Busted: Hunters want bears back

Harrisburg — Two brothers who illegally harvested black bears in Mifflin County in December won’t be fined, but the Pennsylvania Game Com­mission is keeping the confiscated carcasses.
Dennis and Mike DeLong claim they were hunting on bad advice from a Pennsylvania Fish & Boat Commission waterways conservation officer who happened to cross their path.
They have pushed for the return of the bears – a 210-pound mother and her 68-pound cub – through every avenue short of a lawsuit, from lobbying their state representative to offering to buy the carcasses.
The Game Commission says the brothers are lucky they aren’t being prosecuted.
“They can file a motion for return of property with the Court of Common Pleas and turn this into a legal process,” said the commission’s law enforcement chief, Rich Palmer.
“But I’m sure they’ve been advised they have zero chance of winning in court. Other than that, there is no way they are getting the bears back.”
The current conflict began on Dec. 5, when Dennis DeLong of Middleburg, Snyder County, and his brothers Mike and Kevin drove with their uncle Rich Ulmer and his son Isaac to an area around Licking Creek because a friend said the hunting was good there.
Wildlife management units 4B and 4D border each other, but only 4D was in season for bears.
“We looked at a map and thought we’d still be in 4D but we weren’t 100 percent sure when we got there, so we decided to deer hunt instead,” Dennis said.
The men headed in different directions and met back at their truck for lunch a few hours later. It was then that they encountered a conservation officer from the Fish & Boat Commission and asked him to clarify exactly where they were, said Dennis.
“He told us we were definitely in 4D. He even pulled out a map and showed us we were good to the next mountain,  so we decided to hunt for bears instead of going home.”
The men fanned out as before. “My uncle and cousin went one way, and the three of us were going to walk to the top of the mountain and see what we could see,” said Dennis. “That’s when the bear came out to me.”
Dennis shot the cub and then called his brother, who arrived in time to kill the mother.
The brothers alerted the Ulmers that there were two more cubs, but by the time they arrived, the yearlings had disappeared, Dennis said.
The men dressed their bears and dragged them off the mountain.
They headed to a weigh station, which was closed, then drove 50 miles to another one in Reedsville, Dennis said. There, they met a Game Commission conservation officer who had previously patrolled the Licking Creek area.
When the brothers told him where they had made their kills, he pulled out a map, and pointed to a reservoir they could identify and asked if they’d seen a tree with certain paint markings.
“As soon as we said ‘Yes,’ he told us we’d hunted in 4B, which was out of season,” recalled Dennis. “He said, ‘Let’s just stop right here.’
“He took the bears but gave us receipts. He also called the fish guy’s supervisor and confirmed that what we’d told him was true. So we figured we’d get our bears back in a day or two.”
That isn’t what happened, Dennis said. “They laid this guilt trip on us, telling us they wouldn’t fine us, like we’re supposed to be grateful for that, and they offered my brother another bear tag, which didn’t interest us on the last day of the season.”
Dennis DeLong contacted state Rep. Fred Keller, R-Snyder and Union counties, the Unified Sportsmen of Pennsylvania and various employees of the Game Commission, working his way up the ladder until he reached then-Executive Director Carl Roe.
“He said the same thing, ‘You’re lucky we’re not fining you,’” recalled Dennis. “He accused me of being argumentative, and didn’t seem interested in hearing my side of the story.”
“He told me to go talk to the Fish & Boat Commission, because they made the mistake. It seemed all he wanted to do was throw the fish commission under the bus.”
John Arway, executive director of the Fish & Boat Commission, said his waterways officer made “an honest mistake,” and would have no problem saying so in a hearing, “if it would come to that.”
But Palmer said the Fish & Boat Commission officer’s role was just one factor in how his agency handled the DeLongs’ case.
“We could very easily have charged them,” said Palmer, “because the Pennsylvania Game Code is a strict liability code; ‘intent to violate’ isn’t required to charge a crime.”
Even so, it was because the DeLongs were upfront at the weigh station that the investigating officer did not cite them, Palmer said.
“The officer felt they weren’t trying to hide anything about where they got the bears. They appeared to be trying to comply.”
Still, he said their violation was more serious than a mistake kill. “This was negligence. These men were in the wrong area. This was their not knowing the proper unit to hunt in.”
Palmer said he is puzzled about how they could have failed to figure out where they were. “I have a hard time understanding how they could not have known a boundary when it is defined by something as major as a river,” he said.
In any case, the bears were never theirs, he noted. “Wildlife is owned by the commonwealth – in the stewardship of the Game Commission – and the only way it transfers to a hunter is if it is lawfully taken,” he said.
“These hunters never had lawful possession of these bears because they took them when the season wasn’t open.”
How the carcasses will be used or disposed of Palmer would not say, but they are a $3,000 loss to the commonwealth, since the value of any bear less than trophy size is $1,500.

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