MONTROSE, Pa. - For generations of deer hunters, a doe was the consolation prize - something to fill a freezer, perhaps, but nothing to be proud of. Hunters always set their sights on bucks, whether they were young and sprouting first antlers, or rare 200-pounders with trophy racks.
State regulations, not just here in Pennsylvania but around the country, encouraged the practice. And some landowners, eager to protect the next generation of deer, posted signs reading "No Doe Hunting."
Now many states are starting to react to the disastrous consequence, wildlife experts say. In much of the continent-spanning range of white-tailed deer, and especially in the Midwest and Northeast, populations have become significantly out of balance, with the ratio of adult does to bucks often exceeding 10 to 1.
The imbalance has contributed to a population explosion that has caused an array of costly problems, including deer-car collisions, ruined crops and forests stripped of seedlings.
The nationwide population of white-tailed deer has swelled to more than 20 million, up from just 500,000 in 1900.
"Every year, we've almost exterminated the adult bucks right out of the population," said Gary L. Alt, a biologist who directs deer management for the game commission of Pennsylvania. "It's been incredibly disruptive."
Pennsylvania has joined a growing list of states where game agencies or assemblages of private landowners are seeking to restore the balance. It has expanded the hunting season for antler-less deer (most are female) and issued permits for killing does in places like farms that have sustained the most damage from deer.
Other states that have enacted such rules or that are considering them include New York, Georgia, Arkansas, Mississippi and Michigan.
Among other changes, Pennsylvania extended its doe season in 2001 to two weeks, from three days. In that first season, hunters killed about a third of the state's 1.3 million deer, with bucks accounting for 42 percent of the total.
Last year, counts showed that only 26 percent of the deer killed were bucks. "Three does for every buck," Alt said. "A few years ago that would have been unthinkable."
It may sound callous, he and other experts say, but until someone develops an effective birth-control program for deer - something that has succeeded only under ideal conditions with isolated deer populations - hunters hold the best hope of containing the population.
A difficult shift
"We're finally starting to use hunters to manage deer rather than managing deer for hunters," said Bryon P. Shissler, a biologist who is a consultant for the Pennsylvania chapter of the National Audubon Society.
It is a hard shift to make, with many hunters resisting the new rules. Some told local newspapers this fall that they were buying the $6 doe permits and not using them, to prevent other hunters from killing does. On a homemade plywood sign near Harrisburg, Pa., Alt was labeled "Osama bin Alt."
"'Did you get your buck?' That was always the question," said Ed Grasavage, 49, a longtime hunter with a 201-acre wooded tract near Montrose, about 30 miles north of Scranton in the Endless Mountains region. But Grasavage is part of a growing national coalition of landowners and hunters espousing what they call quality deer management, in which the focus is shooting does and only older bucks.
"Hunters have essentially been takers," Grasavage said as he took Alt on a tour of the last day of the rifle season, starting recently before dawn with two father-son teams shooting on his property. "Now," Grasavage said, "we're trying to return something to the resource."
View of critics
Some critics say that notwithstanding the intentions of Alt and his counterparts elsewhere, many practices by state game agencies and private landowners could still increase deer numbers despite the shift in killing patterns.
For example, some opponents of hunting say, Pennsylvania and other states - often using millions of dollars in federal money collected through firearms taxes - raise forests' carrying capacity for deer by clearing patches in the woods and cultivating food plants like clover.
Sue Russell, a founder of the New Jersey League of Animal Protection Voters, said quality deer management not only encouraged shooting does, but also encouraged landowners to provide wild deer with food.
That practice was evident on Alt's tour. He and Grasavage passed a 600-acre tract owned by a deer hunter who had cleared wooded hills and carpeted them with cornfields - all intended for deer.
A few miles away, Alt spent half an hour hearing complaints from the Castrogiovanni family, whose 600-acre dairy farm is losing corn, tree seedlings and sprouting seed to roving herds. In essence, the only difference between the two nearby properties was that one was raising and fattening livestock while the other was raising and fattening deer. The goal of such practices, Russell said, is "to create more targets for more hunters."
Alt and many other wildlife and forestry experts acknowledged that ecologically speaking, providing extra food clashed with the long-term goal of reducing herds. But they said that it was a necessary compromise to build hunters' support.
For Alt, the visit to Montrose was like peeking from a front-line foxhole during a tentative truce.
He had spent years trying to sell skeptical hunters on the proposed rule changes. Now he was starting to see the fruits of that effort.
By late morning, fresh-killed deer were already piling up at Jeff Scavazzo's venison-processing plant, where they would soon be turned into vacuum-packed steaks, stew and kielbasa.
Eight were does. Only one was a buck. Alt took that as a sign of victory.
The misty hills nearby cracked and popped with rifle fire.
Dozens of orange-vested hunters hiked roadsides, hunched against slushy rain or crowded into pickups, and rushed to the woods to use their last permits before sundown.
Many were still gunning for bucks, but many others were happy to focus on does.
Some told Alt of seeing significantly more bucks this season than they had in past years. This was encouraging, he said, but the overall numbers were still far too high.
Ben LaRue, the son of a dairy farmer with 700 acres, said he counted 84 deer that morning, including 31 bucks, two of which were "shooters," mature adults several years old.
"They've got to find a way to get after those does," Alt said.
Some hunters, when introduced, shook his hand as if he were a celebrity, saying they had once stood in crowds shouting him down at sportsmen's meetings.
"It's so nice to meet all these people and have them not want to punch your teeth out," Alt said.