Examining antler restrictions and chronic wasting disease on deers
Chronic wasting disease continues to spread in Pennsylvania.
Hunters are paying the price in many ways. But having to sacrifice the chance at bigger-racked deer won't be one of them.
At least not yet.
There's no evidence — from Pennsylvania or anywhere else — that eliminating antler point restrictions would stop or even slow the creep of wasting disease across the landscape, said Chris Rosenberry, head of the Game Commission's deer and elk section.
At the same time, they're hugely popular with hunters. A 2014 survey of deer hunters found they support antler restrictions by a 3-to-1 margin.
So don't expect biologists to suggest doing away with them any time soon.
"Given this level of satisfaction with antler point restrictions, we as managers should have a good justification if we're going to make a change. For example, if we have good evidence that removing antler point restrictions will have a noticeable, positive effect on CWD management, then we would recommend such a change," Rosenberry said.
"At this point, without good evidence, we have not made that recommendation."
Commission board members asked Rosenberry to address the issue because some hunters — a small but vocal minority, some believe — have been lobbying for an end to point restrictions for the sake of deer herd health.
The thinking is that it's young deer moving around on the landscape that are spreading wasting disease.
It's true young deer "disperse," Rosenberry said. Fifty to 70 percent of yearling bucks — those 18 months old or younger — leave the area where they were born. They travel five miles, on average, before setting up a new home range.
About 30 percent of them take that journey between April and July. The rest take off in late summer, after their first set of antlers hardens, he said.
That, he said, is too early for hunting to do any good.
Archers don't hit the woods in most of the state until October. Harvests start slow, then gradually pick up steam. Finally, it's during the firearms deer season, after Thanksgiving, when the majority of the buck harvest takes place.
Bucks have already finished moving by then.
"In terms of timing, dispersal is essentially completed when most of our antlered bucks are being harvested. And if reducing dispersal is the goal, the bucks need to be removed before they grow that first set of antlers," Rosenberry said.
"And that can only occur with antlerless harvests."
That's not to say hunting seasons in their current form aren't helping contain wasting disease.
Surveys done in other states show that — to control wasting disease as best as possible — buck harvests should remove at least 30 percent of the antlered deer in a population annually. And that harvest should occur largely after the rut.
Pennsylvania deer seasons check both of those boxes, Rosenberry said. They are "adequate for CWD management" as a result.
He pointed out, too, that yearling bucks only account for 20 percent of the deer population at the close of hunting seasons. Females are 50 percent of what's left. Juveniles — buck and doe fawns — are another 20 percent.
That's noteworthy, Rosenberry said.
"As a result, if we removed every antlered deer each year, we would still have 75 percent of the population capable of perpetuating the spread of CWD to new areas," he said.
It's understandable that hunters are looking for answers, said commission president Tim Layton of Somerset County. It's an insidious disease, yet one that's confounding.
"It's frustrating, isn't it? There are no absolute answers when it comes to CWD," he said.
There's nothing to suggest that subpopulations of deer in different areas of Pennsylvania are different enough to ward off wasting disease, either.
Commission Jim Daley of Butler County asked if that might be true, and if it might have implications for Pennsylvania.
But Rosenberry said all deer that contract wasting disease die. Some may live longer than others, but all perish.
The difference in survival periods isn't significant enough to impact management, he said.
So for now, antler restrictions are staying. There's no reason to suggest otherwise, Rosenberry said.
But nothing's written in stone, either.
"Given the serious nature of CWD, we will continue our evaluations of antler point restrictions as new information becomes available," he said.
Bob Frye is the everybodyadventures.com editor. Reach him at 412-216-0193 or firstname.lastname@example.org. See other stories, blogs, videos and more at everybodyadventures.com.