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Bear and Deer Seasons in the Rearview Mirror

The old joke about Pennsylvania having just two seasons rings as true today as it did fifty years ago: Road construction season in the Keystone State seems to be a nine-month-long affair everywhere we go, a testament to how not to overbuild public infrastructure, if you cannot maintain it right.

And the two-week rifle deer season brings out the passion among nearly one million hunters like an early Christmas morning for little kids (I doubt the Hanukkah bush thing ever took off).  All year long people plan their hunts with friends and relatives, take off from work, spend lots of money on gear, equipment, ammunition, food, and gas, and then go off to some place so they can report back their tales of cold and wet and woe to their warmer family members at home. These deer hunts are exciting adventures on the cheap. No bungee jumping, mountain cliff climbing, jumping through flaming hoops or parachuting out of airplanes are needed to generate the thrill of a lifetime as a deer or bear in range gives you a chance to be the best human you can be.

Both bear and deer seasons flew by too fast, and I wish I could do them over, not because I have regrets, but because these moments are so rare, and so meaningful. I love being in the wild, and the cold temperatures give me impetus to keep moving.

One reflection on these seasons is how the incredible acorn crop state-wide kept bear and deer from having to leave their mountain fortresses to find food. Normally animals must move quite a bit to find the browse and nuts they need to nourish their bodies. Well, not this year. Even yesterday I was tripping over super abundant acorns lying on every trail, human or animal made.

When acorns are still lying in the middle of a trail in December, where animals walk, then you know there are a lot of nuts, because normally those low-hanging fruits would be gobbled right up weeks ago.

After still hunting and driving off the mountain I hunt on most up north, it became clear the bear and deer were holed up in two very rugged, remote, laurel-choked difficult places to hunt. Any human approach is quickly heard, seen, or smelled, giving the critters their chance to simply walk away before the clumsy human arrives. All these animals had to do was get up a couple times a day, stretch, walk three feet and eat as many acorns as they want, and then return to their hidden beds.

This made killing them very difficult, and the lower bear and deer harvests show that. God help us if Sudden Oak Death blight hits Pennsylvania, because that will spell the end of the abundant game animals we enjoy, as well as the dominant oak forests they live in.

The second reflection is how we had no snow until Friday afternoon, two days ago, and by then we had already sidehilled on goat paths, and climbed steep mountains, as much as we were going to at that late point in the season. With snow, hunting is a totally different experience: The quarry stands out against the white back ground, making them easier to spot and kill, and snow tracking shows you where they were, where they were going, and when. These are big advantages to the hunter. Only on Friday afternoon did we see all the snowy tracks up top, leading over the steep edge into Truman Run. With another two hours, we could have done a small push and killed a couple deer. But not this year. Maybe in flintlock season!

And finally, I reflect on the people and the beautiful wild places we visited.

I already miss the time I spent with my son on stand the first week. He was with me when I took a small doe with a historic rifle that had not killed since October 1902, the last time its first owner hunted and a month before the gun was essentially put into storage until now.

And then my son had a terrible case of buck fever when a huge buck walked past him well within range of his Ruger .357 Magnum rifle, and he missed, fell down, and managed to somehow eject the clip and throw the second live round into the leaves while the deer kept moseying on by. When I found my son minutes later, he was sitting in a pile of leaves where the deer had stood, throwing the leaves around and crying in a rage that we needed to get right after the deer and hunt them down. The boy was a mess. It was delightful to watch.

I miss the wonderful men I hunted with, and I miss watching other parents take their own kids out, to pass on the ancient skill set as old as humankind.

It is an unfortunate necessity to point out that powerline contractor Haverfield ruined the Opening Day of deer season for about three dozen hunters by arriving unannounced and trespassing in force to access a powerline for annual maintenance in Dauphin County. We witnessed an unparalleled arrogance, dismissiveness, and incompetence by Haverfield staff and ownership that boggles the mind. I am a small business owner, and I’d be bankrupt in three days if I behaved like that. Only the intervention of a Pennsylvania Game Commission Wildlife Conservation Officer saved the day, and that was because the Haverfield fools were going onto adjoining State Game Lands, where they also had no business being during deer season.

Kudos to PPL staff for helping us resolve this so it never happens again.

Folks, we will see you in flintlock season, just around the corner. Now it is time to trap for the little ground predators that raid the nests of ducks, geese, grouse, turkey, woodcock, and migratory songbirds. If you hate trapping, then you hate cute little ducklings, because the super overabundant raccoons, possums, skunks, fox, and coyotes I pursue eat their eggs in the nests, and they eat the baby birds when they are most vulnerable.

 

A Father’s Pride

I admit that I am feeling mighty proud this morning. It cannot be helped.

A big milestone in Central Pennsylvania life was achieved last night when my son passed his Hunter & Trapper Safety Education course and received his orange certificate.  He’s now permitted to purchase a hunting license and begin hunting and trapping as his own self-directed person.  Yes, he is young and he must be accompanied by other, older hunters for some years to come, which makes sense.  Nevertheless, he studied hard, attended the classes after school, and passed the exam with a 100% on his first try.

Along with my boy were 70 other students at the Milton Grove Sportsmen’s Club, which is standing room only.  Thank you to the club for providing the venue and thank you to the educators who donate their time to help recruit the next generation of hunters, trappers, and safe gun owners.  Lowell and Tracy Graybill did an especially fine job, which should not be a big surprise given that Lowell is presently president of the PA Federation of Sportsmen’s Clubs and the two of them have been a major power couple on conservation and sporting issues for decades.

Honestly, there were a couple of awkward moments in the two nights of training, some opportunities for improvement.  There’s got to be more hands-on and more demonstration of how the different firearms work.  I recall when I was a ten-year-old kid taking the same exam, we all got called up to the front of the room so we could handle the different actions and see for ourselves how they operated.  In a room as big as Milton Grove Sportsmen’s Club’s main meeting room, it must be impossible to see the guns much less imagine how the unfamiliar actions work from the middle and back of the room.

Another awkward time was at the very beginning, when a very nice local Deputy WCO made the opening remarks.  He had a pleasant demeanor and seemed easy to talk with, so he elicited a lot of audience questions and back and forth on the PGC regulations book handed out with all licenses.  He referred to WCOs as “game wardens,” an appellation every WCO I know has tried hard to shed.  He also seemed unfamiliar with basic regulations, like shooting above roadways and public trails.  To his credit, his lack of familiarity seemed to stem from the fact that he appears to pursue charges for serious wildlife crimes and not penny ante, picayune mistakes.

The winner of awkward moments, however, was when one of the educators, Tim, stated that semi-automatic shotguns can only be used for small game and waterfowl hunting, and not for deer hunting.  When it was pointed out by an audience member that semi-auto shotguns can be used for deer in the Special Regulations area around Philadelphia, Tim demurred, openly irritated.  When the audience member tried to hand Tim the regulations book, opened to the page stating that semi-auto shotguns are allowed for deer in that one area, Tim snapped “I don’t care, and I don’t hunt in the Special Regulations area.”

That was in front of the whole class, early on the first night.  It undermined Tim’s credibility and made him look foolish.  He never went back to correct his mistake that night or the second.  It raised the question about qualifications for teaching these courses, not just knowledge, but personality.  Nearly all of the audience members and students were from the southeastern region and quite a few probably do hunt in the Special Regulations area around Philly.  They are entitled to an expectation that they will be provided only accurate information, and that their teachers will have the strength of character to admit when they have mis-spoken or made a mistake.

And no student or audience member should be treated disrespectfully or belittled by a teacher.  It damages the entire purpose of the course.

All that said, it was a wonderful experience for me and my son.  We sat together both nights, and watching him soak up the knowledge was pleasing.  Only forty years have lapsed since I was in his seat….and to me, his rite of passage was much sweeter than my own.

It was also pleasing to see more girls than boys in the student body, as well as many single women and married mothers.  Women are the largest and fastest growing demographic in hunting and firearms ownership.  Now, what would really be exciting would be to see a class like this in downtown Philadelphia, filled with young African American kids and their fellow citizens.  Who will take up that gauntlet, men?

I am a happy PA Game Commission partner

For the past ten years, we have enrolled 350 acres in Centre County with the Pennsylvania Game Commission’s public access program.

We pay the taxes on the land, the PGC patrols the land, and the public hunts and traps on the land. From personal items left lying on the ground, like underpants and beer cans, it is clear that some members of the public are using it in more creative recreational ways.

Cleaning up these things is part of the burden we bear to provide the public with nice places to hunt and…”picnic.”

Because our land is surrounded by State Game Lands, it made sense to open it to the public.  We were approached to lease it as a private hunting club, and we have resisted that for all these years.  We recently sold 100 acres to PGC, and we wanted it to be a seamless experience for the public, used to walking in on a gated road and immediately hunting.

Overall our experience has been positive.  Yes, we get frustrated by people leaving trash behind, when they could easily put it in the vehicle they brought it in with. But we take great satisfaction knowing that the majority of visitors are exhilarated to be there, and they use the land respectfully.

Our family is proud to help other Pennsylvanians have a beautiful place to hunt and trap, so that these ancient skills can be passed on to younger generations.  We are proud and pleased to partner with the Pennsylvania Game Commission.

 

Field Notes

Field Notes are the monthly notes written by PA Game Commission wildlife conservation officers, about notable experiences and interactions they’ve had on the job, out in the field.  And you know that for those folks, men and women, out in the field is truly out there in the wild.  Their descriptions of encounters with people and wildlife are unique and often funny.

Field Notes are published monthly in the PGC’s Game News magazine, and for all of my hunting life (1973 until now), one person really summed up Field Notes and gave them pizzazz, making them my first-read in the magazine.

That was artist Nick Rosato, whose funny illustrations in Field Notes came to epitomize and symbolize the life and lighter side of wildlife law enforcement.  Rosato’s humorous, rustically themed sketches summed up a WCO’s life of enforcing the law against sometimes recalcitrant bad guys, while maintaining an empathy usually reserved for naughty school children, when first-time offenders were involved and a slap on the wrist was needed.

Rosato died this summer, and his art will no longer grace the pages of Game News.  I will miss Rosato’s humor and skill, because for most of my life he helped paint the human dimension of officers who are too often seen as gruff, grumpy, and unnecessarily strict law enforcers.

Speaking of WCOs, a couple years ago I was hunting during deer rifle season when I encountered a WCO I knew.  He had a deer on the back of his vehicle and we stopped to chat and catch up with each other.  Out of nowhere, I asked him to please check me, as in check my license, my gun, my ammunition.

Getting “checked” by WCOs and deputy WCOs is a pretty common experience for most Pennsylvania hunters, but the truth is, I have never been checked by anyone in my 42 years of hunting.

“Sorry, Josh, I just do not have the time.  You will have to wait ’til later or until you meet another WCO out here,” he responded.

With that he smiled, waved, and drove off to follow through on his deer poaching investigation.

I think that encounter should be a Field Note, Terry.  It is probably a first.

Maybe this year I will be “checked,” but perhaps having every single license and stamp available to the Pennsylvania hunter, and hunting only when and where I am supposed to hunt, somehow creates a karma field that makes WCOs avoid me.

Speaking of hunting experiences, yesterday morning Ed and I were goose hunting on the Susquehanna River.  Out in the middle of the widest part, we were alone, sitting on some rocks, chatting about our families, professional work, politics and culture, religion.  Our time together can best be summed up as “Duck Blind Poetry,” because it ain’t pretty, but it is soulful.  Two dads together, sharing life’s experiences and challenges, makes hunting much more than killing.

While we were noting the Susquehanna River’s recent and incredible decline in animal diversity, we suddenly saw four white Great Egrets fly across our field of view, followed by three wood ducks.  Intrigued, we began speculating on where they had all been hiding, when out of nowhere a mature bald eagle appeared on the horizon.  It flapped its way over us and clearly was on the hunt.  So that was why the other birds had quickly flown out of Dodge!

Seeing these wild animals interact with each other was another enjoyable example of how hunting is much, much more than killing.

Unfortunately, during that serene time afield, I introduced my cell phone to the Susquehanna River, and have found myself nearly shut off from communications ever since.  While the phone dries off in a bath of rice, I am enjoying a sort of enforced relaxation.  Please don’t think my lack of responses to calls and texts is rudeness.  I am merely clumsy.  Let’s not make that a Field Note.

 

PA House Bill 1576 pulled, for now

Pennsylvania House Bill 1576 would have dramatically changed the way PA regulates and manages endangered, threatened, and rare species of plants and animals.  It went overboard in so many ways, too numerous to recount now, and missed an important opportunity to actually bring a needed level of professionalism and accountability to the way the Pennsylvania Game Commission and the Pennsylvania Fish & Boat Commission interact with and serve citizens.

Legislation setting timetables for the agencies on permits and regulatory actions is a good start.  Allowing citizens to recoup legal costs from successful lawsuits against the agencies would be fair, as the agencies occasionally get that bully’s “Go ahead and sue me” attitude, so inappropriate for any government agency.

HB 1576’s proponents bit off more than they could chew, probably a result of making an emotionally charged effort, rather than a carefully calculated and strategic effort at reining in government behavior that is sometimes seen as failing to serve citizens in the ways they deserve.  Advocates for the two agencies, myself included, should be asking how HB 1576 came up in the first place – what kind of agency over-reach, or failures to serve – resulted in elected officials from both parties becoming so frustrated that they decided to drop that bomb.

Now, HB 1576 is not on the next list of proposed legislation to get a vote.  There is talk in both parties about getting more finely tuned and focused legislation passed, and I certainly support that.  Government’s role is not to dominate citizens, but to serve them.  Protecting vulnerable plants and animals is a way of serving citizens’ interests, but there is also a way to do that without unnecessarily damaging the people who are supposed to benefit.  That includes ensuring that the two agencies have sufficient funding and staff to implement their respective missions.

The challenge of properly managing Pennsylvania’s endangered species

Managing Pennsylvania’s endangered and threatened species: Are we going from bad to worse?

By Josh First

Democratic government is by its nature slow and difficult. It’s designed to be inefficient. That’s why less government is better than more government. 

House Bill 1576 is being voted on Wednesday, sponsored by legislators responding to legitimate complaints from their constituents and stakeholders. HB 1576 would change the way Pennsylvania manages threatened and endangered species, by adding IRRC, the heavily politicized arm of regulatory government as the final arbiter of scientific reviews originating in our wildlife agencies. 

Here’s my three reasons for opposing HB 1576:

1) It’s more bureaucracy, which in this case is designed to hamstring the current regulatory process overseen by the PA Game Commission and the PA Fish & Boat Commission. Careful what you ask for, because if Pennsylvania lets endangered species management become a political issue, the US Fish & Wildlife Service will take over. If you think our state agencies are a pain in the butt, wait til distant, unresponsive, politicized federal bureaucrats take over and are making the decisions about our wildlife issues. You’ll get gridlock up the yinyang then.  And Pennsylvania will lose the annual +\- $30 million in self imposed excise tax money from sporting goods that is distributed to PGC and PFBC by the Feds each year.  

2) It emasculates the two independent agencies, setting them up for further questions about their function and role in state government. The ultimate goal by some people is to fold PGC and PFBC into DCNR. Emasculating the agencies is a step in that direction. 
My opposition to that is strictly cultural: PA is more like Idaho or Wyoming, and unlike every other state surrounding us, in that we have uniformed PGC officers teaching kids how to use firearms safely, and teaching them that firearms ownership is their constitutional right. State personnel in New York, New Jersey, Maryland, etc don’t do that. Those are Commie states where leftist governors have politicized the line agencies. Due to the extremists running their governments, these states actively deprive their citizens of their Second Amendment rights. That could happen here, say, under a Governor Allyson Schwartz, an extreme leftist now in the lead to be the Democrat nominee for Pennsylvania governor.  

Let’s not let Pennsylvania become a Commie state, or let our traditional hands-on culture at PGC and PFBC get overrun by the next governor who flits through the office. Let’s hold onto this old, beautiful aspect of our culture, and let our qualified authority figures teach the next generation about the beauty of individual liberty. 

3) It’s a sledgehammer when we need a scalpel.  With HB 1576, I think the PGC and PFBC just got the message that their process isn’t working for everyone. But it must work for everyone. So let’s sit down and hammer out a new, better process that meets the worthy stewardship goals of PGC and PFBC, without undermining those agencies. 

Sure, there are other reasons to oppose HB 1576, but those three are enough for me.