Deer Population in Eastern Rensselaer County

Deer Population in Eastern Rensselaer County


by John Leahy (Eastwick Press, February 3, 2006)

Is the deer population in Eastern Rensselaer County stable and healthy or is it in danger of dying out? Are deer herds in certain New York State Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) Wildlife Management Units (WMUs) declining in numbers to unhealthy levels and if so what is the cause? Is the deer management program of DEC effectively controlling the deer population at stable and sustainable levels? These are questions that are sparking debate recently, particularly along the Route 22 corridor that separates WMUs 4L and 4M.

Some hunters have expressed the opinion that the herd size has diminished to the point of near extinction in certain areas and the issuance of antlerless permits by DEC is the principle driving factor for this decline. These hunters claim that deer are now rarely to be seen in many areas. Mason Hubbard hunts in Petersburg and says “In areas where deer herds used to number from 10 to 50 individuals, now only one or two deer are seen.” Earl Brock of the Petersburg Rod & Gun Club states that “The herd in the Route 22 area is thin. From Hoosick Falls to Berlin fewer deer are seen whether hunting on foot in the woods or driving along the road. In fact, even deer road kill numbers are way down this year.” Mr. Brock goes on to state that other factors such as low acorn crops and harsh winter conditions could contribute to the declining population but the antlerless permits contribute to create a perfect storm type of exacerbation.

Another hunter offers a different perspective. Tim Blanchard, a brain tanner and hunter, suggested that the warmer than normal temperatures during this past hunting season resulted in the deer feeding at night and not moving around much during the day and therefore being less visible. According to Mr. Blanchard “The deer are there. But in places where you would usually see 8 to 12 deer per day, now you wouldn’t see any unless a crew was driving them and flushing them out.” Mr. Blanchard also mentioned that with the modern trend of fewer younger hunters, the total number of hunters has declined in recent years, resulting in fewer hunters moving through the woods and pushing the deer to move.

Deer meat cutter Jerry Flynn stated that most hunters reported seeing very few deer this past season. However he suggests another theory that the deer may not have been able to browse in the higher elevations during the last two severe winters, but that there was ample food in the lower valley agricultural areas to support a healthy population. Furthermore, with more and more land now posted by owners of large land tracts, especially developers, there is more land available for deer to safely hide out during hunting season.

DEC Regional Wildlife Biologist for Rensselaer County Nancy Heaslip explained that quantifying wildlife populations is not an exact science and that establishing the measures for managing a population is always problematic. Deer population sizes are estimated primarily through hunt harvest data. DEC also interviews hunter groups and meat cutters and conducts walk through inspections of winter browse areas. Even road kill are inspected to determine if starvation was evident. Then optimum herd sizes are determined and management strategies are established. The one influential factor that wildlife managers can control is the number of hunting permits issued. However this is only one of multiple factors that impact the health of a population and other factors, such as weather conditions and nutrition availability, are beyond the manager’s control and are frequently unpredictable or contrary to expectations. The basic rule of thumb used to calculate the number of doe permits to be issued is to expect one adult doe to be killed for every six permits issued, based on historical data.

The White Tailed deer is a species that is adaptable to a high fertility rate and a high mortality rate. That is, given adequate nutrition and allowed to survive according to natural limits, the deer population will increase and grow dramatically every year through a birth rate that is naturally selected to allow the herd to survive heavy predation and winter mortality. Another important determinant factor is the carrying capacity of a habitat or the maximum population the habitat can support. The ability to support various species of wildlife varies widely from habitat to habitat.

In the late 1990s DEC did intend to lower the state herd size and in 2002 initiated changes to achieve a more sustainable population by issuing Deer Management Permits (DMPs), valid only for taking antlerless deer. However the severe winter and the resultant high winter mortality of 2002-03 lowered the herd sizes more than had been anticipated and DEC responded by reducing the number of DMPs issued. This trend has continued with fewer permits issued every year and in 2005 the number of permits for WMU 4M equaled only 25% of the number issued in 2002 (see sidebar). “Between the number of permits issued, the winter mortality, and other contributing factors such as a sporadic acorn crop, the deer herd size declined, but not to dire levels.” said Ms. Heaslip.

Can the DEC estimate herd sizes as well as hunters who spend more time in the local woods? Not according to Mason Hubbard. “Local hunters that live in the area and are in the woods on a more regular basis have a better sense of the local deer population than the DEC which only does periodic walkthroughs.”

Nancy Heaslip responded that it would be great if DEC staff could spend more time in the woods, but with tighter government budgets there are fewer personnel to cover all tasks.

Another problem according to Mason Hubbard, is that DEC tries to satisfy all interested parties and insurance companies have been applying pressure to reduce deer herd sizes in order to reduce the number of costly car collisions. Ms. Heaslip responded to this suggestion by saying that this was a belief circulating periodically through the hunting community that had absolutely no basis in reality. In fact, the DEC publishes an informational pamphlet entitled “Legends of the Fall” that addresses this issue and other often asked questions. It states “Neither the Regional Deer Biologist nor the head of our statewide Deer Management Program has ever, in a combined 58 years of DEC employment, been contacted by a representative of the insurance industry or any insurance company to discuss or otherwise influence DEC deer management strategy. The insurance industry is simply not a player on the statewide deer management scene.” The pamphlet may be obtained by contacting the local DEC office.

How will the deer population be managed moving forward? Mason Hubbard would like to petition DEC to put a moratorium into effect for antlerless permits in WMUs 4L and 4M until the herd has grown back to stable levels again. Nancy Heaslip said the harvest data for the past hunting season should be published in late February or early March and a reassessment of the deer population and the number of permits will then take place.

Numbers of permits issued


(First issued in 2004)

2004 –375

2005 –300


2002 – 2400

2002 – 1500

2004 – 1200

2005 – 600

 Source: NYSDEC