Democrats say no to license fee hike

By Jeff
Mulhollem
Editor

It’s official, in case you had any doubt. Deer management and an
increase in hunting license fees are linked, and they are a
partisan political issue in Pennsylvania.

In a letter sent in late April to Ted Onufrak, president of the
Pennsylvania Federation of Sportsmen’s Clubs, Rep. Mike Hanna,
D-Centre and Clinton counties and a member of the House Game and
Fisheries Committee, said Democratic lawmakers are not satisfied
with actions taken by Pennsylvania game commissioners at their
April meeting.

In that session, the Game Commission voted not to make
significant changes in its deer management program as many hunters
requested, continuing a two-week statewide concurrent hunting
season for bucks and does, and reducing the availability of
antlerless deer-hunting licenses by just 20,000.

“As you are aware, they have substantially reduced the number of
antlerless licenses in Wildlife Management Unit 2G, however they
did not do anything to shorten the antlerless season,” Hanna wrote.
“In addition, many of us remain concerned that the reduction in
antlerless licenses will be ineffective if the commission again
approves extensive DMAP licenses in our state forests throughout
Wildlife Management Unit 2G.

“It is beginning to appear that our only hope is that sportsmen
will take control of this issue themselves and simply refuse to
harvest does in our region.”

Hanna made it clear that deer management is now a partisan
issue. “With respect to Republican Chairman Bruce Smith’s proposed
hunting license increase, I am happy to report that there is not a
single Democratic vote in favor of this proposal,” Hanna wrote.
“The Democrats on the House Game and Fisheries Committee met
several weeks ago and unanimously agreed that any hunting license
fee increase for the coming year would have to pass out of our
committee with all Republican votes since none of us will support
it.

“It is our belief that that the Game Commission needs to address
its financial and management problems to the satisfaction of
sportsmen and women before we consider any such fee increase,”
Hanna added.

Onufrak, of Centre County, whose organization is the state’s
largest sportsmen’s group with more than 100,000 members and has
been generally supportive of the commission’s deer management
program, reacted with scorn to Hanna’s letter. “Two things came to
my mind when I read it,” he said. “First, this proves to me why I
am a Republican, Second, it is pretty sad when a sportsman, let
alone a state legislator, says they are happy to see a resource
conservation agency going bankrupt.”

Onufrak admitted that he resented the federation being put into
the middle of a partisan scrap. “It is childish to make deer
management a political issue,” he said. “Who knows what would
satisfy these guys. Sportsmen are supposed to be bipartisan. The
sense of our membership is that they are willing to pay more money
to keep the Game Commission financially solvent. How can the agency
straighten out its finances without a fee increase?”

Onufrak accused Hanna and other Democrats on the Game and
Fisheries Committee of supporting a merger of the Game Commission
with the state Department of Conservation and Natural Resources.
“They must be pro-merger – why else would they want to see the Game
Commission broke?” he said. “I wouldn’t say it is a Democratic
position because the governor and the secretary of DCNR have said
they support independent agencies, but it is ironic that Democratic
lawmakers are not supporting a Democratic administration
initiative.

“What I want to know,” Onufrak continued, “is why aren’t they
threatening to cut the Department of Conservation and Natural
Resources’ budget for asking for so many DMAP permits.”

But is seems DCNR is not feeling the heat from lawmakers
regarding DMAP permits in the northern tier. “I have received no
calls and I have seen no indication that our secretary has received
any kind of pressure regarding DMAP permits requested by DCNR,”
said Merlin Benner, the DCNR wildlife biologist based in Wellsboro
who handles DMAP for the bureau of forestry. “And I think I would
know. If last year’s program is any indication, we reduced the
per-acre allocation of permits – in other words we increased the
number of acres in the program, but we reduced the number of DMAP
permits that we requested. I wouldn’t be surprised if that trend
continues.

“But we are waiting for the result s of our deer-browsing
surveys and FLIR (infrared deer-counting overflights) before making
any decisions on DMAP permits. All the data has been collected and
is being analyzed now. We are hoping to have the decisions made by
early June because the deadline for DMAP applications is July
1.”

The DMAP program is an effective deer-management tool in the
northcentral region of the state. Last year, according to Benner,
DCNR requested and received 21,500 DMAP permits for state
forestland across Pennsylvania; 9,431 of those were for the 402,868
acres of state forest within Wildlife Management Unit 2G.

Those DMAP permits in 2G resulted in 1,152 antlerless deer being
harvested. The harvest rate resulting from the DMAP permits in 2G
was 1.83 deer per square mile.

Game Commission spokesman Jerry Feaser believes it’s clear deer
management has become a political football. “The problem is that
this is an election year and an increase in hunting licenses is
seen as a fee increase, and the lawmakers know that the public
always opposes fee increases,” he said. “They want the habitat
fixed and they want more deer – it’s just not possible.

“What Rep. Hanna needs to do if he is concerned about DMAP
permits is talk to Jim Grace (director of DCNR’s bureau of
forestry).”

Game Commission legislative liaison Joe Neville pointed out that
his agency is in a no-win situation. “What we say is that the issue
is never the issue,” he said. “It’s always about something else.
Everyone knows that we need the money, but the deer issue drives
the issue about who controls the commission.

”Some legislators in the northcentral region do understand that
forest habitat has been depleted by too many deer,” Neville added.
“They say to us, ‘God love ya, you are doing the right thing and we
appreciate the agency’s situation, but we gotta vote against you
because it’s an election year and our jobs are on the line.’”

Feaser pointed out that if the commission doesn’t get some new
revenue soon, sportsmen will suffer. “We are already carrying a
vacancy level of 10 percent of our total complement,” he said.
“That could easily grow to 25 percent. We are not going to have the
people to respond to public complaints, do poaching investigations
or habitat work.”

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