PGC targeting hog-hunting industry in Pennsylvania

Feral swine can cause extensive damage to riparian habitats while searching for food, and are known carriers of leptospirosis, salmonella and E-coli.

Harrisburg — A proposal floated in March by the Pennsylvania Game Commission has touched off a firestorm in a segment of the farming community, which is accusing the state agency of reaching beyond its mandate to manage wildlife in an attempt to regulate some farming activities.

“The biggest thing we’re concerned about is how involved is the Pennsylvania Game Commission getting in what’s behind our fences?” said George Hazard, vice president of the Pennsylvania Deer Farmers Association.

At issue is a notice placed in the Pennsylvania Bulletin March 17 seeking public comment on a series of proposed regulations essentially aimed at eliminating the possession of “feral swine and wild boars” in Pennsylvania.

“The Game Commission has determined that the complete eradication of feral swine and wild boar from the wild within this commonwealth is necessary to prevent further harm to its natural resources, agricultural industry, forest products industry and threats to human health and safety,” the notice states.

The agency already has removed all protections for free-roaming hogs in all of the state, except for a few areas where hogs are aggressively being trapped, meaning they can be killed virtually anywhere at any time.

“At issue is whether a further removal of protection statewide for feral swine and wild boar, wherever found, should be placed in effect in an effort to eradicate the same in the interest of public health and safety,” the notice states.

Proposed are a ban on importing “feral swine or wild boar” into the state within 30 days of passage of the rules and a ban within one year on keeping such hogs in captivity.

“This will have a megamillion-dollar impact in our state,” said Stephen Mohr, of Lancaster County, who runs the Island Exotic Hunts business in Bainbridge, where people pay to hunt for and shoot hogs and other exotic animals placed on a 150-acre island his family owns in the Susquehanna River.

“Hog hunting at preserves is big business here.”

There are at least 16 preserves such as Mohr’s in Pennsylvania where people can pay to hunt hogs, according to the Game Commission. The commission knows one way hogs have gotten into the wild in Pennsylvania is by escaping from those preserves. Others were introduced intentionally and accidentally by individuals, the agency has stated.

Once freed, hogs can spread disease and damage forests and farmlands with their rooting.

“Environmental damage caused by these animals includes erosion from displacement of soil and native plant root structures, consumption and destruction of crops, and predation of livestock – lambs, kid goats and calves – and ground-nesting birds,” a Game Commission report on wild hogs in Pennsylvania states.

A 2010 study found wild hogs in 14 Pennsylvania counties. There was evidence of reproduction in the wild in five of those counties.

One of the biggest problems with the agency’s new regulations proposal, Mohr said, is there is no definition for feral swine or wild boar.

“If they’re both kept behind my fence, how do you know what’s a feral hog and what’s a domestic hog?” Mohr said.

Currently, the Game Commission defines feral swine in its regulations as “any animal that is a member of the family suidae found roaming freely upon public or private lands” in Pennsylvania. But since the commission now is talking about banning ownership of feral swine kept in captivity, Mohr wants to know how wild boar and feral swine would be defined under the new law.

“Any member of the family suidae” would include any and all pigs and hogs, including those raised all across Pennsylvania for the pork products industry. Game Commission press secretary Jerry Feaser said the agency has not yet defined feral swine or wild boar for the new law. The agency wants the public to weigh in on that.

Anyone with “comments on how they feel wild boar should be defined, they should make that comment, and if they feel wild hogs are either the same or different or whatever, they should also make that comment,” Feaser wrote in an email.

But despite several claims from Game Commission officials about being interested in inviting the public to participate in the discussion, it seems the agency did very little on its own to actually bring this issue to the public’s attention.
In proposing hunting seasons and bag limits, the agency publishes those proposals on its website several days before holding a three-day public meeting in January to discuss them.

A whole day is set aside at that meeting just so the board of commissioners can receive public comment on those proposals and any other matters.

At another public session two days later, the board discusses the proposed seasons and bag limits before voting on them. That meeting is also televised on the agency’s website.

After the meeting, the agency issues a press release announcing the votes to media outlets all over the state, and also lists the proposals on its website. Votes taken on the seasons and bag limits only grant preliminary approval.

The public is given nearly three months to comment to the agency via email, letters and phone calls on the proposals before they are considered for final adoption at a second public meeting held in late April. At that meeting, people also can offer more comments in person.

The proposal regarding the new regulations pertaining to wild boars and feral swine apparently was only placed in the Pennsylvania Bulletin, which is the “Commonwealth’s official gazette for information and rulemaking.”

It contains court rulings, proclamations by the governor and proposed rulemaking by state agencies, among other legal notices. 

As of April 1, with half the public comment period past, no press release was issued by the Game Commission announcing the proposal, and it didn’t seem to appear anywhere on the agency’s website. If it was located there, it was not listed anywhere prominent.

The agency actually has a section of its website dedicated to feral swine. The new regulations proposal did not seem to appear in that section as of April 1. There is a menu within that area slugged “Latest News Releases on Feral Swine.” The most recent release listed there as of April 1 was more than a year old.

In the Pennsylvania Bulletin notice, only one month of public comment was afforded to people who might be interested in the Game Commission’s proposed hog rules. And that month started and ended during a period when there was no public meeting of the agency.

The comment period actually closed seven days before the April 23-24 public meeting of the board of commissioners.

On March 30, with just 18 days left in the public comment period, Commissioners Dave Putnam and Jay Delaney said they didn’t know enough about the proposal to discuss any part of it with a reporter.

When asked by a reporter March 31 why the proposal was not posted on the agency’s website and why the agency issued no news release on it, Ralph Martone, president of the board of commissioners, had no explanation.

He pledged to speak to Carl Roe, executive director of the Game Commission, about those matters April 2.

And even though the Pennsylvania Bulletin states public comments on the proposal would only be accepted through April 16, Martone extended the comment period.

“I would encourage anyone interested in commenting on the importation ban and the possession ban to attend the public comment portion of the board of commissioner’s meeting on Monday, April 23,” he wrote in an email.

State Rep. Bryan Cutler, of Peach Bottom, Lancaster County, who sits on the House Game & Fisheries Committee, said the discussion on wild hogs launched by the Game Commission’s proposal is needed to resolve once and for all what the state considers a wild hog to be and who should regulate them.

Currently, people who buy hogs intended for hunting purposes, and those who breed them for hunting preserves, must follow rules set by the state Department of Agriculture.

Those rules are intended to make sure the hogs are disease-free and that they cannot reproduce should they escape into the wild.

If they do escape, however, the animals then fall under the jurisdiction of the Game Commission.

Cutler said the Game Commission is trying to determine if the agency’s responsibility for protecting wildlife from “wild hogs” means it should regulate them no matter where they are found.

“There’s no question there is a gray area in the law that needs to be resolved,” he said.

The Pennsylvania Deer Farmers Association was scheduled to hold a board meeting in State College March 29 to discuss the Game Commission’s regulations proposal, and possibly form an official position on the issue, according to Hazard.

He said members of the association fear the proposal regarding hogs could be a first step toward an attack on deer farming.

“From my own perspective, I think this is a Department of Ag issue that the PGC doesn’t need to be involved in,” Hazard said.

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