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Reflections on 20 years of deer hunting in the state

It seems hard to believe that it is time to write about the opening day of the regular deer season this week.

I began writing my weekly outdoors column for the Mirror about 20 years ago, and until last year, my annual column about the first day of deer season traditionally appeared on the Sunday after Thanksgiving, which was the day before the Monday season opener.

That changed last year, of course, when the first day was moved to the Saturday after Thanksgiving. Many hunters, especially those who travel to hunting camps around the state, needed to adjust their deer-season rituals to accommodate the new opening day, and I had to bump my deer-season column up a week.

That is the case again this year, as the Saturday opener continues and appears to be the way of the future. Another major change to the opening weekend, however, will occur this year with the first day of regulated Sunday hunting during the regular deer season on Nov. 29.

I really had no strong feelings one way or the other when the first day was changed from the longstanding Monday to Saturday. But I did think it was a little silly to have a Saturday start and then be faced with a forced day off on Sunday. That is now rectified, and Pennsylvania deer hunters will be able to enjoy eight straight days of hunting during the first week of the season.

Starting deer season on a weekend and now the trial Sunday hunting day cap the latest changes in what have been a remarkable 20 years in the history of Pennsylvania deer hunting. We entered the twenty-first century with longtime Pennsylvania Game Commission bear biologist Gary Alt being promoted to head the agency’s deer management program. Alt’s stated mission from the get-go was a drastic overall reduction of Pennsylvania’s deer herd to promote forest regeneration and he wasted no time implementing sweeping changes.

To sell his program, he conducted dozens of public meetings and seminars throughout the state, telling hunters “they were going to have to get used to seeing fewer deer.” To mitigate the resistance to reducing the deer herd, Alt offered up statewide antler restrictions, promising bucks with bigger antlers.

The 2000s started with unprecedented high numbers of doe license allocations and correspondingly high doe harvests. Separate buck and doe seasons were abandoned in favor of a two-week concurrent buck/doe season. Antler restrictions were established with a four-point restriction in most of western Pennsylvania and a three-point rule in the rest of the state.

In 2003, the state was divided into 21 separate Wildlife Management Units to better manage not only deer but also most other species as well, except for elk, waterfowl and other migratory birds.

The biggest gamechanger to deer hunting as we once knew it came in 2012, when three wild deer in Blair and Bedford counties were found to be infected with chronic wasting disease. This insidious disease is always fatal to any animal it infects, and there is no cure, no preventative vaccine and no way to test live animals for the disease.

Wherever it appears, CWD always spreads and always gets worse. To control the spread of CWD the Game Commission established a Disease Management Area with special restrictions in place there, including a prohibition on feeding wild deer.

Currently, there are three DMAs in Pennsylvania, and each has expanded this year. Hunters should be aware of the boundaries of the DMAs because moving so-called high-risk parts of any deer harvesting within a DMA outside of that DMA is prohibited. High-risk parts include: the head (including brain, tonsils, eyes and any lymph nodes); spinal cord/backbone; spleen; skull plate with attached antlers, if visible brain or spinal cord tissue is present; cape, if visible brain or spinal cord tissue is present; upper canine teeth, if root structure or other soft tissue is present; any object or article containing visible brain or spinal cord tissue; unfinished taxidermy mounts; and brain-tanned hides.

To find the map of DMA boundaries and complete information about CWD in Pennsylvania, go to the PGC website, pgc.pa.gov. On the left side of the homepage, go to the “Quick Clicks” box and click on the “Chronic Wasting Disease” link.

Although there has been no evidence to date that humans can contract CWD, hunters are advised not to consume the meat of any deer that tests positive for CWD. To monitor the spread and prevalence of CWD as a precautionary measure, to better facilitate hunters with having their deer tested for CWD, and to properly dispose of high-risk parts of deer they harvest, the PGC has established a network of head-collection bins, high-risk parts dumpsters, cooperating deer processors and taxidermists throughout the current DMAs.

An interactive map is available on the Game Commission website that shows the location of these resources. Hunters can have their deer tested free by taking the head to a collection bin with the DMA. Properly tagged deer heads deposited in the bin will be tested with the results made available to the hunter within three weeks.

Best wishes to all for a safe and successful season.

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