Special Interest

Naturally Speaking

Void Left by Alt’s Retirement
As many of you already know, Pennsylvania Game Commission biologist Dr. Gary Alt surprised the outdoor world by announcing his retirement ten days ago. His departure, effective today, has the potential to affect commission policy and ultimately, deer hunters, farmers, nature lovers and our forests.
Throughout much of Alt’s 27-year career with the commission, he was the very successful researcher and manager of the state’s black bear population. In 1999, Alt was asked to be the point man for the agency’s Deer Management Section, and he accepted the position and the challenge.
“Gary took on a difficult job trying to manage Pennsylvania’s most controversial big game species,” Game Commission Executive Director Vern Ross said. “It was perhaps the most challenging job in the state, and there was no way anyone in his position could please everyone. Hunters see too few deer, while landowners, such as farmers and foresters, state there are too many deer.”
For three years, Alt traveled across the state, hosting hundreds of meetings to explain deer management to hunters and non-hunters alike. Crowds were often hostile, but Alt always handled himself professionally and usually won over most individuals by presenting the facts. Under Alt’s leadership, fawn mortality, antlered deer and other deer studies were initiated by the PGC.
Alt promoted a better breeding ecology within the deer population, quality deer management and a deer herd that is in balance with its forest habitat. With the majority of hunters in support, the face of Pennsylvania deer management and deer hunting changed. To achieve Alt’s goals, two-tiered antler restrictions, concurrent buck and doe seasons and higher antlerless deer permit allocations were instituted.
PGC president Russ Schleiden of Centre Hall commented, “I’m sorry to lose Gary right now, and I just can’t say enough positive things about him. He was a great orator and I have the utmost respect for the effort that he has put forth on behalf of the deer, our forests and future generations of hunters.”
2005 and Beyond
Not everyone is happy with Alt’s deer management programs, and it seems that Pennsylvania’s deer woods were filled with disgruntled hunters last fall. The Game Commission invites public comment and I expect an unprecedented turnout at the PGC’s January meeting, where the 2005-06 seasons and bag limits will be discussed. The outcome of this meeting, along with the PGC’s April meeting, may well determine the future of deer management for 2005 and beyond. During the April meeting, seasons will be finalized and the number of antlerless permits will be discussed
Like a pack of wolves following a weakened elk, I fear that those opposing the current system of deer management will view Alt’s departure as an opportunity in the PGC. The wolves are circling and January 23 is when they’ll move in for what they hope is a “killing” of our current deer management.
Commissioner Schleiden welcomes the public input. “That’s why we have the meeting,” he said.
“Our deer management decisions will be made after we get all of the necessary data, including hunter comments. Although Alt had an extremely important role, he was just one part of our deer management team,” Schleiden said in a phone interview last week.
Schleiden explained that he and the other commissioners regularly consult with all of the deer managers, not just Alt. “We have a very professional staff,” he noted.
When asked about hunter complaints, Schleiden acknowledged that many have already been received. “Even Alt expected more hunter complaints following this season. We are attempting to bring the deer herd into balance with its habitat. One year doesn’t make or break a deer management program. No one ever said that it wouldn’t need fine tuning.”
A Multitude of Proposals
What will the commission decide? What would you do?
I expect that many proposals will either be presented at the January meeting or sent to the PGC prior to the date. I’ve seen a few of the letters and petitions. These include various individuals and groups lobbying for or against Sunday hunting, a proposal from the PA Farm Bureau to lengthen the rifle deer season to three weeks, a proposal to eliminate the concurrent deer seasons in favor of returning to the old system, many voices for fewer antlerless permits, requests for no doe hunting on public lands, a request from the Department of Conservation and Natural Resources for more DMAP permits, the elimination of DMAP, a specific petition pertaining to Wildlife Management Unit 4D and possibly many other specific WMU requests.
Some of these requests will be polite and informed, while I fear that others will rehash the same old myths about auto insurance companies, an overblown influence from the Audubon Society and greedy timber companies and farmers just wanting all of the deer dead.
Unlike many others, I’ve always trusted that the PGC would make adjustments as necessary, the “fine tuning” that Schleiden mentioned. Personally, I hope that the commission does listen to hunters as well as to their biologists and adjusts the numbers of antlerless permits as necessary. Overall, I hope that they stay on course with the same philosophies that Alt presented so well. Antler restrictions and the concurrent buck and doe seasons add excitement to deer hunting.
If you think about the future, you know that the deer herd must not be allowed to devastate the forest. Whether you attribute it to DCNR forest certification, timber company greed or just common sense, our important oak forests must have an environment where they can successfully reproduce themselves. Without healthy oak forests, Mother Nature will demand fewer deer, bear and wild turkey no matter what management plan the Game Commission or hunters want. I hope that our appointed commissioners plan for the future of hunting and not just pay attention to the cacophony of single-interest voices in the present.
Mark Nale can be reached at