It has only been about two years since Pennsylvania State University researchers began fieldwork on their deer-forest study, but scientists are already drawing insights about the deer population in Pennsylvania’s Rothrock and Bald Eagle State Forests. The study is focused onthe movement of 40 collared deer, both male and female, who transmit their locations back to Penn State researchers every few hours. During hunting season, however, scientists receive updates as frequently as every 20 minutes. In fact, a large part of the study focuses on how the deer react to hunters and hunting pressure, and scientists are finding that there is a vast change in behavior between archery and firearms season.

“It’s like flipping a switch,” Duane Diefenbach, leader of the Pennsylvania Cooperative Fish and Wildlife Research Unit, told the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review.

“Their behaviors in archery season, there’s nothing to suggest these deer are being impacted by the hunting that’s going on to any great extent,” said Diefenbach. “But once the rifle season begins, we see some pretty dramatic differences. Some of these bucks will leave their home range and go places we’ve never seen them in the previous 10 months. It’s pretty amazing.”

Diefenbach wrote on the study’s webpage that both bucks and does have their own ways of hiding from hunters, but said that bucks who have survived at least one hunting season are especially skilled in finding spots that are not only remote, but also difficult to approach undetected.

“That’s right, these bucks find what I call ‘vantage points.’ Places where the prevailing wind comes from the west—nothing is going to sneak up on them from that direction. And to the east? A steep slope where they can make a quick getaway—or definitely see or hear some hunter struggling up the slope!” Diefenbach wrote.

One of the conclusions drawn by the research team is that deer that have experienced hunting pressure before will have a better strategy for survival than younger deer. It may seem like an obvious observation, but another study by scientists at the South Carolina Department of Natural Resources and Auburn University found that there was no correlation between deer age and changes in their movement. In that study, researchers found that deer of all ages tended to have the same home ranges and behavior. However, the Auburn University Project focused exclusively on bucks, and inside the dense Brosnan Forest far away from Pennsylvania.

The Penn State study may have also found evidence that deer can recognize the difference between different hunting seasons. In one example, a deer the scientists nicknamed the “Hillside Doe” stayed close to a road throughout bear season, but as soon as the deer firearms season began, the doe made a beeline for a steep “safe spot” on a nearby hill. The doe would stay there in the mornings and then come back down to eat in the afternoon, therefore bypassing the majority of hunters. It quickly became a routine and, needless to say, she has not been harvested yet.

“Since we began getting data from GPS collars, there are two things we have learned about deer movements during the rifle season that have amazed me,” Diefenbach wrote online. “First, deer respond to hunting pressure the day before the season opens (and not before). Second, their ability to hide somewhere in their home range during hunting hours is amazing.”

Diefenbach and his colleagues will continue to monitor the collared deer and welcome feedback from hunters in the area. Agencies involved include the US Geological Survey, the Pennsylvanian Game Commission, and the state Bureau of Forestry. The deer-forest study will evaluate the effectiveness of current management techniques in controlling the deer population, as well as testing forest management activities and protocols.

Image from Ray Dumas on the flickr Creative Commons

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  • Snug

    The study as written makes no mention of Hunter density during the comparison of the two seasons. Nor does the study mention the fact of the rut coinciding closely with rifle season. In short, the study as outlined in the article is so simplistic it is incredible , and useless .

    • Justin

      You can see for yourself on these studies when the buck hit rut mutliple years in a row, now about hunter density, lets fit you with a collar when you go hunt so we can judge how many hunters there are… How the hell do you judge hunter densities in a state forest that you do not have to sign in to hunt? explain that one.

      • Snug

        Justin , you assume facts not in evidence in the report as published here .

  • tim fisher

    Come on now…every hunter knows that opening day of gun season sends an army of men nearly a million strong (although as I predicted 10 years ago, the number of deer and men have drastically dropped due to over hunting and bad regulations…I only counted 20 shots on opening day of riffle season this year and didn’t see a deer for 2 days. I use to see 50-100 deer and would hear 20 shots in the first 1/2 hour!) but I digress. Hunters arrive At camp beginning Friday and Saturday before the Monday of opening rifle season. They begin scanning and scouting and sighting in their riffles….obviously the increased number of men in the woods and all of the shooting on Saturday and Sunday spook and arouse the deer. It doesn’t take a scientist and thousands of dollars to understand what is going on in the woods. It takes an experienced hunter! I have been urging the game commission for years to to use surveys of real hunters to understand the wildlife population, behavior, and patterns. As in most things, the man on the field knows more than the man in the office!