Court says Unified lawsuit can go on

Harrisburg – A panel of three Commonwealth Court judges issued a
decision June 16 saying a lawsuit filed by the Unified Sportsmen of
Pennsylvania challenging the Pennsylvania Game Commission’s deer
management can proceed.

The court overruled the agency’s preliminary objections and
ordered it to present a response to the lawsuit, which was filed
last September.

Unified has been a consistent and vocal opponent of the
commission’s deer program. The group’s lawsuit alleges commission
officials have failed to meet legal obligations to collect and
review comprehensive scientific data regarding the size and
reproductive success of the state’s deer herd.

As a result, Unified alleges, the commission cannot justify its
huge annual allocation of antlerless deer-hunting licenses – about
865,000 at last count – which the sportsmen’s group contends has
resulted in a drastic and unwarranted reduction in the deer
population.

Unified, which claims to have 30,000 members, is asking the
court to order the commission to halt all antlerless deer hunting
on state game lands and state forestland until enough scientific
data is gathered to ensure the proper number of antlerless licenses
are issued.

The 27-page opinion, written by Judge Robert Simpson, did not
comment on the merits of Unified’s case but requires the commission
to submit its response to the suit’s allegations within 30
days.

The ruling also allows Unified to proceed with the discovery
process, which will allow the group to review internal commission
documents and question agency officials in depositions.

“We’re definitely pleased with the ruling,” said attorney
Charles Haws of Barley Snyder in Reading, who represented the
sportsmen’s group. “We’ll need to establish that what they did and
the way they did it wasn’t the appropriate way, and we’ll need to
identify experts to explain what the proper way should be.”

Game Commission Executive Director Carl Roe issued a written
statement just after the opinion was released, saying he welcomes
the chance to show why the agency’s deer-management decisions are
correct.

“We look forward to the opportunity to have our many expert
witnesses expound on the scientific basis and soundness of our
management plan,” Roe said. “At the end of the trial, we are
confident that this debate over the scientific validity will be
resolved once and for all.”

In dismissing the Game Commission’s preliminary objections, the
ruling pointed out that the Unified Sportsmen had no choice but to
file suit. “Despite asserting Sportsmen did not exhaust an
available administrative remedy, the Game Commission does not
identify a specific remedy Sportsmen may pursue to challenge the
Game Commission’s deer-management policies and practices,” the
court’s opinion states. “Absent such a prescribed remedy, the Game
Commission argument fails.

“Sportsmen allege the Game Commission abused its discretion by
failing to comply with the cited regulations. Under these
circumstances, (the state Game Code) does not provide sportsmen
with an adequate, available administrative remedy,” the judges
added.

Along with Simpson, President Judge Bonnie Brigance and Senior
Judge Joseph McCloskey concurred in the decision.

After this latest round in the battle over doe hunting in the
state, commission officials downplayed the appellate court
decision. Commission spokesman Jerry Feaser stressed that the court
did not rule on the merits of the case and Roe said he expects a
speedy trial with few continuances.

“We recognize that the commonwealth’s deer-management program is
viewed differently by many people, and there are those who do not
support some of the current outcomes,” he said in his prepared
statement.

“However, as the Game Commission manages all wild birds and
mammals and their habitats for current and future generations, we
must do what is right for all based on the best science
available.”

Unified attorney Haws was pleased by Roe’s comments about a
speedy trial. “I understand the commission is looking for an
uninterrupted process, and we would certainly welcome that,” he
said. “From what they are saying, it sounds like they are not
looking to drag out this process, and that is a good thing for
sportsmen.”

Haws declined to predict how long the proceeding might take to
be resolved. He had hoped doe hunting would be curtailed in 2007;
now he wants to see it cut back in 2008. “The process takes as long
as it takes,” he said. “I was surprised it took so long to get to
this point. If you had asked me last fall, I never would have
thought we’d be talking about this in June.

“But obviously, we are happy that we are able to continue on
with our action – the court didn’t address the merits of the case
but the judges clearly understand the issues,” Haws added.

“At this point, the Game Commission needs to file a response and
answer each one of the complaints in our suit. For each discovery
request, the other side has a 30-day period to provide a
response.

“There is nothing to say that this will take many months,
although I certainly think it will take a least several
months.”

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