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Auditor general targets Pennsylvania Game Commission for mismanagement, hunting drop

| Tuesday, Feb. 20, 2018, 5:36 p.m.
Game Commission critics including state Rep. David Maloney have expressed concerns over the dwindling population of Pennsylvania’s state bird, the ruffed grouse.
Game Commission critics including state Rep. David Maloney have expressed concerns over the dwindling population of Pennsylvania’s state bird, the ruffed grouse.

Pennsylvania Auditor General Eugene DePasquale announced Tuesday that he will audit the state Game Commission at the urging of Democratic and Republican lawmakers, who have said Commission mismanagement has contributed to a decline in hunting and associated tax revenue.

DePasquale said he will examine the Commission's finances, purchases of property and buildings and its adherence to proper procedures for wildlife management from 2014 through 2017.

"This is something that I think is a long time coming," said DePasquale, adding that the agency hasn't been audited in nearly a decade. He said he is aiming to complete the audit by the end of the year.

Rep. David Maloney, R-Berks County, has pressed for the audit for at least a year and a half, along with Rep. Michael Hanna, D-Centre County, and House Majority Leader Dave Reed, R-Indiana, DePasquale said.

Speaking at Tuesday's announcement, Maloney said there are fewer hunters in the state than there used to be. Game Commission figures show nearly 1 million hunting licenses are sold per year in the state. The number has been declining since a high of about 1.3 million licenses were sold in the early 1980s.

"We know that we have about 200,000 declined numbers of hunters, and that's for a reason of what they have concerns with, and that is the mismanagement of that wildlife," Maloney said, referring primarily to white-tailed deer.

He also expressed concerns about dwindling numbers of Pennsylvania's state bird, the ruffed grouse.

"Our state bird is not only a significant piece of our history, but it's also a game bird. And it needs habitat. And we've been told over and over and over that our state bird's habitat is in crisis," he said.

"We are confident that the results of the audit will confirm that our financial house is in order and that we have efficiently used our resources in furtherance of our mission of managing the commonwealth's wildlife," Game Commission Executive Director Bryan Burhans said in a statement following the announcement. "We are also optimistic that the results will correct some misconceptions that continue to persist within segments of the Legislature and the hunting community, and will allow us to move forward to address the challenges facing wildlife in the commonwealth."

John Eveland, a wildlife biologist who has done consulting for legislators, said the Game Commission increased deer harvests from 2000 to 2004 in a misguided effort to protect forest floors from what the Commission viewed as overbrowsing by deer. The true culprit behind damaged forest floors, Eveland said, is old-growth forests that block sunlight from reaching the ground. The change affected parts of the state north of U.S. Interstate 80 most significantly, he said.

"They have made a mistake, and politically they can't acknowledge that they've made such a grand mistake," he said.

Maloney said in a sponsorship memo for a bill meant to improve hunting habitat that the depopulation has resulted in $40 million per year in lost local tax revenues.

"If we do not have the product, then we will not have the pursuing of it," he said Tuesday.

Travis Lau, a Game Commission spokesman, said Pennsylvania's decrease in hunters follows national trends. Nationally, the number of hunters dropped by about 2 million, to 11.5 million, from 2011 to 2016, according to a U.S. Department of the Interior report.

Lau said decreases in grouse numbers were largely due to West Nile Virus.

DePasquale said that while his audit won't delve into the science of wildlife management, he will look at the Commission's adherence to its established procedures. If he finds problems, his audit could prompt changes, he said.

Hanna, the Centre County Democrat, said in a statement that lawmakers will need to see the results of the audit before granting a fee increase requested by the Game Commission.

"This audit was prompted by a bipartisan group of House members who have questioned the activities of the Game Commission for quite some time," Hanna said. "I am a huge proponent of transparency and am happy to be a co-sponsor of House Bill 1483, which would return accountability of deer management back to sportsmen."

Wes Venteicher is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at 412-380-5676, or via Twitter @wesventeicher.

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