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Outdoorsmen await new deer guidelines

HARRISBURG -- The fate of Pennsylvania's deer hunting will be decided Tuesday -- for a few months, anyway.

Tomorrow, Pennsylvania Game Commissioners will give tentative approval to seasons and bag limits for the 2011-12 hunting and trapping seasons. Final approval will follow in April.

Several commissioners have said they are considering changes, such as making the first five days of the firearms deer season bucks-only in all of the state's wildlife management units.

The public got to weigh in Sunday at a hearing at the commission's headquarters.

Thirteen of the 25 people who spoke addressed deer management, and they offered some wildly varying opinions.

Randy Santucci of Robinson Township, vice president of the Unified Sportsmen of Pennsylvania -- the group suing the Game Commission over its deer program -- was one of four critics. Santucci said the program was conceived in 2001 to greatly reduce deer populations. Ten years later, with deer numbers way down and coyote predation adding to the kill, the plan remains largely the same, he said.

That needs to change, he said.

"This is not culture shock, nor hunters wanting to see a deer behind every tree. This is about a plan out of control that was begun with no end clearly defined," Santucci said. "You commissioners need to provide that end."

Others disagreed, saying that the commission needs to continue relying on scientific habitat data in setting seasons, bag limits and doe license allocations.

"Deer are a natural part of the ecosystem. We do not want deer eradicated," said Blaine Puller, representing the Society of American Foresters' Pennsylvania deer, farm and forest committee. "But their population must be in balance with healthy habitat."

Rick Watts, president of the state chapter of the Quality Deer Management Association, said that despite criticism from a "vocal minority," the deer hunting in Pennsylvania is still pretty good. In 2009 it was one of just six states where hunters killed more than 300,000 deer and it gave up more antlered and antlerless deer per square mile than the average for the Northeast.

Changing the deer program without any scientific basis jeopardizes that, he said.

Rocco Ali of Apollo, representing the Pennsylvania Federation of Sportsmen's Clubs, said that group believes science and habitat should be the main factors determining deer seasons. But he also said that "the majority of Pennsylvania hunters don't want to hear that choice."

The result is infighting, political pressure and a possible "implosion" in the hunting community.

Commissioners need to still do what's right by the resource, which in this case means managing for deer based on habitat and avoiding any rush toward split seasons when a study on their validity is still ongoing, he said.

"Closing the first week to antlerless hunting statewide constitutes a 'one-size-fits-all' approach, a concept a few commissioners have been touting as a fatal flaw in the program," Ali said. "Why is it suddenly an acceptable philosophy?"

Some, though, want change.

State Rep. Bob Godshall, one of the politicians who's been praised and condemned for his frequent criticism of the commission's deer program, said this past hunting season was yet another poor one marked by too few deer.

"Something has to happen somewhere along the line to this deer herd," he said.

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