Lawmakers unmoved by PGC money plight

By Bob Frye Capital Correspondent

Harrisburg — Are at least some Pennsylvania Game Commission
officials willing to strike a deal on deer management to get an
increase in hunting license fees?

Some believe the answer is yes after hearing Carl Roe, the newly
hired executive director of the commission, present the agency’s
annual report to the House Game and Fisheries Committee.

Roe testified before the committee in Harrisburg Feb. 9. He told
lawmakers that the agency’s “financial situation is perhaps the
greatest near-term challenge we face.” The commission will have
about $20 million in its reserve fund at the end the current fiscal
year, which ends June 30.

It will need about $14 million of that just to meet expenses in
the first few months of fiscal 2006-07, though, Roe said. The
remaining $6 million will be gobbled up by state-negotiated
increases in wages and benefits and perhaps higher tax
payments.

Given all that, unless lawmakers raise the cost of hunting
licenses, the commission will have to make significant cuts in
programs and services to remain open beyond July 1, 2007, Roe
said.

“We would not be able to conduct a much-needed training class
for wildlife conservation officers,” Roe said. “We currently have
more than 10 percent of wildife conservation officer districts
vacant, and I anticipate that it will increase in the next few
months.

“We would reduce hours of operation in our regional offices,
limiting our ability to respond to constituent calls. Programs also
may be reduced or eliminated, which could require placing personnel
on furlough.”

Lawmakers seemed unmoved. In fact, most of those who attended
made it pretty clear that the commission is going to have to change
some of its deer -management policies if it expects to get any
financial help.

Rep. Marc Gergely, an Allegheny County Democrat, said that he
has heard from constituents who are upset with the number of deer
they have seen in the woods in recent years, particularly while
hunting from their camps in the state’s northcentral counties. If
Roe and other commission leaders expect him to support a fee
increase, they’re going to have to first win back the support of
those people, he said.

“I will not be able to sell a license fee hike to my people in
Allegheny County” otherwise, Gergely said.

Rep. Mike Hanna, a Clinton County Democrat, suggested the Game
Commission should limit deer management assistance program tags to
private land only. That would preclude the state Bureau of
Forestry, which owns much of the land in Hanna’s district and has
been the biggest user of DMAP to date, from participating.

“It seems to me that a scientific management program should
recognize that doe season should be different in (wildlife
management unit) 2G than in other parts of the state,” Hanna
added.

Rep. Dan Surra, an Elk County Democrat, chided Roe for touting
the agency’s successes with non-game species such as wood rats and
Indiana bats in his statement at a time when deer hunters are so
mad at the commission.

“I can’t go anywhere in my district without getting jumped about
something, whether it’s deer management or the Game Commission’s
fiscal situation. It’s not easy. I’ll be sure to tell them we’re
doing right by the bats and rats,” though, Surra said.

Roe did not promise any specific changes on deer, saying that it
will be up to game commissioners to give final approval to seasons
and bag limits and set doe license allocations at their meeting in
Harrisburg in April. He did say, however, that some commissioners
want to make changes. He hinted that he supports that position.

“I believe we have areas where the deer herd may have been
reduced too much, and I know we have areas where there are too many
deer and are not in balance with their habitat,” Roe said.

Roe, speaking through agency spokesman Jerry Feaser after
addressing lawmakers, did not identify which areas of the state may
have too few deer, nor did he offer any scientific evidence to
support that claim.

Indeed, Roe was very careful in phrasing things the way he did,
Feaser said. He said he “knows” there are areas with too many deer
because that’s something that can be proven scientifically. He
chose to say he “believes” there are other areas with too few deer
because that is an opinion based solely on anecdotal evidence and
complaints from hunters that they couldn’t find deer, Feaser
explained.

There’s no concern, Feaser said, that Roe’s “belief” may not be
supported by actual deer harvest figures, which should be available
by mid-March, or that there could be a backlash should
commissioners not adopt changes after their executive director has
said publicly that might be the way to go.

“I don’t think that statement boxes anyone in on any position at
this point,” Feaser said. “That’s just a reflection of what we’ve
heard. That’s why it was not made as a statement of fact.”

Roe also suggested that, if the Department of Conservation and
Natural Resources, which manages state forests, is not going to
timber a particular area for a period of time, perhaps the Game
Commission could allow deer numbers to remain artificially high
there until a cut is imminent.

“If they’re not going to do a cut in that area for 30 years, why
are we taking the deer herd down in that area when there’s not
going to be any regeneration anyway?” Roe asked.

The commission might be wiser to satisfy hunters by waiting
until three or four years before the timber cut is scheduled to
occur, then reduce deer numbers in that location, he said.

Roe also tried to shift some of the blame for low deer numbers
in the big woods away from the Game Commission and onto others. He
noted, for example, that the commission’s total land holdings of
1.4 million acres represent less than 5 percent of the state’s land
mass.

DCNR and Allegheny National Forest own a combined 2.6 million
acres, he said, and their goal is not necessarily to produce
maximum amounts of deer.

In response to a question from Hanna about what the commission
is doing to encourage DCNR to make deer habitat and hunting more of
a priority, Roe said he continues to meet with DCNR Secretary
Michael DiBerardinis to discuss land use and wildlife. He said the
commission has suggested lending its habitat improvement expertise
to DCNR to “improve habitat throughout the state forest system,
especially those large, contiguous parcels in northcentral
Pennsylvania.”

Roe said that some game commissioners want to change things like
the length of deer seasons by wildlife management unit. He also
hinted that they may try to lower the doe license allocation in
some units, too.

That might be a wise strategy at the Capitol, said Bruce Smith,
the York County Republican who chairs the House Game and Fisheries
Committee.

“You mentioned that your management is a three-legged stool with
biological, social and political legs,” Smith told Roe. “Right now,
the political leg is the shortest one.”

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