Young Penn State researcher immersed in Pennsylvania deer study

University Park, Pa. — Andrew Norton is well aware of how controversial and political deer management is in Pennsylvania. That's one reason why the graduate student in Penn State's College of Agricultural Sciences is so fascinated by it.

A dedicated and passionate deer hunter from Minnesota who is pursuing a master's degree in wildlife and fisheries science, Norton plans to estimate deer harvest and survival rates from data collected on hundreds of whitetails that Penn State and the Pennsylvania Game Commission captured and fitted with radio collars in Armstrong, Centre, Clearfield, Clinton, Cumberland and Perry counties. In addition, in the coming year he plans to monitor deer captured and radio-collared in Bradford, Butler, Cameron, Elk, Indiana, Juniata, McKean, Potter, Susquehanna and Wyoming counties.
 
The state's firearms deer-hunting season runs Dec. 1-13 across most of Pennsylvania.
 
Penn State and the Game Commission have been trapping and radio-collaring 200 to 300 deer annually since 2002. Trapping occurs from January to March each year. The radio-collared deer have been used in various studies, including a fawn-mortality study, a buck study, a doe study and a deer-dispersal study. Norton's two-year research project will look for larger patterns related to whether those deer were harvested by hunters and how they survive outside the hunting seasons.
 
"We are investigating whether road networks and forest cover affect the chances of a deer getting harvested," Norton explained. "After collecting data in the field, such as information about deer that are harvested, road-kills and other nonhunting mortality, we can test some of the assumptions deer managers make to see whether they are legitimate by comparing them to field observations."
 
Norton, who moved to the small town of Luverne, Minn., from South Africa in 1994 at the age of 10, developed a keen love of wildlife, hunting and fishing in the Upper Midwest as a teen. After graduating from the University of Minnesota with a bachelor's degree in fisheries and wildlife science and deciding he wanted to conduct research on white-tailed deer, he determined that there was no better place to do that than Pennsylvania and Penn State.
 
The Keystone State has a rich deer-hunting heritage and one of the nation's largest deer herds, but it also has a tradition of deer-hunter dissatisfaction and controversy surrounding deer management and doe hunting. Pennsylvania — which is annually among the top states for deer-vehicle collisions — is a world leader in hardwood production, but valuable tree species such as oak are not regenerating at historic levels. Forest problems long have been blamed at least partially on overbrowsing by too many deer.
 
And Penn State has one of the top-rated forest resources programs in the world. Norton's adviser, Duane Diefenbach, adjunct associate professor of wildlife ecology and leader of the Pennsylvania Cooperative Fish and Wildlife Research Unit — which is housed in the School of Forest Resources — is nationally recognized for his deer research. He has been involved in all the Game Commission's deer studies since 2000.
 
One question in Norton's mind is how harvest and survival rates vary across Pennsylvania. "Factors such as forest on the landscape, public-versus-private land, distance from a road, slope of terrain, human population in the deer range, severity of the previous winter, and mast production the previous year could all have an impact," Norton explained. “I would like to see if there are patterns to be discovered in the variability we find across Pennsylvania.
 
"We develop models that incorporate all the variables that might affect a deer's chances of being harvested or surviving — I probably will have 20 models by the time I am done," Norton said. "Then we use a computer program to help us identify what factors are related to harvest and survival rates. The program will rank the models and tell us which ones are most appropriate. It gets quite complex because we are using state-of-the-science methods."
 
Norton realizes that he is privileged to be working in a state where the white-tailed deer plays such an important role in society. "I appreciate the opportunity to be exposed to the politics and science of deer management in Pennsylvania, and I hope to contribute to the Game Commission having more accurate information to better manage the deer population," he said. "In the end, we will have a study with at least 1,500 radio-collared deer to estimate harvests and the population — there is no other study on the whitetail in the eastern United States being done like this."
 
Norton has noticed a big difference between deer management in the Keystone State and Minnesota. "I definitely have an appreciation of the politics and the issues deer managers have to deal with here in Pennsylvania," he said. "In Minnesota, where I got my undergrad degree, hunters are not so angry, skeptical and critical of deer-management policies. They may not even have enough hunters there to control the deer population, compared to Pennsylvania, where there is such an incredible density of deer hunters, with almost a million.
 
"I can understand sportsmen's anger because they had high deer densities and easier hunting for the past 50 years, and that was taken from them when changes in management goals led to lower deer numbers," he added. "It’s a difficult situation. But higher deer densities mean more collisions with vehicles, damage to forest habitat and more crop damage."
 
Diefenbach emphasized the importance of Norton's work, calling it unparalleled for white-tailed deer in the eastern United States. "No other state agency in the East is putting as much effort into capturing, radio-collaring and monitoring white-tailed deer," he said. "In 2000, the Game Commission captured and radio-collared more than 200 fawns, one of the largest studies of fawn survival ever published. Since then, more than 1,000 adult deer have been radio-collared. With the trapping efforts that will begin on four study areas, Andrew could have close to 2,000 adult deer with which to study harvest and survival rates.”
 
The deer research conducted by Penn State and the Game Commission is not just important for the knowledge that is gained, but it also provides an opportunity to train future wildlife managers, Diefenbach noted. "Andrew has an enviable graduate program because not only does he obtain the training in science and research at the University, but he is working closely with commission biologists to learn about the issues and information needs required to manage Pennsylvania’s deer herd,” he said. "Penn State is producing wildlife biologists who will end up being responsible for managing deer here and across the country."
 
 
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Last Updated November 18, 2010