NYSDEC Named “2021 Agency of the Year” by the National Deer Association

By Rich Davenport, published January 8, 2022

NYSDEC Wildlife personnel manning the big game check station in Holland, NY, 2021

The National Deer Association has announced their annual excellence awards for 2021, with the NYSDEC taking the top honor of “2021 Agency of the Year” for their leadership and successful deer management program in NY, while working hard to assure NY Hunters are involved in the planning and management process.

In June 2021, the DEC adopted their updated Deer Management Plan, which built upon the success of the 2016 Five-Year Deer Management Plan, while also including the “next steps” identified as needed to enhance deer management and population control as identified and explained in the previous planning framework.

“Driven by science with public input, DEC has developed a Deer Management Program that benefits deer, deer habitat, and New Yorkers,” Commissioner Seggos said. “We are constantly exploring new ways to address overabundant deer populations while increasing hunting opportunities. It is an honor to be recognized by the National Deer Association for these ongoing efforts.”

Agencies that have received this award in the past proved a record of innovation and creativity in the deer management plans, initiating positive changes through science, regulation and hunter involvement. Kip Adams, NDA’s Chief Conservation Officer, observed “The New York State Department of Environmental Conservation has gone the extra mile in the past year to address limitations regarding hunter opportunity, suburban hunting, deer overabundance, and their integration of setting deer population objectives using social and biological science ranks among the highest in the country.”

The 2021-2030 Deer Management Plan incorporates deer population concerns, habitat quality and impacts on forests, stakeholder engagement to set population objectives, furthering CWD containment and prevention measures and recommending hunting-related changes to strategically increase antlerless harvest where needed, while providing additional hunter opportunity.

The changes this year that earned this high honor included expanding the daily hunting hours by adding 1/2 hour before sunrise and 1/2 hour after sunset to increase harvest opportunity, establishing an early antlerless-only firearms season in September for select WMUs with high overabundance of deer, fast-response plans for new CWD discoveries to better contain and prevent this disease from establishing in NY, and increased recreational opportunities, such as the Holiday Deer Hunt in NY’s Southern Zone. The continuation of the “Let it go, watch it grow” voluntary buck harvest promoting allowing young bucks to walk and mature another year has delivered a somewhat dramatic change in the antlered deer harvest age structure in recent years, with some arguing this approach and promotion of voluntary restraint is outperforming areas with mandatory antler restriction harvest regulations in place. NY and PA now show similar harvest profiles for antlered deer, despite NY following a voluntary, education-based strategy while PA has had mandatory antler restriction statewide since 2003. Requiring big game hunters wear blaze orange or blaze pink while hunting big game with a firearm, or while accompanying someone hunting big game with a firearm addressed safety concerns that came along with hunting hours expansion.

DEC continues to work diligently to obtain input from the hunting community and public in administering a deer management program that controls deer populations, optimizes recreational opportunities for New Yorkers, and manages disease risks, which all contributed to the Agency of the Year recognition.

The National Deer Association also recognized Dr. Krysten Schuler as the 2021 Professional Deer Manager of the Year, for her integral work as part of DEC’s wildlife health program. Dr. Schuler’s work in addressing CWD and development of strategies to reduce this disease Nationally, while preventing this disease’s introduction in NY were cited as reasons for this award. Dr. Schuler is a wildlife disease ecologist, assistant research professor at Cornell University’s Wildlife Health Lab. In addition to her work with CWD, Dr. Schuler is closely involved with DEC wildlife programs, providing expertise in DEC’s assessment of impacts of lead ammunition, monitoring of mange in black bears, research on juvenile moose health and survival, and contaminants in waterfowl.

These recognition awards may come as a surprise to some hunters, especially on the heels of WideOpenSpaces.com’s September 2021 proclamation that New York ranked WORST for deer hunting in the United States. Of course, deeper examination of that article shows the bias towards mandatory antler restriction (MAR) laws and rules, as the primary reason for this ranking was “54% of all bucks harvested were yearling bucks.” The reality is despite NY’s hunter density ranking the state as 3rd highest in the Nation, deer populations have continued to climb in the Empire State, with current population estimates pegged at 1.2 million deer, where it was 800,000 just a decade ago, despite high harvest numbers each year. And while those who are bias towards MAR are quick to point out the yearling harvest ratio, they seem to ignore the similar ratio exists in PA, despite the MAR of 3 points or 4 points on one beam, depending on which part of the state you hunt. Genetics plays the biggest role in antler point count and shape, not age, and if we examine PA’s harvest profile, it appears to encourage harvest of the better genetics, not protection of younger deer.

Regardless of hunter attitude and the bashing that accompanies such lamentation, the NYSDEC has certainly earned this recognition, and NY hunters can hope to expect more improvements in the coming years, provided the rank and file remains engaged in the process, communicating the realities of the on-the-ground conditions in large numbers, to assure the good works continue well into the foreseeable future.

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