Harrisburg — The 2013-14 hunting year isn’t over, but it’s already time to be talking about next season.
Some changes could be on the way.
Pennsylvania game commissioners held a working group meeting in Harrisburg in mid-December. Part of their time was spent discussing potential changes to seasons and bag limits that might be on the agenda when the board holds its next formal meeting in January.
Some of the recommendations from biologists and other staff got a warm reception; others did not.
One idea that got positive feedback from the board was the idea of expanding bear season in a couple more wildlife management units. Commission staff is recommending that hunters be allowed to take bears the Wednesday through Saturday of the first week of deer season in wildlife management units 2C and 4B.
The intent it to slow the growth of populations there, which have already reached the point that conflicts with people are becoming an issue, said Cal DuBrock, director of the commission’s Bureau of Wildlife Management. Increased vehicle collisions with bears have also become a growing problem in those places, he said.
Unit 2C is in southwestern Pennsylvania, 4B in the southcentral region.
Extended bear seasons – offered in 11 units last year, in some cases for half a week, in others for a full week – have successfully controlled bear populations, said bear biologist Mark Ternent. They reduce bear populations overall, and nuisance bear populations in particular.
In units 2C and 4B, hunters have been taking about 18 to 20 percent of the bear population each year. That’s about the state average, and still allows the population to grow.
Staff would like to see hunters taking 20 to 25 percent of the population, to stabilize it.
If the extended seasons push hunter success rates higher than 25 percent, they could be removed or scaled back, as has been done in other units in the past, he added.
“We have the data to warn us if anything happens that gives us cause for concern,” Ternent said.
Some changes in regards to turkey hunting may also be on the table.
This past season, fall turkey hunting in Wildlife Management Unit 5A was offered over three days midweek. Hunters could go afield Tuesday through Thursday.
Biologists want to keep the season there at three days moving forward, but have proposed moving the timing of it to later in the week, possibly to include a Saturday, to “offer additional opportunity,” DuBrock said.
Fall turkey season could get shortened in a few other units, however.
The fall season has been three weeks in units 3A, 3B and 3C. In unit 3A, though, for example, the most recent spring gobbler harvest was the lowest on record, and the summer sightings recorded by staff were the second lowest, DuBrock said.
As a result, staff is proposing that the fall season in those areas be shortened from three weeks to two. The three-day hunt offered immediately after Thanksgiving would remain in place.
That’s how the board handled a shortening of the fall season in management unit 1B last year, noted Commissioner Ralph Martone, of Lawrence County.
Commissioner Jay Delaney said he might be OK with those proposals, so long as the National Wild Turkey Federation “was in the loop” on what’s being proposed and why.
DuBrock said the shortening of the turkey seasons is in accordance with the turkey management plan.
Among the proposals that got no support from the board were ones to go to two weeks of concurrent buck and doe hunting in all management units statewide and one to reinstitute the snowshoe hare season to one week statewide for the sake of “consistency” in monitoring things like harvest rates.
Delaney said he opposes that idea, as the hare is a species of special concern. He said he wants to be conservative in setting seasons for hares until the commission has more data.
The idea of opening management units 2A, 4C and 5B to either-sex pheasant hunting was brought up, also without a lot of encouragement.
DuBrock said none of the units are home to wild pheasant recovery areas. None show any evidence of natural reproduction of birds either. Allowing either-sex hunting would, though, “allow for more efficient use” of farm-raised birds, he said.
Delaney wasn’t convinced. The board debated the same issue last year, and rejected it. For consistency’s sake, the board should stick to that for at least several years, he said.
“I have no ambition to make any further changes,” he said.
The board was only slightly more split on the recommendation to allow pheasant hunting in Franklin County’s wild pheasant recovery area.
It was established in 2011. It’s never gotten any wild birds, however, and won’t this winter either, DuBrock said. The amount of potential habitat there is also trending in the “wrong direction,” while the area only meets two of the five criteria for even being a recovery area.
Martone was on board with the idea of allowing stocking and hunting throughout the area, at least until wild birds can be secured.
“Right now you’ve got no wild birds, but all the restrictions of a [wild pheasant recovery area]. To me that doesn’t make any sense,” he said. “Why remove land from providing hunting opportunities unless you have birds on the ground?”
Delaney, though, pointed out that the county got 2,000 stocked birds last year, even with the recovery area in place. That provided plenty of hunting for stocked birds for those who wanted it, he said.
Commissioner Dave Putnam, of Centre County, also noted that the sportsmen stakeholders in Franklin County who first requested the designation of a recovery area haven’t given up hope on it. Given that, he said he’d rather leave the recovery area – and all of its restrictions on hunting – in place rather than “turn it on, turn it off, turn it on, turn it off.”
Commissioner Tim Layton, of Somerset County, agreed.
“Let’s sit on it. Let’s see. If the people there are OK with it, let’s keep it as is,” he said.
All seasons and bag limits must get preliminary approval from the board in January, and then get final approval in April before they become official.