The odds for New York's deer hunters have never been better, yet state efforts to maximize the take this season are coming up short so far.
New York's deer population, estimated at 1 million, has never been greater. And a new, streamlined licensing system this year has resulted in the issuing of 41 percent more permits to take does than last year.
Still, those involved with the hunt say that the first week of regular deer season, which opened last Monday and ends Dec. 10, produced only a modest harvest in Western New York.
"It's a little disappointing," said Jim Snider, the veteran wildlife specialist for the state Department of Environmental Conservation who has long followed the area's deer population.
"We anticipated before deer season this would be a record deer harvest in Western New York, and I would say, given the numbers we've seen at check stations and processors, it's not on pace to be a record," he said.
The two deer check stations the DEC set up on opening day to monitor the hunt in Western New York saw fewer deer than they did last year, Snider said. The check on Route 16 in Holland was down 28 percent from opening day last year, while the one on Route 219 in Springville was down 34 percent.
Some of the decrease can be attributed to weather. Last year's opening day was relatively warm and successful hunters were eager to check in their deer, then get it to the processor.
This year, "it was a little cooler, so people were showing them off," said one Chautauqua County meat processor, who asked not to be named.
Sure enough, Snider said the number of deer checked at the Holland checkpoint on Tuesday was slightly higher than on the second day of deer season last year, 186 to 182.
But the woods weren't teeming with hunters during the first week, according to those involved with the hunt.
"I think so far it's been kind of slow," said taxidermist Ted Wilson of Busti, whose property abuts a state forest that is popular with hunters. "There aren't really the hunters around."
Jerry Stedman, who operates S&S Taxidermy and Archery in Springville, said he talked with a number of hunters on opening day as they were heading home.
"I don't think the hunters are in the field like before," he said. "Everybody's coming in and saying they're not hearing the shots like normal. It's very quiet in the woods."
And getting quieter, according to some numbers. Statewide, the deer take last year was down from an estimated 285,000 in 2000 to 280,000.
The number of licenses issued by the state also decreased from 648,000 in 2000 to an estimated 550,000 last year. This year's license numbers weren't immediately available.
Snider said an estimated 65,000 deer were taken in DEC Region 9 (Allegany, Cattaraugus, Chautauqua, Erie, Niagara and Wyoming counties). The goal for this season is 80,000 deer.
That may seem high, but Snider said that "the populations are high enough that even a harvest like that would not eliminate the deer population" in Western New York.
The DEC switched to an automated license system this year, in part to make it easier for hunters to get their licenses and permits.
The state is aggressively trying to thin the herd in Western New York. Hunters can get licenses that allow them to take a buck by shotgun or rifle, and one by bow or muzzleloader.
They also can apply for deer management permits, which allow them to take doe. While many hunters only will take a "trophy buck," the state encourages that does be taken in an effort to control population.
In the past, those permits were applied for separately, by mail. This year, hunters could apply for them when they applied for their regular license and, if they're available, they are issued on the spot.
In some parts of the state, those permits are limited, but in Western New York, with its high deer concentrations, those who applied for the permits got them. Some hunters got two or more.
In this part of the state, "You legally could have acquired or purchased seven carcass tags," Snider said.
This year, the DEC has issued 769,000 deer management permits, a 41 percent increase over last year's total of 546,000.
But permits issued doesn't translate into animals killed. In areas in Western New York with the highest deer densities, "we issue four permits to kill one deer," he said.
Another reason the state wanted to increase the deer kill this year is concern over chronic wasting disease, a virus that has infected deer herds in states as close as Wisconsin. State officials wanted to test at least 1,000 deer carcasses statewide to see if the disease was in New York.
But so far, Snider said, none of the deer checked in New York had the disease, which is related to mad cow disease.