Harvest reporting flap: No big deal?

Harrisburg — Seems like every conversation these days about Pennsylvania deer management eventually comes around to so many hunters not reporting animals they kill, and how that makes the Game Commission’s harvest estimates inaccurate.

Truth is, only about a third of successful hunters actually report their deer kills to the commission.

In communications with this newspaper, many Keystone State sportsmen have contended that the agency should strictly enforce the mandatory harvest-reporting regulation in Title 34 (the Game Code).

Many readers have advocated fining hunters who don’t report deer kills (the fine stipulated in the Game Code for failure to report is just $25) and withholding hunting licenses the following year from hunters who kill deer and don’t inform the commission.

But it’s not that simple, Game Commission officials caution, explaining that enforcement is fraught with political, legal and social ramifications.

About 20 years ago, recalled Cal DuBrock, director of the agency’s Bureau of Wildlife Management, the Game Commission sent thousands of letters out to hunters who did not report.

“But it was a real fiasco,” he said. “Some simply sent back the fine, but others called and
complained that they had reported as required, others engaged their legislators as their advocates and others requested hearings.

“I don’t know the numbers, but the cost of mailing the initial letters and subsequent administrative process – including accepting sworn affidavits that they had reported – was exorbitant. The negative political and social costs can’t be calculated, but this didn’t help our public image.”

That harvest-reporting-enforcement effort also triggered a backlash from deer processors, DuBrock remembers, who protested that it was a detriment to their business, saying the action was a deterrent to license sales and hunter retention.

The commission has not, DuBrock believes, withheld regular deer licenses from hunters who were caught failing to report deer kills the year before, however its experience with the DMAP program a few years back indicated that tactic would blow up in the agency’s face, too.

“Reporting was a requirement for DMAP permits in 2004-05 and hunters were denied permits the following year if they didn’t,” he said. “But the outcry from affected hunters created a social, political and administrative disaster.

“PGC personnel spent hours answering phone calls, reviewing harvest reports and accepting sworn affidavits from hunters who said they reported.”

The social, political and administrative costs of punishing hunters for not reporting was not worth the benefit, DuBrock pointed out.

Game Commissioner Dave Putnam, of Centre County, who represents the northcentral part of the state on the agency’s board, thinks the reporting issue is a bit of a red herring.

Are hunters required to report their deer kills? Yes, of course they are, he said. But even if two thirds don’t – as is the case now – it doesn’t affect the accuracy of the commission’s harvest estimates and antlerless license allocations.

He suggested many hunters don’t understand that it probably  isn’t worth spending much money to get a few more percent of hunters to report their harvests.

“Should everyone report? Absolutely, but people aren’t perfect and our procedures need to recognize and account for that fact,” he said.

“Commission personnel annually check a sample of harvested deer each year – in the field and at butcher shops – during the hunting seasons and compare these records in February with harvest reports to determine reporting rates.” 

The commission realizes that most successful hunters do not report deer kills, Putnam pointed out, even though the agency has expanded reporting methods to include mailing post cards, making telephone calls and using the Internet.

“We concluded that as long as we could calculate reporting rates to determine the deer harvest, citing hunters who don’t report is not a prudent action,” he said.

“The reporting rate doesn’t matter, so long as we know what that rate is.”

In addition, Putnam explained  that commission officials know from surveys that hunters prefer the available reporting methods and, a majority of hunters recognize that low reporting rates  reflect poorly on their fellow hunters.

“This is not about methods or anything the PGC does or does not do – we have done everything we can do to make this process easy and convenient,” he said.

“It is a real issue when two thirds of our hunters blow off the rules and fail to report deer kills. But from a biological and management standpoint, we have the data to know within a reasonable degree of scientific certainty what that deer harvest is.”

No matter what system the commission uses, it will never get 100 percent reporting, Putnam lamented.

“So it would be a lot of work and expense to get that extra 1 or 2 percent. I don’t think it would make any difference from a management standpoint.”

Putnam responded to one suggestion he has heard from sportsmen, that hunters be required to report to the commission – whether they kill a deer or not  – via the state’s automated license system.

Even if a majority could be persuaded to do that, it would be costly. Putnam said each of those reports would cost the commission 50 cents – and accepting all those reports of “negative success” – would add up to hundreds of thousands of dollars in expense for the agency.

“When you look at it in great detail, there are a lot of different things that can be done,” he said.

“Hunters complying with the laws, that is one issue. But from a biological standpoint, it would not make any difference in our recommendations or our estimate of the hunter deer kill.”

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