Better defining public hunting the goal of new rules likely coming to Pennsylvania
They're going to have to do better.
Pennsylvania entities – chiefly municipalities – that want permits to cull overabundant white-tailed deer from around their residents' urban and suburban homes and businesses using sharpshooters must first try managing those animals using real, actual public hunting.
That has, by letter of the law, been the rule for a while now.
But public officials loathe to involve themselves in debating about the pros and cons of hunting sometimes skirt the issue.
Pennsylvania Game Commissioner Brian Hoover of Chester County said several municipalities in the southeast region are prime examples.
One borough might own 200 acres of park land, he said, that's home to too many deer. They open just 10 of those acres to hunting, though. And only one or two borough police officers – technically members of the public – are allowed to hunt, Hoover said.
When those officers predictably can't shoot enough deer to solve the overabundance problem, the municipality applies for the cull permit it wanted all along, Hoover said.
"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."
Game Commissioners are addressing that.
When they meet on July 30-31 in Harrisburg, they're expected to preliminary approve rules changes stating public hunting is to be the first tool for deer control.
The new language will specifically quantify "true public access," said Jason Raup, assistant counsel for the agency.
Municipalities — and other landowners seeking a cull permit — will still be able to restrict how many people hunt their lands. They can limit that by season , too.
But the new rules will make it clear that they have to bring hunters into the mix in a real way, 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.
That — acceptance of public hunting – has been the issue, it seems.
Only a dozen or so entities apply for a cull permit in a typical year in Pennsylvania, said Chad Eyler, of the commission's special permits division.
Three of four of those applicants – all within Philadelphia city limits — are exempt from the public hunting rule, thanks to state lawmakers.
But the others must meet the rule.
Some have done so in a "robust" way, Raup said. Others meet the public hunting requirement using members of one particular sportsmen's club. A few open things up to hunters passing a proficiency test.
Those situations are all acceptable, he said. Elected officials hiding behind a handful of police officers – so as to not to face opposition from anti-hunting constituents – is not, he added.
Hunting, after all, 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.
Hoover said the new language is long overdue. He wonders, though, if it goes far enough.
Municipalities that skirted the rules last time will surely try another "end run" to do so again, he said.
Raup admitted the new definition of public hunting may need updated again in time.
But he doesn't want to anticipate problems that don't yet exist either.
"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 said that's fine, so long as the commission remains vigilant. It hasn't always been in the past, he charged.
"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.
Raup said the commission has rejected cull permit applications in the past and retains the right to do so. The new rules, he said, will hopefully make things clear enough to everyone on sides that there's little wiggle room.
"I think we want to remain supportive of our communities that are having deer control problems," Raup said.
"I think how we get there is just the important factor. And public hunting needs to be the primary component toward management."