THE EVERYDAY HUNTER: Is Economic Decline Tied to Fewer Deer?

It’s no secret that much of Pennsylvania north of Interstate 80 is suffering economic doldrums. And it might not surprise you that some people attribute a depressed economy to the fact that the deer population has declined.

There is no doubt the deer population isn’t what it was 10 years ago, before the Pennsylvania Game Commission’s herd reduction policy began. However, the deer population is now at the level the biologists want, and herd reduction is no longer the policy of the PGC. We’re in a stabilization mode where changes in antlerless allocations are generally year-to-year tweaks to keep the population in the desired range within each Wildlife Management Unit.

The people who connect struggling small businesses to the lower deer population usually cite privately owned establishments that serve deer hunters in November including restaurants, gas stations, small grocery stores, and sporting goods stores as dying breeds in a deerless region.

However, such businesses often struggle wherever they are. Yes, the deer population has declined in the northern big woods counties, but is that the only reason or even the chief reason these businesses fight to stay open?

I can think of many reasons they no longer get the week-long shot-in-the-arm from November’s deer hunters and all have a bigger impact than the decline in deer. Here are just a few things anyone should be able to notice:

1. Higher gas prices What was once a $30 fill-up is now an $80 fill-up. That’s a reason for people to look for places to hunt closer to home.

2. More deer more evenly distributed The north woods used to be the hotspot for hunting, but now a hunter can have a good hunt anywhere in the state.

3. Demographic changes Dad used to bring three boys to camp, but he’s now in declining health, and two sons have moved out of state. The one who hasn’t has only one son to take hunting, and he’s not very excited about going.

4. Competing interests Team sports and a host of other activities have a grip on the souls of kids like never before. Take your own poll ask teenagers if they would rather “hang out with friends” or head to the north woods.

5. Loss of manufacturing jobs With that comes a declining population. Money always goes where people are, so people go where money is. A thriving economy needs people.

6. Fewer places to hunt Family farms have been disappearing, more land is posted against hunting, and land once open to hunting is now developed into housing and retail tracts.

7. Societal influences against hunting Loudmouths like PETA, the HSUS and anti-hunting celebrities influence many kids, and the strident political message that guns are evil aids and abets them. The anti-hunting movement is dead wrong on facts, but is a powerful philosophical force shaping kids minds.

I’m not insensitive to the plight of small businesses in rural areas. In fact, I’m saddened to see much of the broader conflict in our nation as a tug-o-war between rural and urban. The battle over gun control can largely be defined that way. Terms like “fly-over country” and “brain drain” illustrate that as rural kids leave for college, it’s hard to bring them back.

If the PGC would manage deer in order to keep local economies afloat, it would fail on two fronts. Economies would still suffer, and such a goal would take the agency far away from its mandate to manage every wildlife species, not just the ones we hunt.

Deer can devastate a habitat, but by themselves deer do not drive an economy. Yes, the deer population is lower than it used to be. Yes, that has an effect on the interests of people. But the herd reduction program did not decimate the deer herd. Pennsylvania has a healthy deer herd, and if you know where to look, you can still find plenty of them, and nice ones, in the big woods of northern Pennsylvania.