Case study of sharpshooting program 2009/2010

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White Buffalo Inc

 

2010 Suburban Deer Management Program Summary Report

 

A township in Pennsylvania

 

By

 

White Buffalo Inc.

 

23 March 2010

 

 

 

Site Description and Management History

 

            The township contains a matrix of suburban development, some commercial development, agricultural fields, parks and open grasslands.  As a result of limited legal hunting opportunities and good deer habitat, the deer population had increased to a level incompatible with some land uses and human activities.  Although deer physical condition was not a primary issue, there was concern regarding numerous deer/vehicle collisions and damage to garden and landscape plantings. 

            This year, 2010, was the first year in which deer management activities were implemented under the Pennsylvania Game Commission special use permit.  A total of 94 deer were removed, by lethal means, from 6 active properties between 14 February and 10 March 2010. This was considered a pilot year by the Town management, limited by budget and site allocation. Under ideal circumstances a fully active program spread over two seasons is preferred for rapid results and value for money.

 

Deer Management Program Overview

 

            Initial site selection and preparation was carried out 23-25 November 2009.  Pre-baiting began 17 January 2010 and continued until management activities could be implemented beginning 14 February 2010, and ending 10 March 2010.  During the 25-day removal period, 9 days of fieldwork were required to achieve the removal of 94 deer (see Appendix A).

 

Field Methods

 

White Buffalo, Inc. (WBI) followed the operations protocol outlined in the contract.  Of the 20+ properties WBI deemed suitable for deer management activities for the 2009-2010 contract period, we were granted access to 8; this list included one private property that was not evaluated during the initial site consultation.  Two of these eight sites were available, but showed little deer activity, as predicted in the initial consultation.  These two sites were abandoned and efforts were focused on the remaining 6 sites. 

            Sharpshooting sites were accessed from tree stands or an elevated platform.  Deer were shot on a first opportunity basis.  This means that deer were shot only when 1) a safe opportunity presented itself and 2) maximal harvest efficiency would be achieved.  Carcasses were then tagged and transported for processing and data collection. 

 

Results

 

            Four hundred twenty eight man-hours were required to harvest 94 deer (4.6 hours/deer).  This is higher than what WBI typically experiences on a project of this scale during the initial year of implementation.  Factors that affected the time required included the delay in implementation after the agreed upon date was postponed several days, disjointed site availability, and weather related conditions (snow depths) that required extra time for baiting, carcass removal, and access to the sites.  Both the delay in start date and disjointed site availability caused the amount of time allocated to pre-baiting the sites to increase substantially.  The harvest by day is summarized in Table 2.

 

Table 2. Deer harvest by date

 

 

Date

# Deer Harvested

2/14/2010

12

2/17/2010

6

2/21/2010

14

2/22/2010

16

2/24/2010

8

2/28/2010

9

3/4/2010

1

3/7/2010

12

3/10/2010

16

Total

94

 

Harvest Demographics

 

WBI harvested 50 females (53%) and 44 males (47%).  Twenty-four were yearling or adults males (26%) where as 70 (74%) were “antlerless.”  Twenty male fawns were included in the “antlerless” harvest.  It is interesting to note the discrepancy between female (12) and male (20) fawns harvested.  Typically we see fawn sex ratios closer to 50:50.    Thirty-two fawns (34%) and 62 (66%) adults were harvested. The overall harvest demographics are summarized in Table 2.

 

Table 2.   Age class and sex distribution of deer harvested from 14 February – 10 March 2010.

 

AGE

MALE (%)

FEMALE (%)

COMBINED (%)

Fawn

20 (21%)

12 (13%)

32 (34%)

 

 

 

 

Adult

24 (26%)

38 (40%)

62 (66%)

 

Fifty female deer were sampled, including 12 fawns, which revealed a total of 59 fetuses.  The average of 1.18 fetuses per female corresponds closely to trends in the Northeast for healthy deer populations. As an example, fetal data collected this year from the Princeton Township, NJ deer management program yielded an average of 1.07 fetuses per female.

 

Effort per Site

 

In order to gain a better understanding of harvest efficiency, using sharpshooting to conduct deer management activities, effort per site data can indicate the most productive sites and those which require an abnormal amount of effort to remove deer.  WBI uses “seated attempts” to designate our effort.  A seated attempt can be defined as the effort one sharpshooter conducts, at one specific site, on one evening. 

 

The overall effort per site data is summarized in table 3.

 

Table 3.  Effort (seated attempts) required to harvest 94 deer, by site location from 14 February – 10 March  2010.

 

Site

Seated Attempts (%)

Harvest (%)

 

 

 

E Tract

2 (10%)

20 (21%)

Woods

6 (28%)

11 (12%)

Private property

5 (24%)

18 (19%)

Memorial Park

1 (5%)

9 (10%)

Municipal Center

3 (14%)

12 (12%)

S tract

4 (19%)

24 (26%)

 

21 (100%)

94 (100%)

 

 

In the original WBI proposal, it was outlined that if an archery portion was required, it should be tightly integrated with the sharpshooting program because the two are not always compatible.  Integration did not occur.  The inefficiencies that resulted can clearly be seen in the amount of effort required to remove deer from Woods (FMW).  FMW received 28% of the total effort resulting in 12% of the total harvest.  This is in stark contrast to the E track, which received 10% of the effort resulting in 21% of the total harvest.  The difference in removal efficiency can be solely attributed to the amount of hunting pressure and the resulting education of the deer. 

 

Discussion

 

              Weather conditions had a significant effect on the efficiency of sharpshooting efforts.   Unusually high volumes of snow accumulation, in excess of 20” with drifts over 48”, occurred during the pre-baiting period and extended into the initial implementation of sharpshooting.  This prolonged the amount of time required to access sites for baiting, shooting, and carcass removal.

Initial bait attraction was limited.  It is suspected that restricted deer movements were responsible for this result, as snow depths may have made deer movement difficult.    This was evidenced by reasonable bait consumption prior to snow accumulation; poor bait consumption for the time period immediately following snowfall, and bait consumption increasing significantly during and after melt off.  A similar effect also also noticed during another project, with similar snow accumulation, during the same time period (Princeton, NJ).  Interestingly, as a result of large snow volumes more males were harvested during this time period.  WBI attributes this to males having larger body size and therefore more mobility with deeper snow.

The difficult weather conditions also made accessing some of the sites challenging.  A significant amount of time was spent clearing snow from roadway approaches in order to provide a safe place to park vehicles.  The municipality did provide a limited amount of snow removal activities to help facilitate the process, but were unable to provide all the work necessary due to other priorities throughout the township. 

           

Site Specific Discussion:

 

It is important to note the township’s original decision was to grant access to 3 properties; Woods, P Farm, and the Golf Course.  White Buffalo, Inc. lobbied the township for access to additional sites.  Had access been granted to only the original 3 sites, deer harvest would have been severely compromised, as two of the sites were inadequate due to lack of deer activity.

 

P Farm- This site showed minimal deer sign during the initial site visit and this observation was supported when bait was placed that there was no noticeable deer activity for several weeks.  This farm may indeed have deer using the property, but will most likely be dependent on standing crops.  When no crops are present, there is little deer habitat on this property.  This site was shut down without any management activity taking place.

 

Golf Course- Bait acceptance by deer was slow initially, but eventually it increased to a moderate level.  However, after snow depths prevented deer travel, this site showed no more activity, was kept for two more weeks, and then shut down.  It is thought that the addition of a private property helped to compensate for the loss of this site, and addressed many of the deer using the eastern section of the golf course property.  No removal efforts were conducted on the golf course.  If management activities occurred earlier in the season, while the course still had actively growing green grass, this site may have proven invaluable.  As with the P Farm, due to the timing of management activities the golf course provided no suitable habitat for deer.

 

The Private Property- This is a perfect example of how important private land access is to a township deer management program. The landowner was very cooperative, and with good communication WBI, was able to work around their schedule.  There was minimal little inconvenience before or during the removal efforts.  As a result, 18 deer were removed with 5 days of fieldwork. Two of the 5 days resulted in 1 deer being harvested (a total of 2) by an apprentice sharpshooter.  The 3 remaining days resulted in 4, 6, and 6 deer being harvested respectively.

            Private property access is the key to the longevity of most suburban deer management programs, particularly municipalities with limited public land suitable for sharpshooting. This is one example of how selecting properties in key areas of town can yield substantial results.  This property also adjoins the Golf Course and provided access to the “edge” habitat and bedding cover used during the removal period.  Private property, by definition, restricts public access and provides an operating environment that causes less inconvenience to the general public.  

 

Municipal Property - During the initial site visits; several deer were witnessed firsthand on this property.  Deer sign appeared abundant, and prospects were high for this area.  However, bait consumption was slow and frustrating for the entire time the site was active.  Out of 3 days of fieldwork, 12 deer were removed. 

            Unfortunately, there were many more deer (~12) that were seen in the vicinity, but were not using bait to a significant degree.  When deer to avoid bait, and it is not the result of excessive hunting pressure, it is typically the result of citizens feeding deer.  Even if the feeding is not intended to undermine a deer management program, it will significantly limited bait consumption intended to attracted deer for removal efforts.  This results in fewer deer being harvested than would be predicted, and is why no-feeding ordinances must be fully enforced.

 

The S Tract- This was the most productive site.  Four days of fieldwork resulted in the harvest of 24 deer.  Many of these were adult females.  There were two primary factors that limited us from removing more deer from this property:  1) removal efforts could only be conducted on weekends, a constraint enacted by the township due to the proximity of two schools, 2) there was no private property permission to operate within the 500’ firearm discharge restriction.           

            The weekend restriction limited opportunities to shoot due to weather conditions both from an appropriate wind direction perspective, and restricted access with the abundance of snow.  The weekend restriction also limited the number of seated attempts on this property as it is unproductive to sit the same site two days in a row. When multiple deer are harvested the previous day, a site needs to ‘rest’ so that deer resume visiting the site regularly and with minimal alertness.  The unwillingness to ask permission to work with 500’ of an adjoin “occupied structure” resulted in us having to locate the shooting site in the center of the property which prevented us from using a building or structure to limit the approach direction of deer.  Great care must be taken to avoid allowing a deer to use their olfactory senses to detect the sharpshooter. 

 

Memorial Park- Due to Township constraints this site was unavailable for an extended period of time.  It is our understanding that some residents surrounding the park had concerns that were voiced to the Township Manager, making the site “controversial.”  We began baiting the site on the 17 January and were not granted access for sharpshooting activities until the 1 March.  This limited the timeframe in which we had for removal efforts.             

            This site was like the others, meaning deer were actively consuming bait until the snowfall prevented movement, and then began to show moderate deer activity after snowmelt.  Once the snow began to melt, geese began to consume a large quantity of bait, preventing deer from utilizing the site to its full potential.  By the time we were able to access it, deer had again found the bait, but consumption was marginal.  In the one night that was allocated to removal efforts, we harvested 9 deer.  It is unclear how productive this site would have been with multiple seated attempts, because we had ultimately run out of time to use the site prior to our departure (determined by increased temperatures and reduced bait consumption). 

 

Woods (FMW) - This property was thought to be our most promising before the project began.  Most of the discussions surrounding the deer management program in the township were focused on this site.  It was apparent after the first evening’s removal attempt, that there were many deer in the area (40+ witnessed between the 2 removal sites, located within the 311 acre tract and three-quarter of a mile apart, at roughly the same time in the evening). 

            Because another group (an archery club) had been tasked with designing an archery hunt for this entire property, we were at the mercy of that group’s ability to keep deer naïve to hunting pressures, for us to have a major impact on the population.  Unfortunately, hunting pressure applied to these deer was extreme.  Deer on this property were traveling in large groups and were very vigilant of human activity.   This means that deer were ‘smart’ to humans and bait, came in to baiting locations extremely wary, and responded poorly to the sound of gunfire.  This does not happen when deer are naïve, as witnessed elsewhere in town.

            Generally speaking, the method we employ when sharpshooting, introduces confusion into the social group and we are able to take multiple animals from the group, limiting the number of ‘educated’ (animals witnessing removal activities that are not directly engaged) deer that escape.  In this case, when a gunshot was heard, deer ran to distances that prevented us from removing additional animals from the group.  The result was taking one or two animals from a social group when, under normal circumstances, the majority, or all, of social group would be removed.  We cannot emphasize how critical it is to keep deer as naïve as possible to removal efforts.  In this particular case, the level of negative reinforcement, and thus learned aversion behavior, resulting from a poorly managed hunt, may prove to be insurmountable without a tremendous amount of effort and expense.  The entire management approach on this property needs to be reconsidered. 

            Sharpshooting is not going to be a sustainable way to manage deer densities at FMW as the decreased efficiencies, due to wary deer, make attaining the townships goal cost prohibitive under the current scenario.  Archery hunting will only continue to enhance the problem under its current directive. 

            Based on minimum counts from the first evening’s activities, subtracting deer that were subsequently removed, there are >58 deer/mileremaining in the FMW area.

 

The E Tract - This site was the most productive per seated attempt.  On the two days when management activities were conducted, 13 and 7 deer were removed respectively, for a total of 20. 

            Next year, if another management program is scheduled, it would be wise to contact the county and get permission to access the northwestern corner of their property (where it abuts the canal property).  This corner is well-suited for management activities and will limit the amount of foot traffic through the sharpshooting area.  In general, the way the area was marked, trails barricaded, and a vehicle stationed at the trailhead, prevented any negative interaction with township constituents.  No one walked down the trails or gave the guards any difficulty.  The few interactions we experienced with residents near the cull site were positive with a tremendous amount of support for the program and our efforts. 

            The amount of time allocated for this property, 22 February to 12 March (based on township constraints); along with the need to sit the site on an easterly wind limited the number of seated attempts.  Much more effort is needed on the property in the future.  As stated above, the addition of the county property or locating a cooperating private landowner would help facilitate our ability to address this site much more effectively.

 

Recommendations:

 

            This was considered a pilot year by the Town management, limited by budget and site allocation. Under ideal circumstances a fully active program spread over two seasons is preferred for rapid results and value for money. 

            Time constraints placed an extra burden on daily site selection and added to the cost of the program.  When sites are temporarily unavailable for any reason, it becomes more difficult to find conducive weather patterns, and further limits site availability.  This is especially true when working with a limited number of sites in town.  Time restrictions are certainly understandable when there are public safety concerns, or other unavoidable reasons.  However, the point needs to be made that having disjointed site availability creates a very inefficient use of time.  Had we not had the Princeton, NJ contract ongoing during the same time frame, costs would have prohibited us from staying in town and carrying out the project to its fullest potential because of inconsistencies in site availability alone.  In the future, if time constraints are to be implemented, we would encourage scheduling all of those time slots to overlap over a shorter span of time.  So, instead of having open access to a few sites at a time for 2 months, it is more efficient to have all sites available for a 4-6 wk period instead. If all sites are available simultaneously, then regardless of wind direction, some sites should be available every day.    

            Further, we recommend the Township consider expanding the scope of the project in the future.  This year, despite the snow and disjointed site availability, was largely successful given our limited access.  We would like to encourage the Township to expand the number of available sites for next year’s deer management plan and include the cooperation of private landowners.  In addition, a large number of Township properties have been evaluated and were found suitable for sharpshooting.  We suggests the Township make full use of those properties in the future to get the most deer removed for the least cost.  This initial phase cost $40,000 to remove 94 deer, but costs could have been lower per deer if more sites had been available for less restricted periods.

 

Acknowledgements

 

            We would like to those devoted to the program, for relentlessly posting signs, and staking out properties in town, for providing feedback, helping us understand some of the political intricacies in town, and supporting the program. And those who worked with the Game Commission to expand the sites available from 3 to 8 and keeping residents informed of our activities.  And staff at the local meat processors for handling venison donations.