Muzzleloader bear hunting among possible changes coming to PA
Pennsylvania's large and sometimes problematic black bear population might produce an opportunity for muzzleloader hunters.
Pennsylvania Game Commissioners will give preliminary approval to seasons and bag limits for the 2019-20 hunting and trapping seasons when they next meet in January. Final approval follows in April.
They talked about what they might want to do with members of their wildlife staff at a recent meeting in Harrisburg, however.
And additions to bear seasons highlighted those discussions. Biologists want to expand opportunity and harvest, said Ian Gregg, chief of the agency's game management division, so there are "quite a number of changes proposed."
Specifically, there are three.
"And there are pros and cons to all of them," he said.
One potential change calls for moving the archery bear season to mid-October, to coincide with the October antlerless deer season.
That would add a day of archery bear hunting. The season would go Saturday to Saturday, rather than Monday to Saturday as was the case this year, Gregg said.
That would also open the door to a second, more dramatic, change.
In that October doe season, adult hunters can chase deer with a muzzleloader the entire week, while junior and senior hunters can shoot deer with a rifle the final three days. Biologists are suggesting adding bears to their menu.
"Throughout that week in October, if you're legally hunting deer and you have a bear license, you could harvest a bear," Gregg said.
That would certainly increase the October bear harvest, Gregg said.
"How much, we don't know," he added.
It could reduce nuisance complaints, though. Gregg said problems with bears looking to pack on weight before winter – and consequently raiding mature crop fields – peak then.
"So that's one part of our rationale for moving the season earlier," he said.
A third possible change to bear hunting involves extended seasons.
The statewide firearms bear season last year was a four-day affair. It opened the Saturday before Thanksgiving, then continued Monday through Wednesday.
In some wildlife management units, though, bear hunting continues into the firearms deer season.
The rules aren't the same in each, though. Some units allowed bear hunting the entire first six days of deer season. In others, hunting is limited to four days, from Wednesday through Saturday.
Commission staff may recommend changing that.
The idea is not to allow extended bear hunting statewide, but to allow it Monday through Saturday in all units where it's offered.
That would simplify regulations as well as potentially better lower bear numbers down where needed, Gregg said.
Some board members like those ideas.
Commissioner Jim Daley of Butler County said the commission needs to ramp up the bear harvest however it can. The state is home to 20,000 or more now, and could biologically handle more.
But the state's 12 million residents can't tolerate that.
"We've reached and exceeded the social carrying capacity," Daley said.
If anything, he'd go further. He's fall turkey hunter, he said. But he suggested biologists look at eliminating the three-day turkey season that starts on Thanksgiving and instead allow bear hunting that entire week.
Matthew Schnupp, director of the commission's bureau of wildlife management, said that might be too much change too fast. It could increase the harvest too quickly.
And even if that proved true, he said, some hunters would want to keep it anyway.
"Once you give it, it's really hard to take it away," Schnupp said.
Biologists would prefer to be a bit more conservative, study how the other changes they've proposed work, then go from there, he added.
Some other commissioners, meanwhile, wonder if even the three changes biologists are talking about might already be too much.
Commissioner Brian Hoover of Chester County said previous boards drove white-tailed deer numbers down when populations were considered too high. That led to complaints from hunters, he noted.
"We don't want to turn around and do the same thing to the bear population," Hoover said.
That will spark complaints from the state's 175,000 bear hunters, he said.
Perhaps there's a way to compromise, said board president Tim Layton. He suggested allowing muzzleloaders and junior and senior hunters with rifles to shoot bears in October only in the northcentral and northeast portions of the state, where bear populations are largest.
Gregg said he would pass all of the commissioner's comments along to Mark Ternent, the agency's bear biologist. He will give the board a presentation with his final recommendations in January.
Beyond bear hunting: other possible season changes
Hunters and trappers might see a few other changes to seasons and bag limits in 2019-20.
Perhaps just not as many as expected. Here's a look at what might be coming.
Bobcats and fishers
Biologists will likely suggest expanding bobcat hunting and trapping to one additional wildlife management, said Ian Gregg of the game management division. That's 4B in southcentral Pennsylvania.
They are also expected to propose expanding fisher trapping to unit 4A also in the southcentral.
Biologists want to shorten the porcupine hunting season. The current season started Sept. 1 and runs through March 30, with a daily limit of three.
The commission doesn't know much about how many porcupines the state has or where they range,
"So there is some concern about the potential effects of our existing season for population trends of that species," Gregg said.
Biologists are expected to recommend shortening the season, so that it starts in mid-October and ends in January.
Game Commission biologist Jeremy Banfield proposed several months ago changing the state's elk season.
Right now, the main hunt is six days in November. Hunters who don't get an elk then can hunt the following six days outside of the elk management zone, too.
Banfield said back in August that he'd like to maintain that. But he wants to add an archery-only season for bulls and cows the final two weeks of September and an antlerless-only season, for hunters using all kinds of weapons, in December or January.
That's still the plan.
But it may have to wait until 2020, said Matthew Schnupp, who heads the agency's wildlife management bureau.
Money and technology are the reasons.
The commission is transitioning from its old automated licensing system to a new one. The cost of retrofitting the old system to handle sales of elk license applications – should the new system not be ready – could be "exorbitant."
If that's the case, the commission may wait a year to make the elk season changes, Schnupp said.
Biologists aren't planning any changes to pheasants seasons for next fall. Yet.
But that might change.
A number of years ago the commission, together with volunteers from Pheasants Forever, established several wild pheasant recovery areas across the state. They imported wild ringnecks imported from the Midwest into each. At the same time, they initiated extensive habitat projects to sustain the birds.
The effort largely failed, at least in the sense that bird numbers dropped off whenever and wherever farmers found it more economical to put land back into production rather than accept subsidies.
A couple of wild pheasant areas have closed. Three remain.
Commission biologists are studying them. Gregg expects a final report by March.
"It's possible that that report will indicate we should close at least one or both of those," Gregg said.
Hunting is off limits in those areas, with the exception of a limited youth-only hunt on one. Biologists won't recommend changing that in January.
But, based on the report, they could in April, Gregg noted.
Biologists aren't recommending any change to otter trapping seasons for 2019-20.
One commissioner wondered why.
Currently, otter trapping is limited to two wildlife management units, 3C and 3D, in northeastern Pennsylvania.
Commission Jim Daley asked when that might expand to northwestern Pennsylvania. Populations are high, he said.
It's unlikely right now, Gregg aid. But not forever.
"I would say we are not far off from expanding the river otter season to additional management units," Gregg said. "So I think it's coming."
Commissioners eliminated the post-Christmas grouse hunting season this year because populations of the bird have declined precipitously in recent years. That's thought to be tied to West Nile virus. Grouse seem especially susceptible to it.
And reportedly, this year was one of the worst on record for mosquitoes and the disease. So board president Tim Layton of Somerset County asked if it might be time to eliminate all grouse hunting in the short term.
Bobwhite quail are a native bird species that's disappeared from Pennsylvania. Layton doesn't want grouse to disappear the same way.
"I think what everybody at this table needs to know is, if we need to save the grouse population, that's what we're going to do. Bar nothing," Layton said.
Commissioner Brian Hoover of Chester County said he doesn't want to eliminate grouse hunting altogether. He might support shortening seasons if that would help the birds, though.
Daley said another idea might be to leave seasons as they are, but reduce the daily bag limit from two birds to one.
Commission grouse biologist Lisa Williams will talk to commissioners about grouse in January. She'll discuss options then.
And one other change that may come down the road, if not next fall, maybe soon thereafter?
Commissioner Dennis Fredericks of Washington County wants to consider limiting fall turkey hunting to shotguns only. For the last several years, hunters have been able to use rifles, too.
That would promote safety, he said, so he "wants to run it up the flag pole."
Bob Frye is the everybodyadventures.com editor. Reach him at 412-216-0193 or email@example.com. See other stories, blogs, videos and more at everybodyadventures.com.