↓ Archives ↓

Posts Tagged → game warden

The Ups and Downs of Pennsylvania’s Status as Trophy Hunting Destination

When I was a kid deer hunting, you would find a comfy seat somewhere under a hemlock or on a stump, and wait for the deer to storm by. The deer would eventually pass by in herds like caribou on the tundra, so many that you often lost count. Almost all were does, which were mostly off limits to hunting back then, and what you were looking for were any signs of antlers. Any flash of white on top of the deer’s head meant it was a buck, and therefore legal for harvest.

No matter how puny, how scrawny, how insignificant the antlers were, “getting your buck” was the goal, and several generations of Pennsylvanians were raised hunting in this low quality atmosphere. Herds of deer far beyond the carrying capacity of the landscape were the norm, as were pathetic excuses for a trophy, usually spike bucks or Y four-pointers, at best.

Fast forward forty years and Pennsylvania is now a true trophy hunting destination. It is unbelievable, really, the incredible successes in wildlife management our state has had. And every one of these achievements has come from outstanding planning by state wildlife biologists over decades.

For example, every year for the past fifteen years we have had bear harvests ranging from 3,000 to 4,000 animals, mostly taken within a three or four-day season. Some of our bears, a fairly high proportion, are gigantic, weighing from 500 to 800 pounds. These are eastern black bears the size of western grizzly bears; but they taste a lot better and they lack the aggressive personality of grizzlies.

Other examples of our wildlife management success are the trapping opportunities for otter, fisher, and bobcat, all of which were exotic, unimaginable, almost alien creatures when I was a kid. Someone you knew had seen one at some point in the woods, but they did not show up in traps, or dead on the roadside. Now? These three charismatic, very cool predators are either common or becoming common across Pennsylvania. There are enough of them to begin to alter prey populations, and forest growth, which means there are surpluses for sportsmen to pursue.

And our wild elk! Other states like Kentucky may have newer, much larger herds of wild elk than Pennsylvania, but they do not have the large human population or oversized road system we have here. Kentucky and the other states that have recently added wild elk can sustain larger herds. Nonetheless, Pennsylvania sees about 100 elk harvested annually, many of which are gigantic trophies on par with the best of western herds.

Finally, the biggest wildlife management success is our deer population. And it is our most controversial.

I have had a good deer season this year. Really, an outstanding deer season, in every way. Quality, quantity, time afield, hunting companionship, family time, scenic and remote places…what a fantastic few weeks it has been. How fortunate am I to have had this time, and it is only possible because Pennsylvania Game Commission biologists have done such an outstanding job of managing our deer populations (Quality Deer Management Association recognized the PGC this year  with an award for its incredible deer management).

Here is an example of the controversy surrounding deer hunting here. After sending a photo of one of the deer I took, using a beautiful 1935 German double-barreled rifle made at the peak of German sporting arms engineering, my older friend Jack wrote back to me “If you are not careful, you will clear your mountain of all game.”

In past years Jack has hunted with me at our place and would testify to the high quality deer we have cultivated there. Nonetheless he is anxious about harvesting “too many” deer.

And right there in his statement is the rub, the issue, the friction in our wildlife management here, overshadowing all other successes. Older generations tend to see does as sacred cows, off limits to harvest, whereas the younger generations tend to view deer management through the lens of biology, mathematics, and both habitat and social carrying capacity.

Never mind the other species listed above, just the high quality deer hunting alone makes Pennsylvania a true trophy hunting destination. People are now harvesting gigantic bucks unimaginable fifteen years ago, and that are big enough to hold their own against the long-time trophy deer hunting states like Kansas, Iowa, Illinois and Ohio. Pennsylvania’s deer management is working incredibly well, giving hunters a quality-over-quantity choice that works for today’s hunters and that rankles older generations used to “more is better.”

Deer hunting has gotten so good that, despite much stronger anti poaching laws, people are still going nuts trying to illegally hog up trophy bucks, afraid that if they do not get it, someone else will. Not too many years ago a fine young game warden was gunned down by a night poacher who was determined not to go back to jail (he did). Last week two 57-year-old men were caught shooting at deer from ATVs, and their reaction was to badly beat the deputy game warden and take his gun. They, too, are now in jail.

Older Pennsylvanians seem slow to catch on to our new status as a trophy destination. They act as if does must still be protected (they need not), and as if there are only a couple trophy bucks that must be poached before “someone else steals my buck.” In his recent book To Conserve and Protect: Memories of a Wildlife Conservation Officer, retired game warden Steve Hower recounts some of his experiences dealing with this backwards mindset.

Past PGC executive director Vern Ross used to say at every opportunity he had “Now, today, is the golden age of hunting in Pennsylvania!” Vern was correct then, and even more so now, as hunting opportunities are even better than when he was at PGC.

At some point the vast majority of our hunters will recognize and appreciate what an incredible thing we have now, right now, and instead of complaining about it, they will enjoy it and do what they can too support the PGC.

Some photos below from our bear and deer seasons; the buck photos are from the five minutes I was there on the second night of rifle season at Blue Mountain Deer Processing in Enola, PA. Just look at those incredible heads and huge steer-like bodies! Wow. Unthinkable not too long ago.

“Think those are big? You should have seen the huge ones that poured in here yesterday, on Opening Day,” said Dean Deimler, owner of Blue Mountain Deer Processing.

I have heard of several 160-inch and bigger racks being taken in the mountains, where too many people say “there ain’t no deer.” Like a lot of people, I would rather have a shot at a lifetime trophy buck of 160 inches than see a zillion scrawny spikes and forkhorns.

The young man is my son, who climbed high and steep right along with the adults, handling his firearms expertly and safely, himself taking three deer in two states this season and hunting bear as an adult for the first time. And that is the other ‘trophy’ from deer hunting…watching that next generation grow into an activity as old and as natural as our species.

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?