Change to WMUs is debated at PGC
Harrisburg — Well, that didn’t go well.
Pennsylvania Game commissioners held a work group session in Harrisburg May 29, with the main discussion item a review of the state’s wildlife management unit system. Biologist John Dunn rolled out a list of nine changes suggested by staff – some of which his committee planned to recommend, some of which they didn’t – for the board.
He had only gotten as far as the second possible change, though, when Commissioner Bob Schlemmer, of Westmoreland County, raised some vehement objections. And things only went downhill from there.
In fact, by the time the debate was over, board President Ralph Martone, of Lawrence County, felt compelled to point out that the questions raised by commissioners were not “personal attacks” on staff.
“We knew this was going to be difficult,” he said.
It was. That started with Schelmmer’s opposition to the change proposed for Wildlife Management Unit 2B, which
surrounds Pittsburgh. Schlemmer had said several times in the past that he wanted to see the unit made smaller, so as to better direct hunter pressure for deer into Allegheny County and away from the unit’s fringes.
Staff’s proposal, though, would actually have made the unit bigger by extending its borders further west to Route 18 into Washington County, further south to Route 40 and Uniontown in Fayette County and further east to Route 981 and Latrobe in Westmoreland County. That idea left Schlemmer agitated.
“I can’t quite believe what’s going on here,” he said. “This is not acceptable at this point.”
Dunn had said earlier that his committee weighed any potential changes to boundaries based on such factors as human population densities, land use and landowner conflicts, habitat, the ability to maintain consistent databases and more.
In unit 2B’s case, moving the boundaries would be “proactive” because of the decades-long trend that’s seen people leaving Pittsburgh to live in the ever-expanding suburbs, added Cal DuBrock, chief of the commission’s wildlife division.
Schlemmer wasn’t buying it. Right now, he said, so many hunters converge on the unit’s fringes in the late deer seasons that begin after Christmas that the best strategy in the woods then is to “duck and run.”
That’s causing problems for landowners, he said.
When someone suggested that changing the boundaries for that reason wasn’t scientifically based, he was unmoved.
“I don’t know of anything that goes on in this world that doesn’t have social and political implications. I don’t care if it’s Afghanistan or right here in 2B,” he said. “I think we need to go back and revisit this.”
That whole back-and-forth was just a warm-up for what came a few minutes later, though.
Dunn said staff looked at Wildlife Management Unit 2G and decided that calls to cut it in half were not supported by a review of its makeup. It’s almost uniformly forested, public land, he said.
That set off Commissioner Dave Putnam, of Centre County, one of those who’s long called for dividing the unit into northern and southern sections.
“This is disingenuous. This is dishonest. This is bad science,” he said.
The commission’s review of the unit made no mention of the fact that one half of it is largely oak able to support more wildlife while one half is cherry and beech and able to support less, or that one half is largely even-age timber while the other is seeing much more aggressive cutting. That led him to wonder if the commission’s proposal to leave the unit as is was a “purposeful misrepresentation” of the facts.
“This is either a deliberate attempt to make me look like an idiot or to make the board look like idiots,” he charged.
A visibly angry Executive Director Carl Roe denied that and said staff based its recommendation only on a review of the unit’s makeup.
Putnam countered by saying that a cursory review of the unit might lead someone to that conclusion. But a more detailed look at things – using data “in this building” – shows that’s wrong, he said.
That left him to wonder if the entire review was faulty.
“Is it all wrong? Is it all disingenuous? Is it all an attempt to maintain the status quo?” he asked.
Putnam also expressed frustration that the group reviewing the units couldn’t agree to “tweak” unit 3A and shave some territory off its eastern edge, given that it’s different from the rest of the unit.
The final salvo in the debate came, though, when it came time to discuss unit 3D in the northeast.
Some within the agency had recommended splitting it into pieces, but Dunn said a review of its topography, bear harvest data and more argued against it.
That didn’t convince Commissioner Jay Delaney, of Luzerne County. Parts of the unit have seen no forest health improvements in 10 years and deer harvests per square mile remain among the lowest in the state, at least in areas, he said. Mapping of the unit shows a portion is visibly different than the rest, he added.
Why that wouldn’t lead to change, he said he couldn’t understand.
“I’m as disappointed as my fellow commissioners with where we’re at with this,” he said.
He also expressed frustration that not every member of the unit review committee was present and available to answer questions.
“That’s not good enough. That’s not acceptable,” he said.
In the end, commissioners sent staff away with instructions to revisit the boundaries for units 2B, 2G, 3A and 3D. They’ll have to work fast.
Roe said the staff will give commissioners another presentation at their June meeting. Final approval of any unit boundary changes must follow no later than commissioners’ last meeting of the year in
September so that they can plan for seasons and bag limits for 2013-14 in January, he added.
“So we’ve got some work to do,” DuBrock said.