What’s the value of a white-tailed deer compared to that of a black bear? A bobcat? A coyote? And how far are people willing to go to protect deer at the expense of those other species?
We may find out.
The Pennsylvania Game Commission is considering doing a study aimed at determining what impact predators are having on deer populations and what, if anything, can or should be done to minimize it.
That long has been a hot-button topic in Pennsylvania, one frequently debated by biologists, board members, sportsmen and lawmakers.
“This has been, at least as far as I’m concerned, a subject we’ve had to take a look at for a couple of years now,” said commissioner Jay Delaney of Luzerne County. “It’s something our customers have been asking for.”
To satisfy that, commissioners in April asked agency staff to come up with a possible predation study. The proposal unveiled by biologists this past week — which still is preliminary and not yet approved — would run from April 2015 to April 2020 and cost $3.9 million. That would make it the largest, most expensive deer study in agency history.
Specifically, it would seek to answer three questions:
• Is predation on fawns by black bears and coyotes compensatory, meaning that if you lowered the population of one predator, would populations of the other increase and result in as many dead fawns as ever?
•Does eliminating predators lead to more deer still alive when the fall hunting seasons arrive?
•And is there a way to control predators efficiently enough to increase deer populations on a scale hunters could notice?
The study would be carried out in three 150-square-mile blocks in wildlife management unit 2G in north-central Pennsylvania. One would be a control area, where no predator controls would be enacted. Biologists would spend two years reducing black bear populations — by as much as 50 percent — in one of the other areas while trying to do the same with coyotes in the other, said Matt Lovallo, supervisor of the commission’s game mammals section. They’d go after both predators in each area in the next two years.
Hunters, courtesy of longer seasons, would be the tool for reducing bear numbers, he added. To deal with coyotes, which already can be hunted 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, the commission would employ professionals.
“They would be paid, full-time trappers working year-round using a variety of devices, including everything from leg-hold traps to cable restraints, pretty much everything that’s legal,” Lovallo said.
Some board members blanched at the study’s proposed cost.
“I want to see the answers, but it does seem like an incredible amount of money,” said commissioner Ron Weaner of Adams County.
Chris Rosenberry, head of the commission’s deer management section, said the commission’s fawn mortality study of 2001-02 revealed that black bears and coyotes, with about equal frequency, eat fawns in their first few weeks of life. Neither that work nor ongoing monitoring of the ratio of fawns to adult does in the annual hunter harvest suggests predators are affecting deer on a population scale, though, he added.
If commissioners want to learn something new, they need to fund a study that determines “can we even do anything with predators?” Rosenberry said.
“That’s what this boils down to,” he said.
Hunters likely will have to learn to live with coyotes, commissioner Dave Putnam of Centre County said. The commission has, with extended seasons, shown an ability to lower black bear populations. But whether hunters would be willing to knock them back and keep them there long-term might be something else, he said.
“That will be the interesting part. We have to talk to hunters and ask them, ‘How far are we willing to go?’ ” Putnam said.
“You’re going to have some guys who say they just want more deer, so go kill bears. Other guys are going to say their camp only hunts bears, so they want more around. Keep your deer, they’ll say.”
It’s possible the nonhunting public might get involved, too, Lovallo added.
A fawn survival study in Michigan was similarly initially to involve large-scale predator reduction, he said, but negative public reaction scuttled that.
Delaney and Putnam agreed a predator study of some sort will get done here.
Whether it will be the one proposed by staff or a smaller, less-expensive version will be determined this summer.
“I’m just looking for better information to make management decisions,” Delaney said.
Even if a study provides that, it probably will do little to blunt criticism of the agency’s deer management program from some quarters, said Cal DuBrock, director of its bureau of wildlife management.
“What I’m hearing from some of our customers is, ‘Look, commissioners, you can do whatever you want, just give us more deer.’ That’s what they want,” DuBrock said. “This study doesn’t get you there.”