Thursday, January 26th, 2023
Thursday, January 26th, 2023

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Sportsmen Since 1967

Youth hunting plan may exclude deer

By Jeff
Mulhollem
Editor

Wilkes-Barre, Pa. — Everyone who cares knows Pennsylvania game
commissioners will be grappling with deer issues at their meeting
April 17-18. With an evenly divided board and so many angry
hunters, it’s a good bet whitetail management will dominate the
quarterly session.

But now it appears deer have even stuck their trouble-making
nose into a feel-good issue for the board that had promised to be
completely positive – something all the commissioners and virtually
all hunters could agree on – the youth mentored hunting
program.

Recently the state Legislature passed Families Afield, a law
authorizing the youth mentored hunting program in Pennsylvania,
effectively removing the minimum age for kids to hunt in closely
supervised situations.

Lawmakers’ action, which came in response to a concentrated
lobbying campaign by an enthusiastic coalition of sportsmen’s
groups, set the stage for the Game Commission to work out the
specifics of the popular program, aimed at getting more youths
involved in hunting, for implementation this fall.

In March, commission law-enforcement staff met to flesh out
details, and the agency distributed a press release soon after
announcing that the youth mentored hunting program was on the
agenda for the meeting.

At the time, it seemed a good bet at least that one vote would
be positive, unanimous and triumphant. But then folks learned about
the deer involvement – or more precisely, their lack of involvement
– in the program.

It turns out that commission staff decided to omit deer hunting
from the youth mentored hunting program, meaning that youths under
the age of 12 will not be allowed to shoot deer.

“Allowing youngsters to get involved in the excitement of deer
hunting was a big factor in getting the youth mentored hunting
program established in Pennsylvania,” said John Pries, a member of
the governor’s Council on Hunting, Fishing and Conservation, a
group that was an early proponent of the program. “There are a lot
of people behind this who are upset about the stance commission law
enforcement staff have taken, and are determined to persuade the
commissioners not to let it stand.”

Pries, an outdoor writer from Trout Run, who was the governor’s
council’s point man on supporting the youth mentored hunting
program, expressed disbelief that commission staff could misread so
badly the will of lawmakers and groups that pushed for this
program. He speculated that deer were left out of the program
because any suggestion that more deer would be harvested is so
controversial right now.

The governor’s council unanimously passed a strongly worded
resolution to be presented to the game commissioners at their
meeting urging that deer hunting be included in the program.

Game Commission President Tom Boop, of Union County, who was
involved in coming up with the agency’s plan for youth mentored
hunting, seemed mildly surprised it was turning out to be a bone of
contention. He emphasized that a final decision on the program will
be made by the commissioners at the meeting.

“Our thinking was that this is a new program and we wanted to
see how it would work before we started with deer because it would
involve so many people,” he said. “We settled on a go-slow approach
until we see that this will work the way we expect.”

Boop contended considerations about added deer harvests being
controversial were secondary. “We have not voted on anything yet,
so no final decision has been made,” he said. “But in the plan that
will be presented to the board, species for youth mentored hunting
are squirrels, groundhogs and spring turkeys.”

Ted Onufrak, president of the Federation of Sportsmen’s Clubs,
another group that backed the youth mentored hunting program, was
dismayed deer weren’t included. “Where we stand right now, the
federation is going to lobby the commissioners to have deer
included,” he said. “We were surprised that deer would not be on
the list. I want to hear the commission staff’s report to see what
they were thinking.”

Game Commission press secretary Jerry Feaser was asked to
explain the rationale behind the law enforcement staff’s decision
to exclude deer hunting from the youth mentored hunting program for
this story, but he declined.

“The entire committee that supported youth mentored hunting is
not pleased about this,“ Onufrak said. “So I think you will see a
lot of people testifying at the meeting, telling commissioners to
include deer in the program.”

Onufrak has also heard rumors that worries about harvesting more
deer and not safety drove the staff’s recommendation. “But let’s
face it, I don’t think there will be that great an impact,” he
said. “There aren’t going to be 100,000 of these kids in the woods
– I think we’ll be lucky to have 5,000 kids. I think we should give
the first crack at deer to the kids.”

Ron Fretts, of Scottsdale, the National Wild Turkey Federation
board member who spearheaded the effort to get the youth mentored
hunting adopted in Pennsylvania, told an Outdoor News reporter that
he would testify at the Game Commission’s upcoming meeting in an
effort to have deer hunting inserted into the program.

“We think it is important to get the kids to go to deer camp and
be part of the tradition,” he said. “That’s what will generate the
excitement in kids and make them life-long hunters.”

For his part, Game Commissioner Dan Hill is looking forward to
the debate at the meeting. “I don’t have a settled opinion
regarding this matter,” he said. “Of course, safety is everybody’s
main concern. But if we get past safety, then we will need to talk
about different aspects of the additional harvest of deer, given
the current strife surrounding deer management.”

Hill is pleased so many people intend to testify on the subject
at the meeting. “I would encourage them to be public about it,” he
said. “I think the commissioners need to understand the intent of
the people who were responsible for getting the youth mentored
hunting program approved. We need all that information in the
policy-making process.”

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