Harrisburg — Hunting license sales hit a new low this fall, according to the Pennsylvania Game Commission’s latest figures, which show declines in most categories, except archery and a handful of other special permits.
From June 10 through Nov. 30, just 609,052 resident adult hunting licenses were sold, reflecting a 4.05 percent drop from the same period last year. If all 23 categories of general licenses – from resident military to senior lifetime – are tallied, the total number of licenses sold since June is 896,053, which is 3 percent fewer than this time last year and 12 percent fewer than 2002.
The current license year ends June 30, but the bulk of sales are traditionally made in anticipation of deer season, and so far, resident adult licenses sales have slid to a level about 36 percent lower than 1982.
Hunters this year purchased 4.6 percent fewer antlerless deer tags than last year.
On the plus side, the sale of archery permits rose over last year by nearly 5 percent, spring turkey by 16.10 percent, bobcats by 10.81 percent, migratory birds by 5.28 percent, and bears by 3 percent.
Elk applications increased by 20.33 percent, and nearly 28 percent more permits were granted by commissioners.
But in key categories, the falloff was significant. Almost 7 percent fewer non-residents came here to hunt. And despite major efforts by the commission to recruit young hunters, mentored youth permits fell by 5.35 percent, and junior licenses by 10.36 percent, although that figure was offset by a 3.79 percent increase in junior combo licenses that cover both hunting and trapping.
“As far as youth hunters, it’s a bit curious as to why, because our hunter trapper education classes for first-time hunters have been full,” said Game Commission spokesman Travis Lau. “Many more kids have been going through training, but they’re not buying licenses.”
Pennsylvania isn’t alone in losing hunters since 1982, when it led the nation with 1.2 million licenses sold. But other deer-driven states, such as Michigan, have reported a modest turn-around so far this year as well as last year, owing in part to more females taking up hunting.
Pennsylvania has licensed more females, too, but this year’s 6 percent increase failed to offset other losses.
Game Commissioner Ralph Martone, of Lawrence County, said his agency is working hard to reverse a negative trend that he blames largely on changing cultural values.
“It’s nothing the Game Commission has done,” he said. ”Society has changed to where hunting isn’t as acceptable now as it was 40 and 50 years ago.”
Good hunting property is less accessible, as more people lease their land or make it off-limits altogether, he said. “When I was growing up back in the ‘70s, you could hunt from one end of a county to the other and not worry about postings. The idea of paying to hunt someone’s property was unheard of.”
Hunters in many states are aging, and young folks aren’t replacing them, Martone said. “We’ve put a huge focus on mentored youth hunting, but we’re not getting a huge number of kids.”
The one thing not to blame is the way the Game Commission is managing the deer herd, he said. “This is not an indictment of our deer management program.”
“People can argue the issues of why hunter numbers have declined and I’m not going to dispute them, but when you take your number one product off the shelf, you’re not going to retain or attract new hunters, particularly on public lands,” said Randy Santucci, president of the Unified Sportsmen of Pennsylvania and a member of the Governor’s Advisory Council on Hunting, Fishing and Conservation.
Hunting regulations instituted over a decade ago to regenerate forest habitat by reducing the number of does have decimated the herd in many areas, and turned off hunters, he said.
“It’s clear to those of us who are out in the field that when they went to concurrent [buck and doe] seasons, it destroyed the numbers and started this loss of interest.”
While Santucci concedes that license sales began their descent before the commission restructured its approach to deer, he believes regulations adopted in 2001 ultimately alienated hunters even more.
“The only way you’re going to get them back into the woods is to put more deer there,” he said.
Regis Denne, 72, of Elizabeth, in Allegheny County, has observed changes in deer-hunting both as a lifetime hunter and a deputy wildlife conservation officer who retired at 70 after 24 years.
“I’ve belonged to a camp in Clinton County since 1975, but I don’t go up much at anymore,” he said. “We used to have anywhere from 15 to 20 hunters but this year, zero went up for deer season because there aren’t any deer.”
Several neighboring camps in Sproul State Forest are empty or for sale, he said. “Local businesses are beside themselves, because, without hunters, they are losing a big source of income.”
Last year, Denne spotted just four tails in three days. “Maybe I just wasn’t lucky,” he said. “But I walked two miles a day, hunting like I always have.”
Now he hunts close to home, he said, because there are more deer, including the big bucks the commission indicated eventually would be a product of its deer management plan.
Although Denne said he puts his faith in the commission, he worries that continued reduction of the herd will make it even more difficult to pull kids away from activities that compete with and, in most cases, trump hunting now.
“If a father takes a kid into the woods and he sits in the cold for hours and hours and doesn’t see anything, it’s not going to hold his interest,” Denne said. “Years ago, you’d see lots of deer – maybe not the quality you see today – but they kept your interest.”
Martone doesn’t doubt that there may be fewer hunters in Pennsylvania in coming years, but that doesn’t mean his agency will revamp its approach to deer.
“When groups ask me what the future looks like, I tell them we may be down to half a million hunters and you’ll be buying licenses with two buck and three doe tags,” he said.
“When you have half a million hunters, you still have to control a huge deer herd. You still have to manage a whole state full of deer. If we don’t manage, they’ll get managed on the state’s highways.”