest health.” Pennsylvania
deserves wildlife funding, administration and policy
that reflect the participation of all its citizens.
This broader commitment – which ought to include
taxpayer support in some form – is necessary for our
large and diverse state to meet the complex natural
resource challenges in the 21st century for the
benefit of all our society.
UPDATE: June 8, 2005, the PGC responds.
The opening paragraph of this treatise draws a firm line for his position: “For those of us who drive, garden, own land or value nature” – i.e., he is pitting 90% of Pennsylvanians against hunters, representing about 10% of the population. I find it interesting that he claims deer have been causing damage to the forest for 75 years. Going back to 1930, you will find that there were very few deer in Pennsylvania. In the early 1950’s, hunters demanded harvesting of antlerless deer. The “biologists” then opposed antlerless seasons, believing the taking of pregnant animals would decimate the herd. In 1953 only 16,252 does were taken. That figure jumped to 284,910 last year. Dr. Alt and other biologists were right then. But do we really want to return to a harvest of less than 20,000 animals per year? The PGC is bound by statute to “protect wildlife”. Without income from hunting license sales, the agency cannot exist. Yet they have committed to DCNR, foresters, insurance carriers, and other vested interests, to decimate the herd, an action vehemently opposed by biologists 50 years ago. That seems strange, Dr. Alt, when you claim that biologists now say that deer “need to be balanced with their habitat at numbers the land can sustain without long-term damage from overbrowsing.” And, Dr. Alt, please explain why contiguous states do not have the same “overbrowsing” problem in their forests???