Outdoor Life Online Editor
SHARE

Biologist Gary Alt is preaching the gospel of quality deer management in Pennsylvania. Some hunters are listening, some hunters are angry. That’s why he wears a bulletproof vest.

The most controversial man in Pennsylvania, Dr. Gary Alt, and I are slouched in chairs in a quiet conference room in Harrisburg, while downstairs a thousand deer hunters are taking turns telling the Pennsylvania Game Commission (PGC) just what they think of Alt, the state’s deer-management specialist. The PGC will keep the hunters’ opinions in mind the next day when they vote on whether Alt can take his campaign for an antler-point restriction on the road.

Last year, in order to push through a combined buck and doe season, Alt stood in front of assemblies of as many as 10,000 aggravated sportsmen like some besieged president trying to sell the masses his agenda. Alt has had angry men (including the leaders of the 60,000-member Unified Sportsmen of Pennsylvania) accuse him of trying to rid the state of deer. He’s spotted a few serious-looking guys who’ve pushed back their coat jackets to display shoulder holsters. And some detractors have even sold T-shirts at his appearances bearing the slogan “Osama bin Alt.” As a result, Alt has neatly hidden a bulletproof vest under his button-down shirt and has been compelled to come into speaking engagements through side doors with fierce-looking bodyguards. Deer hunting is not taken lightly in the Keystone State.

Now, in Harrisburg, Alt is about to lay it on the line again. He’s going to tell local representatives of Pennsylvania’s 1 million deer hunters that they shouldn’t be allowed to shoot spikes and forkhorns-the bucks most likely to be found hanging from their camp poles or in the beds of their pickups in November. Alt is proposing that any buck with fewer than six points on its head should be off-limits.

Short and stout and shiny on top, Alt looks more like Seinfeld’s George Costanza than a visionary smasher of the status quo. At best his stature and ambition make you think “Napoleon complex”-he’s been accused of it before-but the label doesn’t quite fit. Alt is not dictatorial; he’s a politician in a PGC uniform who knows that public opinion can swing either way.

So as hunters downstairs are expressing their opinions of Alt to the PGC, Alt calmly explains that he’s known from the start that he would have to sell his dream or be out of a job. It wouldn’t be the first time. Noted biologists such as Aldo Leopold and Roger Latham ended their careers because of disputes over changes in deer-hunting regulations. In fact, the only reason Alt hasn’t proposed a season or two with no buck hunting at all is the fact that biologists who tried to protect Pennsylvania’s bucks back in 1928 and 1938 were fired in the ensuing public outcries. Alt says he didn’t try passing a point restriction three years ago because if he had, Pennsylvania’s deer hunters “would have gutted me and hung me to bleed.” They just weren’t ready; now he hopes they are.

Walking downstairs to find out, Alt flinches when he sees who is at the podium. A local high-school science teacher who has confronted him on numerous occasions is all but screaming, “Alt is going to destroy our great state’s deer herd!” The teacher’s speech is rancorous, but it’s short. The next speaker up, to Alt’s avail, is a hunter holding a small four-point set of antlers. “This is what I’ve been shooting on my property for thirty years,” he says. Nobody looks impressed. Then he raises up a huge 10-point rack and makes Alt’s point: “This is what I shot this year after only two years of following Alt’s advice!” Now the crowd is standing and applauding and the members of the commission are taking notes like a panel of impressed judges.

Alt is going on the road.

Selling the Dream
A month later I’m at the Wallenpaupak High School auditorium in northstern Pennsylvania. From the front row to the deputies standing at the rear doors, the room is packed with 800 ardent deer hunters. And Alt, who is halfway through his mad, 40-city, 10-week tour-and looking every night of it-is about to tell those 800 sportsmen why they shouldn’t shoot 11/2-year-old bucks anymore in a county where typically 62 percent of the yearling bucks are harvested on opening day.

He steps into the spotlight and the auditorium goes church-quiet. Alt takes a deep breath and jokes, “My twelve-year-old son, after attending one of these meetings, said to me, ‘Dad, your job sucks!'” Alt has learned that it’s hard to hate a likable person; you may disagree with him, but you won’t want to punch his lights out.

The joke brings chuckles and helps the audience to empathize with him. Next he has to convince them that his plan is the right one. Alt maintains that scientific deer management has failed in the past because no one educated the public. With that in mind, Alt gives the audience a lesson in deer biology 101 and then moves on to what they are all here for: big bucks.

Alt holds up a four-point set of antlers and says, “This is the average buck shot today in Pennsylvania.” Then he holds up an eight-point rack and says, “This is what that same buck on average will look like after one more year.” Finally, he holds up a large 10-point rack and declares, “This is what that four-point would look like at three-and-a-half years of age. We have plenty of good genetics in our deer herd in Pennsylvania. The main problem here is that the bucks don’t have a chance to get this big. The second problem is that much of the state has a browse line that’s over the deer’s heads, and, as a result, they’re not getting the necessary nutrition.”

Alt continues through his slide show, stops and points to a picture of himself standing outside a fenced enclosure, and says, “We fenced off a one-acre parcel of public land four years ago. Now look at it; inside it looks like a jungle, while on the outside it’s a desert. On the inside you’ll find rabbits and grouse and other animals, on the outside there is only barren ground. This is what the state’s 1.6 million deer are doing to our forests.”

Alt explains, “The herd needs to be reduced, but not statewide: It needs to be done strategically. Next year I will move to change the management units so that they are in line with the habitat. Once we do this, we can manage the deer in the woodlands, which are overpopulated, separately from those in farmlands.” Finally Alt goes for the jugular, changing his tone to signal that he is about to say something his listeners should mull over carefully: “The public is not going to put up with this. We either manage these deer right or they’ll find someone who will. Sharpshooters are already working in our suburbs; they could be here next.”

That’s what it’s all about, says Alt. The quest for bigger racks is only a side benefit. And the considerably complex equation of deer management in modern America has a fairly simple solution: Hunters can control the herd, repair the environment and restore equilibrium-and they’ll pay for the privilege of doing so. Alt has sold the message before. He turned Pennsylvania’s bear program into an international success story. The BBC, National Geographic and the Discovery Channel have all given positive coverage of his black bear program in Pennsylvania, and now he is getting them interested in deer management. More than that, he’s going to make them understand that hunters are the right people to make sure the management plan works.

To the Last Word
After two hours at the Wallenpaupak podium, Alt is covered with sweat and almost panting. Nobody has left during his lecture. He has poured his scientific heart out and thereby kept them riveted, and, as he opens the floor to questions, is about to find out if they support him. Three podiums are set up at the base of the stage, and as Alt turns to the one on the right, he winces. A disgruntled sportsman doesn’t wait for his cue to scream, “I’ve been hunting in this state for fifty-five years and I say you’re dead wrong. You held up those big antlers to gain support, but I say you’re going to decimate the herd. What you’re really holding up is an empty hand.”

Alt begins to answer but is quickly cut off by a heckler who screams, “Sit down, you selfish[BRACKET “bleep”]. Alt is right!”

Alt looks relieved, but the angry sportsman turns and answers the heckler by shouting, “I just wanna shoot my buck. I don’t care about big antlers. And what’s wrong with that?”

Suddenly, the bulk of the audience lets Alt know whose side it’s on. Voices from all over heap reproaches and derogatory remarks on Alt’s critic. The audience wants big bucks. The disgruntled sportsman gets back in the speakers’ line and disparages Alt’s plan four more times before the ridicule finally drives him from the auditorium.

In just three years in Pennsylvania the mind-set of most hunters has swung from being proud of shooting any buck, even spikes, to at least considering the possibility that something better might be a few years away. This begs a larger question: Are other states with poor buck-to-doe ratios on public land similar tinderboxes where hunters are dreaming of trophy racks? Could those big deer on the covers of magazines and the monster bucks on those Saturday morning hunting shows have fueled a push for something better? Can such a grand scheme work? Alt thinks so.

Now all he has to do is prove it.

Coming Next Month Is mandatory quality deer management being considered by your state? Do statewide point restrictions work? This and more in Part 2. they support him. Three podiums are set up at the base of the stage, and as Alt turns to the one on the right, he winces. A disgruntled sportsman doesn’t wait for his cue to scream, “I’ve been hunting in this state for fifty-five years and I say you’re dead wrong. You held up those big antlers to gain support, but I say you’re going to decimate the herd. What you’re really holding up is an empty hand.”

Alt begins to answer but is quickly cut off by a heckler who screams, “Sit down, you selfish[BRACKET “bleep”]. Alt is right!”

Alt looks relieved, but the angry sportsman turns and answers the heckler by shouting, “I just wanna shoot my buck. I don’t care about big antlers. And what’s wrong with that?”

Suddenly, the bulk of the audience lets Alt know whose side it’s on. Voices from all over heap reproaches and derogatory remarks on Alt’s critic. The audience wants big bucks. The disgruntled sportsman gets back in the speakers’ line and disparages Alt’s plan four more times before the ridicule finally drives him from the auditorium.

In just three years in Pennsylvania the mind-set of most hunters has swung from being proud of shooting any buck, even spikes, to at least considering the possibility that something better might be a few years away. This begs a larger question: Are other states with poor buck-to-doe ratios on public land similar tinderboxes where hunters are dreaming of trophy racks? Could those big deer on the covers of magazines and the monster bucks on those Saturday morning hunting shows have fueled a push for something better? Can such a grand scheme work? Alt thinks so.

Now all he has to do is prove it.

Coming Next Month Is mandatory quality deer management being considered by your state? Do statewide point restrictions work? This and more in Part 2.

MORE TO READ