In the statement below, issued May 12, Pennsylvania Game Commission spokesman Jerry Feaser challenged the published views of writer-photographer John Eveland, who has been critical of the state's deer management plan.
In the last year, John Eveland has been offering his views of the Pennsylvania Game Commission’s deer management program. Unfortunately, there have been many mistakes and errors on the part of Mr. Eveland, as well as completely false allegations. I would like to offer your readers a rebuttal from the Game Commission.
It is important to note that the debate over deer management has existed in this state since the first antlerless deer season was held in 1923. So, in a larger sense, Mr. Eveland is simply the latest to play the role that many others have over the past nine decades; that of proclaiming the imminent demise of our deer herd. It is without doubt, that this debate will last another 90 years. I do not believe anyone can pretend that a solution could ever be reached that will please all interests, from hunters to landowners, from farmers to those who want to return to the days of seeing hundreds of deer a day while afield.
However, as that debate continues, certain facts regarding wildlife management practices must be reinforced, as these principles hold very specific meaning to those trained in the science of wildlife management. Admittedly, some of these concepts are as foreign to the layman – myself included – as nuclear engineering. Despite the complexities, the procedures and techniques used by wildlife management professionals involved in the present scientific community are irrefutable, no matter how dry, boring or confusing they may be to you or me.
That being said, the premise for most of Mr. Eveland’s allegations is that the Game Commission’s deer management agenda was defined by Audubon, the Department of Conservation and Natural Resources (DCNR), and other environmental interests and focused solely on deer herd reduction. On this point alone, Mr. Eveland’s assertion is patently false.
The fact is, in 2000, the Game Commission began an earnest effort to reach deer density objectives that had been put in place in the 1980s. Unfortunately, during the 1980s and 1990s, deer populations routinely exceeded these objectives. Difficulties in reaching these objectives were documented in two articles published in the Wildlife Society Bulletin, a scientific, peer-reviewed journal, in 1997. The Game Commission’s desire to achieve these objectives led to increased hunting pressure on deer populations, not an alliance with “special interests” as claimed by Mr. Eveland. There was no conspiracy, nor secret meetings. Every step of the agency’s herd reduction plan was discussed and adopted in public meetings. The bottom line is Mr. Eveland’s allegations that the Game Commission’s deer program was designed by some secret cabal are false.
In his most recent series of claims, Mr. Eveland takes on the Game Commission’s deer harvest estimates. Game Commission deer harvest estimates are the most reviewed component of the agency’s deer management program. The Game Commission uses common, time-proven wildlife management methods to estimate the harvest. In fact, Game Commission procedures have been peer reviewed and published in the Journal of Wildlife Management, one of the world’s leading wildlife management journals. Deer harvest estimates receive their principal data from hunter-provided harvest reports; more than 100,000 annually. To corroborate hunter harvest reports, the Game Commission annually surveys hunters and asks them how many deer they harvested. For the past two decades, hunter survey results have consistently matched harvest estimates. The credibility of harvest estimates has been acknowledged by scientific reviews and is confirmed by hunter surveys.
In his analysis, Mr. Eveland calculated the deer population and then concluded the Game Commission’s deer harvest estimates are inaccurate. He further accused the Game Commission of incompetence and deception. However, Mr. Eveland’s recent assessment of deer harvest estimates contained numerous errors.
Mr. Eveland’s conclusion is based on a series of assumptions and miscalculations. First, he attempted to calculate the deer population in Pennsylvania using deer harvest estimates and annual mortality rates. Although he references scientific sources for his numbers, Mr. Eveland incorrectly identifies the population he calculated. He claims to have calculated a “post-hunting season” deer population when he actually calculated a “pre-hunting season” population. Population growth rates assumed by Mr. Eveland are based on pre-hunting populations, not post-hunt populations. As a result, Mr. Eveland is correct when he states that his estimate of 1.7 million deer is unlikely; but the reason is because of his calculation errors, not the Game Commission’s.
Based on his miscalculations, Mr. Eveland then concludes that “a dire circumstance likely exists – the deer herd is being grossly overharvested and is collapsing.” There is no evidence to support his conclusion.
Now consider this: Harvest estimates since 2005 have averaged 333,000 harvested deer. In addition, hunter survey results since 2005 averaged 327,000 harvested deer. These harvest levels could not be sustained if the herd were collapsing.
In addition, field studies involving hundreds of tagged and radio-collared deer across Pennsylvania show that the majority of these marked deer survive our hunting seasons and the population is not collapsing.
Second, Mr. Eveland claims hunting license sales have declined from a peak in the early 1980s as a direct result of lower deer populations. Again, facts do not support this allegation. During the 1980s and 1990s, deer populations increased, but license sales declined. Contrary to Mr. Eveland’s claim, hunting license sales have been steadily declining for nearly 30 years, despite deer population increases during 20 of those years. Declining numbers of hunters is a concern throughout the United States, but increasing deer populations through the 1990s did not result in higher license sales and more deer will not reverse this trend.
Third, Mr. Eveland makes a number of mistakes when presenting Game Commission information. For example, he incorrectly states that license sales dropped to 670,000 last year. Hunting licenses sales since 1998 are available to the public on the Game Commission’s website. A quick look at the website shows 948,323 general licenses were sold last year. Not 670,000 as Mr. Eveland claimed.
He also incorrectly states that the Game Commission has a target of five to six deer per square mile in Wildlife Management Unit 2G. In fact, there are no deer density targets in the Game Commission’s 2009-2018 deer management plan, which may be reviewed in its entirety on the agency’s website. Mr. Eveland later contradicts his own statement when he accurately quotes from the Game Commission deer plan, “Deer management objectives are no longer defined by deer densities.”
Mr. Eveland’s finger-pointing, erroneous calculations, and inaccurate reporting mislead the public. None of his claims promote a constructive discussion on deer management, nor do they do anything to improve deer management for Pennsylvania’s citizens, wildlife or habitats.
The Game Commission employs an objective and open process to manage Pennsylvania’s white-tailed deer. The Game Commission has engaged the public to identify deer management goals. It also has completed citizens advisory committees in each of the state’s wildlife management units. These committees provided deer population recommendations that were considered along with deer and forest habitat health. In most cases, the Game Commission followed the citizens advisory committees’ recommendations.
The Game Commission’s deer program has been reviewed by professional wildlife biologists, investigated under a legislatively-sponsored audit, and challenged in court by lawsuits brought by the Unified Sportsmen of Pennsylvania. None of these reviews or investigations have identified deceptive practices or agenda-driven recommendations. The reason for this is simple: the Game Commission’s deer management program is an objective and scientific program that strives to meet our state constitutional obligation to manage wildlife and habitats for current and future generations.
The deer program routinely has solicited constructive criticism and uses the best available science to improve management decisions. Game Commission staff continually scrutinizes the deer program and strengthens it through field research, evaluations, and external reviews from wildlife professionals throughout the country. For information on all aspects of the Game Commission’s deer management program, please visit the Game Commission’s website, www.pgc.state.pa.us, and click on “White-tailed deer.”
In closing, as hunting and deer inspire deep and personal passions, I am under no delusion that this reply will end the debate. On the contrary, democracies are kept alive by thorough and rigorous debate. What I certainly do hope can be put aside are the outlandish conspiracy theories and claims that the Game Commission is attempting to “exterminate” the state’s deer. No one who works for the state’s wildlife management agency at any level would sit still or quiet if that were the goal, and such claims do nothing to move the discussion forward.
Pennsylvania Game Commission