But who are these people? How and where do they hunt deer? Do they support or oppose the agency’s deer management program?
The results of a recent Pennsylvania Game Commission survey of 5,892 randomly selected deer hunters now sheds light on their preferences.
“Hunters returned 3,572 surveys, which resulted in a response rate of 61 percent,” said Carl G. Roe, Game Commission executive director. “We were pleased with hunter participation in the survey, because it improves substantially the accuracy of responses hunters provided in this important periodic survey.”
The 2011 survey is part of the agency’s ongoing efforts to measure hunter behaviors and attitudes regarding deer hunting and deer management in Pennsylvania, and is similar to ones conducted in 1995 and 1991. Surveys help the Game Commission evaluate deer hunter preferences and attitudes about deer hunting opportunities and the level of satisfaction they derived from them, as well as their assessment of changes to deer hunting and proposals to modify seasons and laws. Other deer hunter surveys conducted over the past 10 years sought feedback on antler restrictions.
“These surveys give us a chance to hear from hunters who aren’t likely to come to a Board of Game Commissioners meeting or to write a detailed letter or e-mail to tell us how they feel about deer hunting,” noted Roe. “The effort provides one of the purest forms of feedback we can obtain from the 700,000 or so people who hunt deer in Pennsylvania, and we use it to measure hunter sentiment and to improve our management of whitetails.”
The survey found the average Pennsylvania deer hunter is 47 years old and has been pursuing his or her quarry for 29 years. About 89 percent hunted only in Pennsylvania last year; only 19 percent of the surveyed hunters used trail cameras last year. A whopping 94 percent hunted in the 2011-12 deer seasons; 75 percent did not hunt as part of a hunting club; 73 percent considered deer hunting to be important or very important, and more than 80 percent hunted on private land.
There were many common threads that bound hunters together, regardless of age. But there were also many instances when age influenced how and when hunters hunted. One of the more interesting survey findings was how hunter effort, participation and success varied among age groups. For example, hunters between the ages of 18 and 39 were the most successful deer hunters. Conventional reasoning suggests hunting shouldn’t be that way; the older, more experienced hunters should be more productive. That wasn’t the case.
Granted, the younger hunters weren’t considerably more successful; the difference in taking an antlered buck was only about four percent better than deer hunters 40-59 years of age, and just eight percent better than deer hunters aged 60 or more. The gap was larger in antlerless deer harvests. In that comparison, 28 percent of 18-39 year-olds surveyed took antlerless deer; 23 percent of 40-59 year-olds; and 16 percent of 60-year-olds and older.
Of course, personal preferences, hunting opportunities and the availability of time influence these statistics, but so do hunting methods, physical conditioning and hunt preparation. Younger hunters use treestands, deer drives and trail cameras more than older age groups. Younger hunters and 40-59 year-olds had similar tendencies in scouting – 10 days or more annually. Both categories showed about 25 percent of each age group put in substantial field time. In the 60 and over category, 13 percent spent that much time afield.
“Although ‘trail cams’ have increased greatly in popularity over the past decade, our survey indicates more than half of our hunters are not using them,” Roe said. “Treestand usage also was interesting: Almost 60 percent of the folks in our youngest age group used them, followed by about 50 percent of 40-59 year-olds, and even about 35 percent of hunters 60 and older.”
Many hunters believe trail cams and treestands provide an advantage. But the cost of this specialized gear – and probably the anxiety associated with heights and tree-climbing – surely keeps many from joining the trend. The thought of leaving expensive equipment in some remote place unattended also discourages some from purchasing and using these items.
Age also seems to influence what days of the general firearms season deer hunters head afield. Of course, every group made a strong showing on the opening day, which is always the day with the greatest amount of hunting pressure of the season, and about the 80 percent of each age bracket participated in opening day. After opening day, participation dropped over weekdays for all age groups. Conversely, the 60 and older crowd preferred to hunt less on Saturdays – about 60 percent went – while 70 to 75 percent of hunters less than 60 years old went hunting on Saturdays.
Once again, hunting preferences may be influencing why some of the 60-plus crowd stays home on the two Saturdays. Maybe they prefer fewer encounters with other hunters while afield. But the Saturdays often are two of the better hunting days of the deer season, because hunter participation is greater and consequently deer are pushed from cover more.
Younger hunters were more satisfied with the number of deer they saw and with their deer hunting experience than other age groups. They tend to hunt somewhat differently and scout more than the other age groups, and that varied approach may improve their experience afield. Or, maybe their outlook is different. Whatever the reason, it is clear many hunters would like to see more deer afield, some with more reservations than others. However, that’s a tall order to fill for the agency as it balances local deer populations with herd and habitat health and to limit deer conflicts with people. Thankfully, many hunters understand the agency’s never-ending dilemma.
History has shown there is no way to satisfy all hunters, landowners and other deer management stakeholders. Whenever one group gains ground, another loses it.
“When a deer population is trimmed to limit property damage, or to promote forest regeneration, hunters typically see fewer deer,” Roe said. “That leads to complaints from hunters. If we reduce taking opportunities, landowners are unhappy because they sustain more damage. Even some hunters complain, particularly those who are looking to put venison on the table.”
Despite their concerns about Pennsylvania’s whitetail numbers, all age groups of hunters overwhelming say they support the Game Commission’s ongoing effort to maintain a healthy deer population (86-89 percent) and the need to maintain healthy forests to support deer (74-76 percent). More than 50 percent of all age groups also say they supported managing deer to limit their conflict with people to acceptable levels.
“Although their deer hunting preferences and expectations vary with age, most deer hunters are committed to their hunting,” Roe said. “And even though many of them would like to see more deer afield, most at least understand and support the need to manage deer for herd and habitat health and to limit conflicts with people.”
To view a copy of the survey results, visit the Game Commission’s website select the “White-Tailed Deer” photo button on the homepage, and click on “2011 Pennsylvania Deer Hunter Survey Preliminary Results under “Deer Hunting.”
To Connect with Wildlife, visit the Game Commission at the following: