Pennsylvania Game Commission looks to force towns to use hunters in deer culling

Harrisburg — It doesn’t seem all that difficult at first blush, defining what is and isn’t public hunting.

Ah, but you’d be wrong.

The Pennsylvania Game Commission has learned that and is taking steps to address it.

When the agency holds its next meeting on July 30-31, commissioners will be asked to update their definition of public hunting. The goal, said agency assistant counsel Jason Raup, is to outline just what qualifies as “true public access.”

White-tailed deer are the reason.

About a dozen entities around the state, many of them municipalities, apply each year for cull permits, that allow for sharpshooters to remove deer.

In three of four of those cases, they need not account for public hunting, said Chad Eyler, head of the special permits division for the commission. State lawmakers saw to that. The cases are all located within Philadelphia, and state law says the city can ask for deer-control permits without incorporating hunting into its deer program.

That’s not the case elsewhere.

Whenever a municipality or organization outside of Philadelphia applies for a deer control – or “cull” permit – it has to show that it’s tried and is trying to use hunting to solve its problem first, said Raup.

Some involve hunters in a very “robust” way, he said. Others meet the public hunting requirement by allowing the members of one sportsmen’s club to participate, while others open it to hunters who can pass a proficiency test.

“Other organizations, in this case mostly (municipalities), have only allowed their police officers to meet the public hunting requirement,” Raup said.

It’s that situation the commission wants to address.

Municipalities – and other landowners seeking a cull permit – will still be able to restrict how many people hunt their lands, and when and for what species. But the new rules will make it clear that they have to bring hunters into the mix in a real way, he said.

Only a few of the less than 10 entities getting permits now have been using police to get around the public hunting requirement, he said. This new rule will admittedly make it harder for them to qualify for a cull permit, he added.

Anti-hunting sentiment in their communities is the reason, Raup added.

But hunting is, by rule, the number one tool for managing wildlife populations in Pennsylvania, he said.

“And anything that needs to occur beyond that with these extraordinary permits is extra on top of that,” he said.

So municipalities are just going to have to do more legwork to get permits, he said.

“If they want to use this resource, I think they’re going to have to have to be a little bit more successful in garnering support from their public on the importance of deer control and how hunters can have a role in reaching their goals of population management,” Raup said.

Commissioner Brian Hoover, of Chester County, said he is glad the new definition is likely coming. Too often, he said, municipalities – especially in the southeast region of the state – have taken advantage of the commission, he said.

As an example, he said a municipality might own 200 acres that’s home to too many deer. They open just 10 acres of that up to “public hunting,” meaning two police officers.

When those two officers on that tiny percentage of the public ground don’t bring deer numbers down sufficiently, the municipality applies for a cull permit.

“So I think that’s what we’re trying to deal with using this regulation, is to force these entities to go out there and change,” Hoover said. “Otherwise, we don’t issue them a permit. And I’m OK with that.”

The new rules, as written, will – if approved by commissioners – hopefully eliminate that loophole, Raup said, without proving overly burdensome.

“We want to leave the applicants enough leeway to be creative and come up with ways that work for their local communities, while at the same time not allowing them to restrict public hunting to the point where they’re not actually allowing it,” he said.

Hoover, though, still had questions. Municipalities found ways to skirt the rule last time; he asked “what’s the next end run they’re going to pull” to get around the rules this time, and what the commission can do about it.

Raup said the new definition of public hunting “may not go far enough.” In time, he said, the commission may need to update it again, to deal with any other issues.

But he didn’t want to go too far too fast and try to anticipate problems that don’t yet exist, he said.

That’s alright, Hoover said, so long as the commission remains vigilant. He’s not sure that’s always been the case.

“I just don’t want to see us rubber stamp a program that we know in the very beginning is going to fail. And I think that’s what we’ve done in the past,” Hoover said.

“We’ve allowed it knowing that it’s going to fail, and (municipalities) are going to fall back on what they’ve always fallen back on, which is the cull permit.”

Raup said commission staff had discretion in deciding whether to issue a permit or not. Some do get rejected.

If anything, the new definition of public hunting will make it clearer to applicants and staff what counts and what doesn’t. There should be fewer question on either end about what meets the minimum threshold, he added.

“I think we want to remain supportive of our communities that are having deer control problems. And I think in the end we’re all in the same kind of boat in that we need the population managed,” Raup said.

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