BOOK REVIEWS THAT INTEREST THE EVERYDAY HUNTER. If you have a book you'd like reviewed here, email

Saturday, July 07, 2007

Deer Wars: Science, Tradition, And the Battle over Managing Whitetails in Pennsylvania, by Bob Frye

Reviewed by Steve Sorensen
Published by The Pennsylvania University Press, University Park, PA, 2006; 305 pages, 12 chapters. Paperback.
A definitive history of deer management in Pennsylvania
Pennsylvania hunters are at war over deer. On one side of the battle people believe that traditional deer management policies in Pennsylvania have been effective and can continue to be effective. Some hunters want higher doe populations (an end to herd reduction), others want yearling bucks back as legal targets (an end to antler restrictions), and some want both. Some do not accept that too many deer will harm the habitat for themselves and other species.

On the other side of the battle, people believe that managing deer and managing habitat are inseparable, and can succeed only as biologists use scientific management policies. They accept reduced herd numbers, and they want to keep young bucks off limits. Antler restrictions, they believe, are a way to allow most bucks to live beyond their first set of antlers, and provide hunters with the opportunity to hunt more mature deer.

In fairness to hunters, not all of them fall neatly into one or the other category.

And, in fairness to the deer managers who have come up with the current rules, none of them promised an eight-point or better in every thicket.

That, in a nutshell, describes the current conflict. Strong feelings run rampant on both sides. But what many hunters forget (or are unaware of) is that this is only the latest battle in a war over deer management in Pennsylvania that has raged for a hundred years.

Pennsylvania has a rich deer hunting history and tradition. And with the Pennsylvania Game Commission's funding coming primarily from hunting license dollars – maybe because of that fact – the voices of hunters speak loudly in the debate. They always have, since long before the advent of "herd reduction" and "antler restrictions" in 2002.

Part of the problem is that in the space of a century the Keystone State changed dramatically away from a rural culture. During that time the deer herd went from being too small to being too large for a shrinking habitat. Yet deer seasons hardly changed as more roads were built, cities and towns expanded, and suburban farms became housing developments while the human population doubled.

A new book called Deer Wars by Bob Frye, Outdoor Editor of the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, is as close to a definitive history of deer and the conflict over deer management in Pennsylvania as you will find.

He covers the era of market hunting... to the days when the forests were clear cut... to the time when a deer track was rare... through the various attempts to repopulate the state with deer... to the arguments about protecting does... right up to our current controversy. It's all in this book.

Through the decades, the voices of conservationists and biologists including Aldo Leopold, Richard Gerstell, Roger Latham and others recognized that because the forests changed, deer hunting policies needed also to change.

Most hunters don't realize that as early as 1935, Game Commission biologists were advocating a decrease in the deer population to improve both the deer and the habitat. To the hunters themselves, however, shooting does was unpopular idea. Doe season followed an on-again, off-again pattern, and the herd continued to increase as the battle between tradition and science waged on.

Anyone joining the debate about deer management in Pennsylvania should read this book before speaking – it's that important. Read it and you'll understand more about Gary Alt, the biologist who had more to do with bringing us to where we are today than anyone else. Read it and you'll gain a better grasp on the relationship between a healthy habitat and a healthy deer herd. Read it and you'll learn enough to speak with confidence backed up by knowledge.

Frye's book is thoroughly researched, comprehensive, and an easy read. Whether you're a hunter, an anti-hunter, a farmer, a forest manager, a politician, a biologist, an environmentalist, or just an ordinary person who wants to understand what's happening with deer management in Pennsylvania, read Deer Wars: Science, Tradition, And the Battle over Managing Whitetails in Pennsylvania by Bob Frye. It's available from at a discount.