Pennsylvania's hunting seasons could see changes for 2018-19
Forget about entering the home stretch with Pennsylvania hunting seasons. We're not even halfway home.
While the close of the firearms deer season means an end to hunting for many, the 2017-18 hunting license year runs through June 30.
And still, planning for 2018-19 is underway.
Pennsylvania Game Commission biologists started working on those in August. That's the norm, said Ian Gregg, game management division chief for the agency.
“We're actually about in the middle of this process,” he said.
Game Commissioners will give preliminary approval to 2018-19 hunting seasons and bag limits at their Jan. 26-28 meeting in Harrisburg. Final adoption — together with how many doe licenses to issue — will follow in April.
Changes could be coming.
At a working group meeting of the board, biologists outlined some of what they'll be proposing.
The first change involves one of the state's wild pheasant recovery areas.
Those are places where the commission and Pheasants Forever volunteers worked with farmers to do extensive habitat work. Wild pheasants were imported from other states and released. No hunting was permitted.
The idea was to see if the birds could survive and reproduce in huntable numbers.
In the case of the Somerset County recovery area, the answer is no, Gregg said.
It was established in 2009.
“It's gotten its full complement of wild pheasants from the Midwest, but they haven't done particularly well,” Gregg said. “The population hasn't dropped to zero, but it's very low. It's certainly not a huntable population.”
Staff will be asking commissioners to eliminate it, Gregg said.
That would leave just two.
The commission breaks the state into 23 wildlife management units. In 17, pheasant hunters can shoot male and female birds.
In the other six — 2A, 2C, 4C, 4E, 5A and 5B — hens are off limits.
That rule was put in place in part to protect wild hens, Gregg said. But there are no wild birds to speak of in units 2A, 2C, 4C and 5B.
So there's no biological reason anymore for protecting hens there, Gregg added. The result is staff would like to make those either-sex pheasant hunting units.
That would lead to a more equitable distribution of stocked roosters, said Bob Boyd, wildlife services division chief for the commission.
Pen-reared pheasants are raised at a 50-50 ratio of males to females.
“The miracle would be if we could sex an egg and just selectively hatch an egg that was male. We'd be in great shape,” Boyd said.
Because that's not possible, 70 percent of the male pheasants raised each year go to just six wildlife management units. The remaining 17 make do with two hens for every cockbird.
The commission first created either-sex pheasant hunting areas in the 1970s, Boyd said. It's expanded them periodically since.
“It's a good time perhaps to consider going further,” Boyd said.
Changes could be coming in regards to two furbearers.
First, biologists are recommending commissioners allow fisher trapping in two additional wildlife management units, 4B and 4C.
“Basically, both those units, all our indexes of fisher populations show us that they're similar to adjacent units that are already sustainably harvesting fishers. So it makes sense to expand that activity,” Gregg said.
Second, they're proposing a contraction with bobcats.
The catch per unit effort — the number of hours or days needed to harvest a bobcat — has declined each year for the past five, Gregg said. That's been true for bobcat trappers and hunters.
Results for 2017-18 aren't in yet, as those seasons continue into January.
But if they suggest that trend is continuing, biologists will recommend a one-week reduction in the length of bobcat seasons, Gregg said.
Biologists are proposing three changes to extended bear seasons.
Wildlife management unit 3A, centered around Potter County, offered four days of extended hunting this fall. Properly licensed hunters could kill a bear on the Wednesday through Saturday of the first week of deer season.
For 2018, staff is recommending a six-day extended season. It would include the entire first week of deer, Gregg said.
They also are proposing four days of extended hunting — Wednesday through Saturday of the first week of deer — in wildlife management units 4A and 5A in southcentral Pennsylvania.
The “change” with grouse is that a one-year experiment is likely to continue.
This season, for the first time in years, there's no post-Christmas grouse season. With the double whammy of habitat loss and West Nile virus having knocked ruffed grouse populations to 50-year lows across Pennsylvania, commissioners decided to close it.
That's to protect as many adult breeding birds as possible.
That apparently needs to continue.
Gregg said grouse biologist Lisa Williams developed a new system for deciding whether to keep the late season closed or open it for one or four weeks. It's based on hunter flush rates, summer brood sightings and the annual West Nile index.
The resulting “score” suggests another closed season is in order for next year, Gregg said.
Game Commission biologists aren't looking to change Pennsylvania deer seasons, Gregg said.
Commissioner Jim Daley of Butler County relayed concerns from some hunters. They wondered if the final Saturday of the October muzzleloader and firearms deer season for juniors and seniors should be eliminated so as to not to overlap with the first day of pheasant hunting.
Safety is the reason.
Commission executive director Bryan Burhans said pheasant hunters on one game lands worried they were potentially in the line of fire from deer hunters watching the same fields they were hunting.
The October season has existed for 15 years now, though, said Bob Boyd.
“And to our knowledge, there have not been any safety-related incidents,” he said.
Commissioner Brian Hoover of Chester County, meanwhile, asked if those October doe seasons should exist at all.
“That was a relic of the deer reduction,” Hoover said. “That was supposed to go away after the deer reduction period, if I understood the program correctly.”
The season initially was touted as a way to address a potential “breeding ecology” problem, said Chris Rosenberry, chief of the deer and elk section. Namely, some thought there were too many does to be bred by bucks. The idea was to remove a few before the rut.
That turned out to be a non-issue, Rosenberry said.
But, he added, the season continues because it's popular with hunters. Many view it as an opportunity to pursue deer with a firearm at a time of year when the weather is generally nice.
It's no longer about deer reduction either, he added. The harvest, minimal as it is at 10,000 animals, is factored in to the overall doe license allocation.
“There's nothing extra about that season,” Rosenberry said.
Commissioner Michael Mitrick of York County, meanwhile, asked about the possibility of allowing junior and senior hunters to shoot a buck during the three-day October firearms doe season. That would offer “great opportunity” at minimal impact, he suggested.
Rosenberry, though, said the impact could be greater than suspected.
Junior and senior hunters, combined, account for about 25 percent of all hunters, he said. Where they able to shoot a buck, he said, there would be “a lot more incentive” for them all to go hunting.
The “biological concern” is that they might remove too many bucks prior to the breeding season, he said.
There's another issue, said commissioner Brian Hoover. Hunters outside those age groups might not view the season favorably. It would mean fewer bucks available for them and fewer hunters left to move deer on opening day of the statewide firearms season, he said.