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The struggle between man and beast is renewed at sunrise today with the return of firearm hunting season for deer and bears in New York State.

In recent years, the animals seemed to have had the advantage.

Exploding numbers of deer and bears – and a reduced numbers of hunters – have resulted in the decimation of the saplings in area forests, crop damage on farms in the tens of millions of dollars statewide and encroachment of the animals into populous areas, resulting in increased traffic accidents.

So far this year, there have been a handful of fatalities and scores more injured in collisions with deer in Western New York.

A healthy deer harvest is something state Department of Environmental Conservation officials say is essential to the seemingly never-ending struggle to keep the deer population within “manageable levels.” Minimizing car-deer collisions, protecting agriculture and the defoliation of area forests aside, a stable population is essential for the future health and viability of deer as well, they said.

Tim Spierto, a DEC big game biologist, said the absence of natural predators like wolves and mountain lions in New York State means deer management is “left to humans.” Because of their prodigious rates of reproduction, about 40 percent of the deer population needs to be removed annually just to keep the numbers even from year to year, Spierto said.

Early forecasts by the DEC suggests 2012 should be “a good year for deer hunters” thanks to last year’s unusually mild winter and a slight increase this season in state-issued deer permits.

With larger numbers of deer about, local authorities have been issuing cautionary statements to the traveling public after a rash of serious crashes, including those involving:

• Edna J. Sprague, 44, of Sardinia, who spent eight days hospitalized in Erie County Medical Center before her release Friday, after a large buck came barreling through the windshield of her Dodge Caravan on Genesee Road in Sardinia on Nov. 8. The deer struck Sprague and landed in the rear of the vehicle, which continued on its path before sideswiping a tree.

• Russell K. Patten, 43, who died July 31 when the motorcycle he was riding collided with a deer, ejecting him from the bike, on Brown Schoolhouse Road in the Town of Clarendon.

• Tammy Burck, 46, who died July 4, five days after she was ejected from an all-terrain vehicle after a deer crossed its path in a Town of Holland field.

“Accidents certainly increase at this time of year,” said Trooper Jeffrey Bebak, the public information officer for Troop A. “When hunting season is in full effect, you have hunters in the woods pushing them from their natural habitat and often they’re pushed into roadways.”

Setting aside the injuries and property damage from car-deer collisions, ecologists point out that hunting deer is important to keeping forested areas in check as well.

Take Letchworth State Park, for example, where burgeoning deer populations have decimated the young tree stock in the 14,500-acre park. Park naturalists have said every last maple, oak, black walnut and catalpa sapling from ground to shoulder height in the park has been eaten by deer.

Other flora, including orchids and ferns, also have been eradicated by the deer.

And, when the deer population outgrows its food sources, the animals themselves suffer through disease and starvation.

“Hunting is the primary tool for helping us manage deer,” Spierto said. “The other methods of removal are not very kind – getting hit by cars, starvation and disease.”

That’s why there is some concern by officials about the numbers of hunters decreasing in New York State each year, and why the DEC is working on ways to appeal to a new generation of hunters.

For the first time this year, 14- and 15-year-olds were allowed to use firearms to hunt during last month’s three-day Youth Deer Hunt over Columbus Day weekend in an effort to bolster hunter recruitment.

As for black bear, DEC officials have issued more permits as their populations have grown. Although generally thought to be confined to the Southern Tier, in recent years, for instance, black bears have been sighted in Williamsville, Lewiston, Newfane, Springville, West Seneca and other local communities.

“Their range is expanding where now it is no longer uncommon to see bears in Erie County and even up to Lake Ontario,” said Spierto, adding that a record 200 black bears were harvested in 2011 in Western New York.

Meanwhile, with the onset of firearm hunting season, DEC police and state troopers jointly held a hunting “refresher” in Batavia this week, stressing the use of “basic safety principles” for hunters when using firearms and equipment out in the field in order to decrease hunting-related accidents.

A few hunting-related mishaps already have grabbed headlines, including:

• Allen “Randy” Smith, 68, of Butler, Pa., was killed when his tree stand collapsed about 3 p.m. Wednesday while he hunted in a wooded area off of Blockville Watts Flats Road in Ashville, Chautauqua County.

• Fifty-year-old Lockport hunter Donald B. Bottorff broke his ankle after falling about 15 feet out of a tree while bow hunting Oct. 23 in the woods off Kinne Road.

• In November 2011, William D. Squire fired at a deer from a tree stand, missed it and struck a Randolph school bus loaded with three dozen children on Route 241. Squire is appealing his sentence of a year in jail behind bars on criminal mischief and reckless endangerment charges.

Ronald J. Barvian, a state hunter training instructor and president of the Wyoming County Wildlife Federation, said target awareness reflects one of the most important maxims in wildlife hunting.

“The biggest thing is [to] hunt safe – make sure of your target and beyond,” said Barvian, who said that it’s also a good idea to stay abreast of your geography and the rules of hunting in those places.

Barvian said, for instance, while rifle hunting is now entering its second year in Wyoming County and the Southern Tier, it remains outlawed in Erie County because of its denser population.

While hunting with rifles was the big change heading into 2011 hunting season, there have been a few this year, too, according to Spierto.

There is a new prohibition against importing deer hunted from Pennsylvania for fear of spreading Chronic Wasting Disease after the untreatable fatal disease was first discovered there early last month.

Under the new regulation, the head, spinal cord and other parts of deer taken from states where CWD has been determined to exist must be removed before the animal’s remains are brought back to New York.

email: tpignataro@buffnews.com