Sunday, April 09, 2006

PENNSYLVANIA DEER POLITICS: How many antlerless tags for 2006?

Ben Moyer, Pittsburgh Gazette

On April 17 and 18 the Pennsylvania Game Commission will meet to finalize hunting seasons and bag limits for the 2006-07 hunting year. Its agenda covers small game, wild turkey, bear, elk and fur bearers but the Commission's decisions regarding white-tailed deer will attract the greatest attention.

Under scrutiny by some interests who want more deer and others who want fewer, the Commission will decide the schedule of deer seasons and the number of antlerless deer licenses it will issue.

This meeting finds the Board of Game Commissioners in a position of conflict. After decades of encouraging high deer populations, a majority of the current board members have directed a recent effort to reduce deer to ease damage to forests and farms. Many hunters, though, disapprove and are asking the Commission to let the herds rebound. The agency is in financial crisis and needs an increase in hunting license fees to remain in operation.

Numerous legislators have stated they will block such an increase unless the Commission accommodates dissatisfied hunter demands.

The intensity of pressure on commissioners is evident in two separate hearings convened by legislators over recent weeks. In late March, Representatives Dan Surra (Elk County), Ed Staback (Luzerne), James Shaner (Fayette) and Mike Hanna (Clinton) held a hearing at a DuBois fire hall where most speakers expressed their dismay with recent Game Commission policies they say have reduced the herds.

Reporting on the DuBois hearing, the Williamsport Sun-Gazette quoted Ray Werts, president of the Western Clinton County Sportsmen Association. "As hunters grow up without seeing many deer, it is a disappointment to them. People tell me they saw lots of bear and bear tracks, but the deer [last hunting season] were pitiful," Werts said.

Werts recommended cuts in antlerless license allocations in Wildlife Management Unit 2G, dominated by State Forests in northcentral Pennsylvania.

The Sun-Gazette reported that Bob's Army and Navy Store owner Robert Grimminger testified, "With the shape the deer herd is in, we might as well go hunt in Nebraska ... We have to do something to accommodate Pennsylvania deer hunters."

On Tuesday, the House of Representatives Agriculture and Rural Affairs Committee heard testimony in Harrisburg from farm, environmental and forestry groups that want the Game Commission to continue its current policies and provide private landowners and communities with additional options for managing deer.

"Farmers in general are concerned that some constituencies are pursuing policy that would again increase the deer population and those policies would be harmful to most of the stakeholders represented here today. We are truly at a crossroads," said Craig Sweager representing the Pennsylvania Farm Bureau.

Tim Schaeffer, executive director of Audubon Pennsylvania said damage caused by over-abundant deer is not confined to farms and that the state's public forests, such as those in Wildlife Management Unit 2G are at high risk. "The abundance of native wildflowers and other forest-floor plants has been greatly diminished, shrub species have been dramatically decreased or eliminated, and the variety of tree species has declined. Birds and other wildlife that depend on forest vegetation have also been affected," he said.

Gregg Robertson, president of the Pennsylvania Landscape and Nursery Association told the committee his organization's members spend an average of $20,000 every year to control deer damage and that some nursery businesses could not absorb the loss.

Observers of the Game Commission expect hunter concessions to win approval at the meeting, including fewer antlerless tags and, possibly, abandonment of the concurrent two-week season for antlered and antlerless deer in some regions.

The votes could reveal whether the current board of commissioners views the primary responsibility of the Pennsylvania Game Commission as one of providing acceptable outdoor recreation to its financial supporters, or, alternatively, managing the wildlife resources of a diverse Commonwealth.

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