You can take a deer out of the forest, but you can't take the forest out of deer management - the two are too closely linked.
Forests provide food and cover for deer and other wildlife. And deer, as primary consumers of forest plants, can impact forest health and, thus, their own habitat and habitat for other wildlife.
The deer-forest connection couldn't be much stronger. And that's why the Pennsylvania Game Commission for decades has studied the relationship between deer and the forests in which they live, and has used those and other findings in its deer-management decisions.
As the years progressed, the methods used to measure forest health became more sophisticated. A higher level of detail on factors affecting tree regeneration became available as a result. Today, the data the Game Commission uses in determining forest health represents the best that has ever been available.
However, no monitoring system is perfect. And, as a result, the Game Commission and its research partners have begun a study to answer a simple question: Can we do better?
The Game Commission, in partnership with the state Department of Conservation and Natural Resources, the Pennsylvania State University, and the U.S. Geological Survey's Pennsylvania Cooperative Fish and Wildlife Research Unit, recently launched a new study into the impacts deer have on forest regeneration, and the current methods used to evaluate those impacts.
The Deer-Forest Study also will assess hunter activities and experiences.
In the field, forest regeneration data, deer impacts, deer populations and forest-management practices will be monitored. In addition, hunters will be surveyed to gather information on their activities while hunting the study areas.
"A primary concern and consideration for the Game Commission is that the data we use accurately reflect the effects of deer on forests," said Christopher Rosenberry, who supervises the Game Commission's deer and elk section. "Deer are not the only factor affecting forest regeneration, but our assessment of deer impacts on forests is the most important habitat measure used in deer-management recommendations."
Rosenberry said evaluating the role of deer in forest regeneration, as measured by the deer-impact assessment, and making responsible adjustments, will benefit hunters in a number of ways.
The study will provide new insight into the effect of deer on forest regeneration. Given their browsing in the forest understory, deer often are an easy target when it comes to lagging forest regeneration. But they're not the only factor. And Rosenberry said the study will help to ensure that misplaced blame doesn't fall on deer in cases where deer aren't the cause of slowed regeneration.
A better understanding of deer impacts in real-world conditions in Pennsylvania also will help ensure that any recommendations to reduce deer populations due to forest impacts are truly necessary.
"Recommendations to reduce deer populations are not taken lightly," Rosenberry said. "And this study is designed to strengthen the data upon which future recommendations are based."
In the last decade, the Game Commission has evaluated key components of its deer research program. Harvest estimates, fawn-to-doe ratios, population monitoring and methods of gathering citizen input have been evaluated and published in scientific journals.
The findings from the commission's research also are incorporated into the deer program, and have improved the commission's management and understanding of whitetails and deer conflicts.
The Deer-Forest Study represents the next step in improving the deer program, Rosenberry said.
But the study can't be completed without hunters' help. Those hunting in the areas being studied will provide critical input.
Study areas are located within Bald Eagle, Rothrock and Susquehannock state forests on properties enrolled in the state's Deer Management Assistance Program (DMAP). Study areas are marked with signs in parking lots and along roads.
Hunters must register when hunting these study areas. Hunters can register by visiting the white-tailed deer page at the Game Commission's website, then clicking on the "Deer-Forest Study" link in the "Research and Surveys" category.
After deer season concludes, hunters will be mailed a survey to record their hunting success and experiences. Individual surveys will remain confidential. Only summary information will be provided as public information.
"Understanding hunter effort, hunter success rates, deer harvests and hunter opinions and observations is a critical part of the study," Rosenberry said. "We are relying on hunters to provide these important data by registering."
More information about the Deer-Forest Study is available online at the Game Commission's website, www.pgc.state.pa.us.