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History of the Whitetail


Selective Memory

By J.T. Fleegle
Wildlife Biologist

This column has looked at deer hair and digestion, followed the glamorous life of a biologist, and busted some old wives' tales about our beloved state animal. Now where shall we go? How about a trip down memory lane? History has never been my favorite subject. I would much rather do stuff than read about people who did stuff.

But that doesn't mean I don't appreciate the past and what we can learn from it for the future. History can take many forms — natural history, world history, personal history.

For example, I spent a lovely cool July 4th picking raspberries several years ago. I remember this day in my personal history because it was unseasonably cool, and I got the worst case of chiggers in my life. My history of raspberry picking taught me that chiggers are more active at cooler temperatures and that I should always tuck my shirt in. Lesson learned.

While this experience is burned into my memory, most "history" is not experienced firsthand. And this is the trouble with the past. It happened in the past. Let's face it. Most of us are only concerned with what happens today. Unless it has some life-altering effect (like being covered in chigger bites from the waist to the knees), most of our past is archived and only browsed occasionally at family functions. And some of those memories aren't true to life. Come on, we've all been accused of having selective memories. Recalling only the parts we like or that suit our cause instead of what actually happened.

Well, like it or not, we are going to recount the entire story of deer and deer management in Pennsylvania. Forgetting the common history of the whitetail exposes us to silly mistakes — like forgetting to tuck your shirt in while standing in waist high raspberry brambles in July.

For many, the story of the white-tailed deer spans only a few decades, or as long as one person's memory. But be advised, our story will begin hundreds of years ago. Back when the population estimate of white-tailed deer was 300,000 — for the entire United States. That's right — the entire white-tailed population in 1890 was less than last year's statewide harvest.

We Hit the Jackpot

By J.T. Fleegle
Wildlife Biologist

Ever dream of hitting Powerball? I do. Oh, the things I would do. For certain, this would be the last installment of the Life and Times series. I'm sure my two dedicated fans would be disappointed; but, hey, those are the breaks. Granted, I don't live in poverty and I'm pretty sure of my next meal, but not having to worry about everyday things anymore is very appealing.

So what if I did live the "hard" life? What if I wasn't sure of how I would keep my family fed and warm through the winter? What if the grocery store was the great outdoors and the shelves were barely stocked? This might be my situation if I had lived in Europe during the era of colonization. Depleted resources at home and unknown riches abroad spurred the exploration and "discovery" of new worlds. And if I was lucky, I would survive the 5-month journey across the Atlantic and in doing so "hit the jackpot."

As you well know, life was not all roses and daisies for colonists of the New World. But the treasures that it held were beyond anything they dreamed of in their homeland. In 1682, when William Penn arrived in his newly acquired province, he was flabbergasted at the natural wealth he found. He wrote that elk, deer, raccoons, beaver, rabbits, turkeys and pigeons were so plentiful that "they run in droves into the house in cold weather." Well, I'm not quite sure I believe that but, the fact is, Pennsylvania was teaming with wildlife, and the effort required to obtain it was far less than anything experienced in the Old World.

The population in Pennsylvania hit 300,000 by 1776, a 500 percent increase in just 60 years. And the colonists did what anyone would do if they hit the lottery. They spent their money. Deer were abundant and a primary food source. The venison that was not sold or traded was salted and used by the colonists themselves. In time, Penn's Woods were transformed for agriculture, providing even more food for the growing numbers of residents of the commonwealth.

The natural resource account was busting at the seams and the bank was always open. No one was turned away. Colonists had everything they needed and apparently all they really had to do was leave the door open on a cold night to wake up to a house full of game. What could go wrong?


By J.T. Fleegle
Wildlife Biologist

When I do win Powerball, I am sure my monetary worries will be over for life. I mean who can't live out the rest of their days with $164 million. What! You're telling me that a normal Joe can become rich and spend more money than he has ever made in his life in a matter of a couple of years. Inconceivable.

Perhaps it is inconceivable to you and me — the poor schmucks who haven't won the lottery. But it is true. You've read about them in the paper, seen them on the news. Even those with a multimillion dollar paycheck can't seem to balance their budgets. I guess it should come as no surprise, then, that the pioneers of Pennsylvania filed for natural resource bankruptcy as well.

Philadelphia, Harrisburg and Pittsburgh were all well-established cities by 1800, with growing populations. And people were hungry. As communities grew, wildlife surrounding them disappeared. But fear not, market hunters (those who turned a profit from their ability to harvest wildlife) did their duty by supplying settlements with a steady stream of deer and other game. Those who pursued deer wrote of taking three with one shot, seven in one day, and 100 in one fall. Of course, hunters of that era didn't have the hang ups that we do today. Jacklighting, salt licks, dogs – all were acceptable methods of meeting supply and demand.

By 1840, the number of Pennsylvanians stood at three million. The deer season (Aug 1 – Dec 1 with no limit) which had been set nearly a hundred years earlier, seemed to do little to slow the decline of this much-sought prize. The General Assembly changed deer season in 1869, and in 1876, and, again, in 1895 (Oct 15 to Dec 15). But those pieces of legislation, like previous game laws before them, did little for the deer. Mostly because no one paid them any mind.

And the dwindling numbers of deer certainly didn't stop anyone from hunting them even if it was within season. There is a rather famous account by John M Phillips in which he and a friend jump a buck and kill it after three days of tracking. Mr. Phillips tells his friend that "I have killed the last deer in Pennsylvania." Mr. Phillips is known as one of Pennsylvania's foremost conservationists yet he was not deterred from withdrawing the last buck from the Pennsylvania resource bank. No wonder people go bankrupt after winning the lottery.

Push Back-Part 1

By J.T. Fleegle
Wildlife Biologist

Remember John Phillips, the man who believed he killed the last deer in Pennsylvania in 1883. Well, seven years later, after nearly all of the state's abundant game had disappeared and 70 percent of Penn's Woods had become agricultural fields, Phillips, along with other sportsmen, formed the Pennsylvania Sportsmen's Association. Phillips lobbied the legislature for an agency that would protect the wildlife they so loved. Better late than never.

After five years of labor, the Game Commission was born, in 1895. Before its creation, most hunters thought a state wildlife agency was a great idea — it meant there would be more game. Who wouldn't support that?

But wait…you mean I can't hunt where I want, when I want, and take what I want. You're crazy! This Game Commission thing is for the birds.

That was pretty much the attitude of the general populous of Pennsylvania. They believed it was an inherent right to take what they wanted at will. The Game Commission floundered for the first few years. No money and no one to enforce the game laws on the books allowed people to continue to do as they pleased. Normal Joe (the one who spent all his money in the bank) thought game protectors were nothing more than an annoyance sent to prosecute "honest" people. I guess people's definition of honesty was different 100 years ago.

Well, the "honest" people of Pennsylvania had had enough of this wildlife protection nonsense by 1903. That's when the first field officer was shot. In 1904, three more were shot. And while 1905 passed without an incident, 1907 made up for it with seven officers being shot, three of which were fatal. That was the same year a bill providing complete protection to antlerless deer and establishing a seasonal one-buck bag limit was passed. The first buck-only season resulted in less than 200 bucks being harvested, and the state's first accident-free deer season. The "great majority" of hunters were pleased with the new law not only for the protection of the deer herd but for the "feeling of personal security." So, once again, the old saying held true — you can't have your cake and eat it too. It seems after 10 years of bloodshed, both human and wildlife, the good citizens of PA finally decided to at least have their cake even if they couldn't eat it too.

Setting the Stage - Part 2

By J.T. Fleegle
Wildlife Biologist

By the time antlerless deer were protected, the drama had been unfolding in Pennsylvania for nearly 250 years. Sure, the deer and most of the other wildlife had all but vanished from the land of plenty, but game wasn't the only thing disappearing. Penn's Woods, themselves, could have been classified as an endangered species.

In 1681, when King Charles II gave William Penn his chunk of the new world and sealed the deal on our great state's name, 90 percent of Pennsylvania was forested — an estimated 27 to 28 million acres. Now, Will recommended that "care be taken to leave one acre of trees for every five acres cleared." Because reducing a 90 percent forested state to a 17 percent forested state surely wouldn't change the complexion or the bounty of what was here when the colonists arrived.

While clearing the land for agriculture certainly caused its fair share of tree mortality, it was the lumber industry that waged war on Pennsylvania forests. Williamsport became known as the lumber capital of the world, and in 1899 Pennsylvania hit its peak annual lumber production of 2.3 billion board feet. (And here I thought numbers in the billions were reserved for the 21st century).

By 1900, only 9 to 13 million acres of forestland remained in Pennsylvania. Like the deer, elk, beaver and the turkey, how could so much ever be depleted? Words like "conservation" and "sustainable" were nonexistent. Fires raged and erosion washed away topsoil, fouling creeks and streams. What was left was barren, stump-studded, burned over hillsides — a venerable moonscape in which Pennsylvania's wildlife (what was left) could not reside.


But no matter how beaten and abused, Mother Nature never surrenders. What did she do? She rolled up her sleeves and got back to work. Half of Pennsylvania's vast forests were gone. Something had to take their place. One of the reasons we can sometimes win a battle with Mother Nature but never the war is because she is always changing her game plan. Trees would retake Pennsylvania, but the forest would not look the same. Hemlocks and white pine had their heyday. Pennsylvania's "new" forests would be oak and cherry and maple and birch — millions and millions of tender, sweet, mouthwatering seedlings all growing at the same time with a healthy helping of greenbiar, elderberry, viburnum and asters. An endless deer buffet.

But were there any left to live in this new deer utopia?

If you build it...

By J.T. Fleegle
Wildlife Biologist

So let's recap — European colonists arrived in Pennsylvania around 1650ish and 250 years later predators are wiped out, game species are overharvested and extirpated, half of the state's trees are gone, the Game Commission is created, and millions of acres of deer food replaced vast mature forests. History really doesn't have to be that complicated.

Because Pennsylvanians wanted the world and wanted it now, the Game Commission began a restocking program in 1906 to accelerate the return of the whitetail. Kentucky, Maine, Michigan, New Hampshire, New Jersey, North Carolina, Ohio and Pennsylvania, itself, supplied deer. The restocking program continued for 19 years, which was probably 19 years too many.

Don't get me wrong, deer in Pennsylvania had nearly disappeared from the landscape. The key word, of course, is nearly. According to Game Commission records, 1,192 deer were purchased during that period. And in 1907, Pennsylvania became a buck-only hunting state. As you may recall, the subject of this column a year ago was the reproductive potential of white-tailed deer. Excellent range equals twice as many deer in two years.

But Pennsylvania wasn't excellent deer range; it was exceptional, outstanding, superb deer range. And instead of succeeding into pole stage forest 15 to 20 years after the big cut at the turn of the century, young brushy forest conditions persisted for several decades by repeated fires. Holy cow, the deer hit the jackpot! Pennsylvania was the land of plenty to those who settled here, her forests did not hold nor could they support the number of deer these "new" forests could.

In 1906, the year before the buck-only hunting regulation, the harvest was roughly 800 deer, 350 of which were bucks. In 1907, the harvest dropped to 200 bucks and 30 illegal does. Five years later the buck harvest was more than 1,000. Two years later the buck harvest was more than 1,200 and by 1920, buck harvest was 3,300; more than 16 times what it was just 13 years before. I wish my money in the bank grew that fast.

Quite unintentionally, our forefathers created perfect circumstances for the roaring comeback of our soon-to-be state animal. Limited male only harvests, absent predators, abundant regenerating clearcuts, frequent fires holding back forest succession, and an agency pulling out all the stops to return game to the state. How could deer not be resurrected?

Be careful what you wish for...

By J.T. Fleegle
Wildlife Biologist

Ever wish for a snow day? I sure did. What is better than waking up to the stillness and beauty of fresh snow? Not having to go to school! A free day to play in the snow, drink hot chocolate, and drive your mother crazy. I couldn't get enough of them. That is until June rolled around and the sun was shining and the grass was green and I was cooped up in a classroom making up those gems of

At the turn of the 20th century everybody wanted more deer. And why not? Seeing the track of one was enough to call off school. But that was about to change. In as little as 10 years, Pennsylvania had gone from having few deer to too many in some areas. I told you that habitat was fantastic.

Joseph Kalbfus, the first executive director of the Game Commission, saw the problem as clear as day. In his 1916 annual report he wrote, "In many sections of the state female deer have increased exceedingly, and because of the law giving them absolute protection, have apparently come to believe they belong in a privileged class that can do as they please . . . " Director Kalbfus had a sense of humor — heaven knows you need it in this line of work.

While the chestnut blight was wiping out more of Pennsylvania's forests, the deer were picking up the slack everywhere else. Director Kalbfus noted the gathering clouds on the horizon. But the storm would gain strength and pound the landscape for decades. 1915 – Crop damage complaints; 1922 – forest regeneration problems; 1925-26 – investigations revealing deer overstocked the forests and laurel and rhododendron were destroyed in many places; 1931 – the Department of Forests and Waters publishes The Deer Problem in the Forests of Pennsylvania, documenting the extensive damage caused by deer.

The deer herd in 1931 was estimated at 800,000, while the carrying capacity of the range was 250,000. Yet the deer herd continued to increase, even as the forests began to change. While the "brush stage" of Pennsylvania forests was maintained for longer than normal because of fires, it only delayed the inevitable. Forests were reaching pole stage. For a deer, this means less food because trees are too big to eat and shrubs are shaded out. Everyone wanted more deer. Well, their wish came true. But remember having to go to school in June stinks.

Push Back - Part II

By J.T. Fleegle
Wildlife Biologist

Can you really have too much of a good thing? I mean a good thing is a good thing no matter how much there is. And deer were a good thing. In 15 years, deer populations had gone from one extreme to the other. And so had the attitude of hunters. When the Game Commission began restricting hunting, people were up in arms. Now the Game Commission wanted to liberalize hunting. People were up in arms.

Director Kalbfus began the crusade for an antlerless license in 1917, But does were worshipped by Pennsylvanians. After all, shooting antlerless deer was the sole reason deer disappeared, and not shooting them brought them back, right? Kill a doe, it was sacrilege. I'm pretty sure it was added as the 11th Commandment: Thou shalt not shoot does. Needless to say, Director Kalbfus was not successful and noted, "Thank God I won't be in charge of this work 10 years from now, because someone is going to have hell to pay."

While the records show a handful of antlerless deer were harvested from 1923 to 1926, the first "statewide" antlerless season occurred in 1928. Buck season was closed for the first time in state history. Hunters were enraged. They went to court, wrote letters to newspaper editors, and signed petitions to close the antlerless season. Legislators made promises to stop the season as well.

And winter kills were mounting. A four township area in Clearfield County had an estimated 1,000 dead fawns. But no matter, this was "the grossest miscarriage of justice ever perpetuated upon the sportsmen of Pennsylvania." The 1928 antlerless season resulted in the harvest of 25,097 antlerless deer and the resignation of Executive Director John Truman. Joseph Kalbfus was right

In another 10 years, the buck season was again closed. That year more than 170,000 antlerless deer were harvested. Hunters exclaimed, "Pennsylvania's deer herd is ruined!" Yet hunters managed to kill another 250,000 deer over the next two years. This pattern continued for decades. Too many deer, antlerless season, hunters protest, closed antlerless season, too many deer ...

In 1950, the Game Commission started a campaign to educate hunters about deer and modern deer management. An entire Game News was dedicated to "Our Deer Problem." It took another seven years before antlerless season, a fundamental component of deer management, became an annual occurrence.

While the educational campaign of the 1950s succeeded in establishing an annual antlerless season, we all know it did little else to quiet deer harvest debates.

The road well traveled

By J.T. Fleegle
Wildlife Biologist

I have done and still do a lot of traveling inside and outside the state. Some routes are burned into my brain, such as the 110 miles to State College or the 160 miles to Harrisburg. And there are other roads that I have traveled I'm not as intimately acquainted with. The history of deer management in Pennsylvania is like traveling the turnpike. The exits and mile markers are well established and painfully familiar.

The science of deer management took root in the 1960s and '70s. Reams of data were collected and indices were developed. As a result of this improved knowledge, antlerless allocations climbed to account for varying deer reproduction, habitat and harvest success in different areas of the state. Yet people questioned them. But under this "new" system things were working just fine. In 1965, hunters killed more than 65,000 bucks, shattering the 1957 high of 49,000, and then eclipsed the new record two years later, with a harvest of more than 78,000.

In 1976, the Game Commission adopted a new deer policy recognizing "that deer belong to all citizens of the commonwealth and that recreational hunting is a privilege, not a right." Then, in 1979, after years of collecting deer population and habitat data, deer density goals were established based on forest stage (seedling/sapling, pole and saw timber). Oh, boy, this was not going to go over well. With policy set and goals in hand, the Game Commission got on the deer management turnpike.

The rising tide of deer hit 900,000 in the early '80s, with densities surpassing 50 deer/forest square mile in some areas — way above any habitat-based goal. In 1983, the antlerless allocation was above 500,000 for the first time. Can you guess what happened next? Hunters and lawmakers cried foul and accused the Commission of selling out to farmers and foresters. But, amazingly enough, the antlerless allocation continued to rise until 1991, until the familiar howls of the disgruntled rose above common sense.

Over the next six years the allocation steadily declined as hunters griped about seeing too few deer. But despite the claims of no deer left, Pennsylvania hunters harvested nearly 400,000 deer in 1997, the fourth highest harvest in history, despite an allocation that was the lowest it had been in the previous nine years. We have been traveling together through Pennsylvania's deer management history for the past eight months. I think you know the road by now.

Perspective, can it cure amnesa?

By J.T. Fleegle
Wildlife Biologist

Life is a grand teacher. And the older I get, the more I realize that life is all about perspective. At five, not getting that blue ball in Target was the end of the world, but after graduating high school, obtaining two advanced degrees, making a life in four different states thousands of miles from friends and family, getting married with all its up and downs, that blue ball is small potatoes.

But sometimes it's hard to see the forest for the trees. This is why I decided to take this trip through Pennsylvania's deer management history. Because it seems that many have amnesia when it comes to this subject. Amnesia has two main features: an impaired ability to learn new information, and an impaired ability to recall past events. Well, that fits.

But sometimes it's hard to see the forest for the trees. This is why I decided to take this trip through Pennsylvania's deer management history. Because it seems that many have amnesia when it comes to this subject. Amnesia has two main features: an impaired ability to learn new information, and an impaired ability to recall past events. Well, that fits.

In less than 15 years the mind-set of hunters went from three days of tracking and killing the "last deer in Pennsylvania" to vehement "opposition to the ruthless slaughter of does." Ross Leffler, a prominent figure in Game Commission and Pennsylvania conservation history, said, "Sportsmanly chivalry has become so deeply-rooted that we are finding the second step in game restoration the hardest — getting sportsmen to realize that it is just as important to limit the number of species to within its food supply…" That was in 1931. PDMA (Pennsylvania Deer Management Amnesia) has plagued the Game Commission for almost a century. Could perspective be the cure?

The average number of deer-vehicle collisions per day in Pennsylvania is 275. The harvest in 1907 was 230 deer. Hunters in Pennsylvania have been harvesting more than 300,000 deer for more than 20 years. That's more than six million deer harvested in a quarter of a century. Recall that there were only 300,000 living deer in the entire country slightly more than a hundred years ago.

Deer have not been an endangered species in this state since 1900. But that's when amnesia set in, and as George Santayana said, "Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it." Truer words were never spoken.