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Increase in poaching could restrict spotlighting

Courtesy PA Game Commission
Poaching of mature white-tailed deer, often at night with use of a spotlight, seems to be on the rise. That's got some Game Commission officials thinking about tightening up spotlighting's rules.

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Marketing hunting in Pennsylvania

The Pennsylvania Game Commission's new website is about to go live. Its new marketing campaign will follow close behind and be focused largely here in western Pennsylvania.

The website, an addition to the existing one, is called It will debut in mid-April, right after the agency gives final approval to hunting and trapping seasons and bag limits for 2014-15.

The intent is to make it a streamlined version of the agency's regular website, with information only on hunting-specific topics like seasons, places to hunt, pheasant stockings and where to buy a license, said Keith Snyder, the agency's outreach and education division chief.

The marketing campaign will begin in September with a series of radio and print ads and billboards encouraging people who hunt periodically, but not every year — “fringe” hunters, Snyder called them — to come back to the sport and stay. The outreach effort will focus on the nine Pennsylvania counties with the most hunters. Allegheny leads that list by a large margin and will see much of the advertising along with Erie, Westmoreland, York, Lancaster, Butler, Cambria, Berks and Cumberland counties.

The advertising effort will continue through November, he said. There will be a heavy emphasis on deer hunting, given that the whitetail attracts more hunters than any other species in Pennsylvania.

“There is no close second,” Snyder said.

The goal of the campaign is to get the commission back to selling one million hunting licenses a year by 2018-19. It sold about 944,000 general licenses — not including specialty tags like those for muzzleloader, bear and archery hunting — in 2012. The commission hasn't hit the one million mark in licenses sold since 2004.

The cost of the marketing program is about $450,000 annually. Federal grant money covers that.

“I can hardly wait to see the results,” commissioner Dave Putnam of Centre County said.

Sunday, March 23, 2014, 12:01 a.m.

If there's a downside to success, this is what it looks like.

Since the advent of antler restrictions in 2002, Pennsylvania has been producing more big bucks than ever. At the very least, hunters have been shooting more big bucks than ever.

The Pennsylvania Game Commission's official record book shows that hunters have entered more trophy deer in the last 10 years than during any other decade in history.

Don't think the bad guys haven't noticed.

“I think it is valid to say we have experienced an increase in poaching numbers over the last couple of years,” said Rich Palmer, head of the commission's bureau of wildlife protection.

A “fairly significant” number of those deer are being taken illegally at night by poachers using spotlights, he said.

That's not a surprise to Jay Delaney.

A member of the Game Commission board from Luzerne County, he said that because so many hunters are using trail cameras these days, more people are aware of the deer out there.

It doesn't take long for word of a big buck to spread, he said. Then, everyone wants to get a glimpse of him.

“If there's a big buck in the neighborhood, the lights are out there every night looking for that guy,” Delaney said.

That had commissioners debating last week whether it might be time to expand the state's prohibition on spotlighting, or “spotting,” as it's commonly called.

Currently, spotlighting is legal far more often than not.

You can't do it during the statewide firearms deer season that runs for two weeks starting the Monday after Thanksgiving or during the extended firearms deer season in “special regulations” counties, including Allegheny, that runs from the day after Christmas through the last Saturday in January.

You can't have a firearm, bow or “other device capable of killing wildlife” in the vehicle when spotlighting, and you can't shine your light on any buildings, farm animals or photoelectric cells.

Otherwise, it's legal year-round from sunrise to 11 p.m.

Lots of people do it, too, and not only hunters. There are many people, especially in rural areas, for whom spotlighting is a longstanding family activity, said commissioner Ron Weaner of Adams County.

Changing the rules in such a way as to put an end to that would be “a really hard decision,” he said.

“There are a lot of really legitimate reasons to allow recreational spotlighting,” Weaner said.

Poaching is a real concern, especially among sportsmen, though, added commissioner Ralph Martone of New Castle.

Delaney agreed and said he might support banning spotlighting during all big-game hunting seasons, which, in parts of the state, begin as early as September and run through the end of January.

Palmer suggested if the board moves to expand the time period when spotlighting is illegal, it move away from thinking in terms of hunters only and take a broader approach based on a “specific date range,” he said.

“You have a lot of people who spotlight but don't hunt, who don't know wildlife management unit boundaries. If you want to expand this, we should look at going with a specific date range,” Palmer said.

Some commissioners aren't ready to act just yet, though.

Commissioner Brian Hoover of Delaware County said before he would support any kind of “drastic change” in spotlighting rules, he'd like to see some statistics.

He would like to know how many deer are being killed using lights at night, whether that's changed significantly over time and, just as importantly, whether changing the rules might address the problem.

He asked, “can we effectively make a difference” by further limiting spotlighting?

No one had an answer at the board's working group meeting this past week in Harrisburg, so the commission plans to debate the issue further before taking any action.

“I think we need more discussion before we lay anything on the table,” Delaney said.

Bob Frye is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach him at or via Twitter @bobfryeoutdoors.

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