Deer hunting popularity on rise and recent Pennsylvania numbers show how much

MARK DEMKO
The (Easton) Express-Times (TNS)
A whitetail doe runs through Springwood Golf Course, Wednesday, July 29, 2015.  John A. Pavoncello photo

When it comes to hunting, there’s no doubt that the white-tailed deer is the premier game animal in the country.

That is due to its widespread range and the opportunities that sportsmen have to pursue it.

A recent report by the National Deer Association, however, highlights just how popular deer hunting truly is.

According to the NDA, deer hunters harvested an estimated 6.3 million whitetails nationwide during the 2020 hunting season — the most since 2011 — while the antlered deer harvest of just over 3 million animals was the most in 21 years. The data was released as part of the NDA’s 2022 Deer Report, which looked at the deer harvests in 44 of the 48 states in the contiguous U.S.

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“2020 saw the highest buck harvest in the new century, and amazingly we estimate that we set another new record for the percentage of those bucks that were 3½ years old or older,” said NDA Chief Conservation Officer and Pennsylvania resident Kip Adams. “U.S. hunters are taking fewer yearling bucks and killing more of them as mature deer, but this doesn’t mean fewer bucks harvested overall. We’re killing older bucks and more bucks than ever in America.”

Pennsylvania rates high: Pennsylvania has always been known as a top state for white-tailed deer hunting and the report reaffirms this. According to NDA statistics, the Keystone State was third in the nation for total buck harvest (174,780) in 2020 following Texas and Michigan, and second in antlerless harvest (260,480), trailing only the Lone Star State. Most impressive, perhaps, was that Pennsylvania led the nation in both the number of antlered deer and antlerless deer taken per square mile.

Looking at antlered deer, Pennsylvania gave up 3.9 bucks per square mile, tying it with Delaware and Michigan for first, and 5.8 antlerless deer per square mile, placing it ahead of Delaware and Maryland, which were second and third, respectively.

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The Pennsylvania Game Commission previously noted that the 435,180 whitetails taken during the 2020-21 hunting seasons was the largest harvest in the state since 2003-04, when 464,890 deer were killed. It’s also worth pointing out that the 174,780 antlered deer taken were the most since 2002, the year antler restrictions were put in place.

Pressure on young deer declining: According to the NDA, the overall pressure on young, 1½-year-old deer continues to decline, with yearling bucks comprising only 26% of the buck harvest in 2020 when looking at the animal’s primary range in the Northeast, Southeast and Midwest. Roughly 41% of bucks — or 1.2 million of the 3-million plus antlered deer taken last year — were 3½ years or older.

In Pennsylvania, an estimated 36% of antlered deer were 1½ year old bucks, while nearly two-thirds were at least 2½ years old.

The NDA reports that the 2020 antlered and antlerless deer harvests nationally were both higher than the takes in the 2019 season, with the buck take up 6% over the five-year average and the antlerless deer harvest up 11% over the five-year average.

Increase in hunter participation: While there are a number of contributors that likely led to the higher deer harvest across the country, the leading factor is probably the increase in hunter participation. It’s well documented that the COVID-19 pandemic led to an increase in hunter numbers, as well as provided more hunters with more time to spend afield.

Pennsylvania, always a leader in deer hunting participation, currently has an estimated 663,000 hunters who pursue white-tailed deer, placing it second only to Texas (770,700), the NDA reports.

“We know 2020 hunting license sales (overall) increased by about 5% over 2019, and those license buyers took home half a million more whitetails than the previous season, or an increase of almost 9%,” said Adams. “They helped increase the antlerless harvest back above the buck harvest where it needs to be, but they also saw more mature bucks in the woods than ever before. Hunters are clearly reaping the benefits of more naturally balanced age structures in herds across the whitetail’s range.”