The Pennsylvania Experiment The rewards of restraint have a million deer hunters poised for a dream season

For 35 years straight, Dave Morreale of Pittston, Penn., got his buck. He calls it his "streak." Starting as a skinny 11-year-old and continuing right on up to a mature 46, he used the same .30/06 Remington Model 760 Gamemaster to fill his tag every year. His father gave him the rifle--he said it would never fail him. He told Dave to go out and get his buck like a man. So he did, thinking nothing could stop his annual ritual.

Then something did.

Last season Morreale didn't get his buck. His friends were flabbergasted. They wanted to know what happened. Oh, he saw plenty of bucks, he told them. He saw them every day. And many were plenty big enough to satisfy Pennsylvania's new antler-point restrictions. The problem was, none of them was big enough for his new perspective. He had become a Quality Deer Management believer, he explained to his friends. Despite their skepticism, he is more proud of that unfilled tag than of any of the yearlings he bagged in all the seasons before.

It Makes Sense

Morreale isn't alone. He's just one of a million Pennsylvania deer hunters who took the time to count points last season, men and women who are now about to reap the rewards of their restraint. The Pennsylvania Game Commission estimates that 40,000 bucks--deer that normally would have been venison burger--made it through the state's 2002 whitetail season. Basically, the plan stipulates that in some areas hunters let anything wearing less than four points on one antler walk. In other locales a buck must have at least three points on an antler to be considered legal game. In some eastern counties where previously about 90 percent of the bucks were taken out of the gene pool annually, approximately 50 percent survived the 2002 season.

Somehow, Dr. Gary Alt made it through last season as well. Alt is the wildlife biologist who has been at the helm of Pennsylvania's deer program during a storm of controversy surrounding the mandatory antler-point restrictions. As champion of the cause for a more restrictive harvest, Alt went through some trying times. Now he is living a quieter life, free of flack vests, angry mobs gathered at nightly speaking engagements and bushels of hate mail. A recent poll sponsored by the state measured support for point restrictions at 80 percent. Pennsylvania's Game Commissioners took note of the polls and voted unanimously to extend the point-restriction even to the state's urban areas--this a year after a narrowly won four-to-three vote in favor of point restrictions.

Alt, unable to hide the relief in his voice, recently prophesied, "Now that Pennsylvanians have the antler-point restrictions, they'll never give them up. They all dream of bagging a racked buck. The dire predictions from some opponents that hunters would shoot first and count points later, and thereby leave juvenile bucks lie, just didn't happen."

Actually, the season couldn't have gone more smoothly. Wildlife conservation officers handled only 2,096 mistaken kills of more than a half million deer taken (less than half of one percent). Of that number, 2,050 resulted in the hunter involved paying a $25 administrative fee and surrendering the antlers. In the few cases in which deliberate violations of the regulations occurred, hunters had to pay penalties up to $500.

When all the shooting was over, hunters harvested a total of 517,529 deer--352,113 antlerless deer and 165,416 antlered deer. The harvest compares with 2001's total harvest of 486,014 (203,247 antlered deer) and 2000's total harvest of 504,600 (203,221 antlered deer). About 70,000 more antlerless deer were harvested last year than in 2001, accomplishing another part of the mission: to reduce the state's deer herd while preserving and even improving the trophy potential of its buck population.

A Test Case?

Hunters who once thought that Alt had his sights out of alignment are now beginning to understand his aim. Consider Ed Grasavage's own road to Damascus. When Alt took over the job of Pennsylvania's deer management specialist three years ago, Grasavage, who also lives in Pittston, decided to take matters into his own hands. With his sleeves rolled up, he stood outside the Kingston High School auditorium one evening waiting for Alt to arrive. Alt was to give a speech detailing the proposed radical changes to the state's deer season. Grasavage says he was going to "punch Alt's lights out."

When Alt wisely entered via the back door, Grasavage went into the auditorium in hopes of later catching Alt as he was leaving. But by the time the meeting ended, his plan had disintegrated--Alt had succeeded in convincing him that it's better not to shoot young bucks.

The conversion was complete. Grasavage is currently the president of Pennsylvania's chapter of the Quality Deer Management Association (QDMA), a role that takes him throughout the state to preach Gary Alt's good word. More and more, Grasavage says, he has been running into out-of-staters who ask how they can get point restrictions in their states. He always answers them with the same regretful reply: "Sorry, Alt is one of a kind."

But there just might be a few nonresident converts in the making. This year Alt was the keynote speaker at the Southeast Deer Study Group--an annual conference where whitetail biologists from throughout the country gather to hold forth on management views and share information gleaned from focused studies. Alt, never one to check his views, spelled his revolutionary ideas out clearly; some bit their tongues, but most applauded.

Brian Murphy, executive director of the QDMA, says that the organization now has nearly 25,000 members, a 59 percent increase in one year. Pennsylvania doubled its membership from 705 members at the end of 2002 to 1,400 mid-year in 2003. "The trend is clear," says Murphy. "Three whitetail states [Pennsylvania, Mississippi and Arkansas] currently have statewide point restrictions and many others are expanding existing programs."

Wait for Wall-hangers

Pennsylvania has even augmented its program. Bucks with fewer than six points are now off-limits near urban areas, and the four-points-only area has been enlarged. Also, if more bucks don't make it beyond their juvenile years in the three-point area this season, Alt says he might argue that the whole state needs the four-point restriction.

And it's not just about bucks. About 1 million doe tags will be issued again this year. Last year, on average, the doe-to-buck harvest ratio was more than two-to-one. "Name another state that does that," challenges Alt. Another management concept the state has adopted is to shift to a Wildlife Management Unit system instead of setting regulations on a county-by-county basis. As a result, the Game Commission can now manage the state as separate ecosystems. Though all the attention has been focused on point restrictions, they're only a small part of a larger plan. By reducing the herd to the carrying capacity of the land and equalizing the buck-to-doe ratio, the herd will be healthier and forests will recover--places that have 6-foot-high browse lines will again have vegetation enough to sustain grouse, rabbits and songbirds. In Pennsylvania, Alt argues, hunters are now behaving as game managers, not resource users. Bigger bucks are simply a side benefit.

Still, trophy bucks are a bonus that Dave Morreale and a million other Pennsylvania deer hunters hope to win one of these days. No hurry; it will happen when it happens. Morreale plans to shoot another doe for the table--he says he has a recipe for venison chili that'll make your mouthwater. He feels good that, as a direct result of his forbearance, the herd in his home state is healthier. As for streaks, Morreale says that maybe he'll start a new one made up of real wall-hangers.

Pennsylvania's Telling Figures

60% Number of radio-collared bucks that made it through last season. Without the point restrictions it would have been closer to 20 percent.

40,000 Number of bucks that made it through last season that normally would have been harvested.

70,000 Increase in number of antlerless deer harvested in 2002 over 2001.

1,000,000 Number of doe tags that will be issued this year.

"Now that Pennsylvanians have the antler-point restrictions, they'll never give them up." Dr. Gary Alt, Pennsylvania's deer specialist