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  • Writer's pictureSteve Sorensen

Congrats, Dr. Alt!

The career of Pennsylvania Game Commission wildlife biologist Dr. Gary Alt ended abruptly twenty years ago amidst one of the most controversial policy changes in deer management the state had ever seen. Contrary to anyone's expectation at the time his employment with the PGC ended, he was recognized with a lifetime achievement award for conservation in the Keystone State. Read about it, and the lesson we can all learn from it, in my column below.

Above photo: At the PGC headquarters, Brian J. Burhans (Executive Director of the PGC), Timothy D. Schaeffer (Executive Director of the PFBC), Dr. Gary Alt (with his award), and Cindy Adams Dunn (Secretary of the Pennsylvania DCNR). Steve Sorensen photo

My bi-weekly newspaper column, "The Everyday Hunter," appears in the Forest County News Journal (Tionesta, PA) and the Corry Journal (Corry, PA), both part of the Sample News Group. If you'd like to see "The Everyday Hunter" in your local newspaper, have your editor contact me.


To access more of my writing on hunting topics, go to the home page of my blog, Mission: Hunter.

Congrats, Dr. Alt!

Steve Sorensen

Twenty-two years ago, you never would have imagined this could happen. At the time, Dr. Gary Alt was one of the most infamous men in Pennsylvania hunting history. After leading Pennsylvania’s black bear program—not just restoring it to a huntable population but making black bears in the Keystone State healthy and abundant—Alt was asked to lead the whitetail deer program for the Pennsylvania Game Commission.


Dr. Alt knew the history of deer management in Pennsylvania. He knew that Roger Latham had left the PGC in 1957 over his insistence that the state needed to harvest more does for the sake of the state’s forested environment—and that with the passage of more than 40 years the problem had grown worse. He knew firsthand, from what he witnessed in his work with bears, that deer overpopulated the state’s landscape. He also knew that Pennsylvania deer hunters could make the deer biologist’s job very difficult.


After being invited to take the job, he said he didn’t want it. The pressure to take the assignment rose until Governor Tom Ridge personally tried to persuade Alt to shoulder responsibility for the health of Pennsylvania’s deer herd. Alt finally relented, knowing it would likely end his career. Alt was popular with hunters, thanks to his success with black bears, but Alt knew he couldn’t bank on his reputation because bears were not the state’s bread and butter game animal.


Alt began his work with the deer herd in 1999, and the Board of Commissioners voted to implement his recommendations in 2002—recommendations summed up in two phrases, “herd reduction” and “antler restrictions.”


Herd reduction was the policy of reducing the deer population to a level the environment can support. Antler restrictions was the policy chosen to enable more bucks to reach maturity. Deer hunters have strong feelings about deer, and it wouldn’t take many to make life miserable for everyone involved. In December, 2004, Alt resigned his position and retired from the Game Commission.


Though it all, the PGC stayed the course. The habitat began to be restored and the buck harvest began trending toward older age classes. It wasn’t long before the Commission began to increase doe license allocations. While some feared higher doe allocations would reverse the success of Alt’s program, its success continued.


Today, Pennsylvania has a healthier deer herd and older age classes of bucks. Deer eat better and are healthier through the winter. Fawns are born in a more concentrated period resulting in less predation. Antlers have gotten bigger too—partly because bucks have a chance at maturity and partly because they’re healthier when they reach maturity. Wildlife biologists across the nation have recognized the benefits in Pennsylvania’s new direction. Alt is viewed with respect by wildlife biologists everywhere.


On January 26, 2024, the Pennsylvania Game Commission recognized Dr. Gary Alt with the John C. Oliver Lifetime Achievement Award for Conservation. The event drew many people from the Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission, the Pennsylvania Department of Conservation and Natural Resources, as well as the PGC and other agencies and individuals—all with an interest in whitetail deer hunting and wildlife conservation.


President of the PGC, Kristen Schnepp-Giger, presented Alt with a print of our state bird by Pennsylvania wildlife artist Gerald Putt titled “Solo Drummer.”


As the event concluded, I commented to Brian Burhans, Executive Director of the PGC, “Times have changed. Twenty-two years ago, no one could have imagined this would happen.” Burhans agreed. The stakes were high, but one man—in the right place at the right time with a high level of commitment—did something truly sacrificial and significant for all wildlife throughout the state.


The message isn’t just for deer hunters and those interested in wildlife conservation. The message for everyone is that doing the right thing is always the right thing, even if it costs you something. It pays to trust the truth, tell the truth, work for the truth, and trust that ultimately the truth will win. Congratulations, Dr. Alt, and that congratulations comes even from many who once stood against you.


When “The Everyday Hunter” isn’t hunting, he’s thinking about hunting, talking about hunting, dreaming about hunting, writing about hunting, or wishing he were hunting. If you want to tell Steve exactly where your favorite hunting spot is, contact him through his website,


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