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The importance of Sunday hunting – come join us

Hunting is more than recreation. It is more than even “making meat,” so your family can survive.

Hunting is one of the few authentically human of activities left to us, we modern humans, shells of our former paleolithic selves that we are.

Today, in America, we hunt to be fully human, to demonstrate that we are still engaged with our ecosystems as the predator we became so many thousands of years ago.

Wild animals are still the cleanest, healthiest source of protein available. Getting your own meat through hunting is the most honest way to get food.

Sunday hunting here in Pennsylvania is nearly verboten. Somewhere in the 1860s a wave of religious commitment (a good thing) swept through America, and with it came “Blue Laws,” a very bad thing. Blue Laws are artificial contrivances to more or less force people to  stay away from commercial activity on Sunday.

Here in PA we still cannot buy a car on Sunday, nor can we hunt for anything more than coyote, crow or fox.

Using the force of law to deprive the citizenry of choice on something like hunting, when it is really a private property rights issue, is simply wrong. Blocking private landowners from hunting on their own land on Sunday is bad law, bad government, and it must be changed, for so many reasons.

Providing more Sunday hunting opportunities will open up about 50% more hunting time for Pennsylvanians, who typically can only hunt on Saturday, if they even have Saturday off from work. We are losing hunters, we need to recruit more hunters, and this is the biggest step we can take toward getting hunters back into the numbers where we are a measurable force for conservation and gun rights.

At 2:00 PM on March 11th at the PA Game Commission headquarters here in Harrisburg, a meeting is being held about how to get the Sunday hunting effort moving forward again. Some may recall I served as a plaintiff in a federal lawsuit several years ago. So much effort was put into that, and then RINO Yvette Kane struck. Kane, now a federal judge who openly accepts valuable gifts of jewelry and cars from law firms doing business before her bench, said that Sunday hunting was not a federal religious freedom issue, and sent us to state court, which said it was a federal issue.

We cannot get justice anywhere.

And this is the conundrum we face. Pennsylvania is one of the very last hold-outs on Sunday hunting in America. All but a few states allow full Sunday hunting, during hunting seasons, which are typically during the Fall and winter. Every state surrounding us is a commie state, and yet they allow meaningful Sunday hunting. Only PA is stopping a million of its citizens from fully realizing their recreational dreams and best family time.

Please come join us on March 11th at the PGC HQ, at 2:00 PM, to work on the political solution to this silly problem. Your grandchildren will thank you.

Our Wildlife Management Comments Submitted to the PA Game Commission

Dear PGC Commissioners,

In so many ways the Game Commission is on an exciting path, really moving forward on policy, staff culture, and scientific wildlife management. It is an exciting time to be a hunter and trapper in the great state of Pennsylvania, thanks to you. Hunting and trapping are supposed to be fun, and the PGC should be able to maximize opportunities without sacrificing the natural resource base. If anything, the agency has been perhaps too conservative, too cautious.  In that vein, here are some small suggestions for improving hunting and trapping in Pennsylvania:

a) Make all small game seasons concurrent, start them in late September or early October and run them unbroken until mid February. The current on-again-off-again schedule is silly, an artifact from many decades ago. Our current small game hunting schedule leaves kids and oldsters alike out in the cold with nothing to hunt if they can’t get to deer camp, or if they do kill a deer and want to keep on hunting. Hunters deserve maximum opportunities that do not degrade or put wildlife populations at risk, and adding a few extra days won’t hurt anything, but they will help hunters tremendously. Put another way, the risk of changing this is very low to non–existent, and the benefits are huge. Well, what is the risk, really?

b) Allow the use of snares in rural WMUs and/or on private lands. Cable restraints are an important trapping tool under any circumstances, and especially so as we experience ever-increasing freeze-thaw-freeze-thaw winters, with rain no less. These weird winter conditions render traditional footholds nearly useless both early and late in the season. Cable restraints can function better than footholds under those conditions, but they just are not sufficient for the big coyotes we are encountering. Getting coyotes into cable restraints is tough enough, and holding them there is even tougher. Chew-throughs of our cables are common, where a snare would positively catch the coyote and hold it, bringing it to hand and into the bag. In rural areas (or on private land) there is a far lower expectation or risk of a pet or feral dog or cat being caught. We are ceding too much to the anti-trappers by prohibiting snares where they can do the best good. A pet is an animal that lives in a home. Eliminating a very useful tool because of some vague or low-probability worry is not good policy. We can do better, and snares are much better than cable restraints in general, and particularly in the northern Big Woods areas. Also, CR certification can only be done right in person, through hands-on training. This online certification is going to lead to problems, especially where CRs are used like snares.

c) Allow the use of body-grip (Conibear) traps outside water courses, specifically on running-pole sets for fishers, bobcats, and raccoons. Like the snare situation above, our trapping regulations are unrealistic, they are too conservative, penalizing law-abiding trappers because of vague fears that under reasonable circumstances will not happen. Securing body-grip traps up off the ground is well out of the reach of dogs and domestic cats. Separately, if a pet owner lets their animal out the door to run free, where it can trespass, be hit by a car, be eaten by a coyote or fox or hawk, or get hurt in a fight with another animal, then they do not truly care about it and it is not a real “pet.” Pennsylvania trappers do not deserve to be hurt because of others’ irresponsible behavior. Elsewhere in America, the use of bodygrips on running pole sets is very effective and humane. We can stick with the #160 size as the maximum.

d) Extend the fisher trapping season and areas. Trappers in Berks and Lebanon Counties have told me of catching fishers in their sets, and we are seeing them in Dauphin County. There is no good reason why we cannot extend where and when we trap these abundant predators. Incidentally, they eat bobcats and turkeys, and it would be silly to expect fishers to simply harmoniously co-exist with other animals. They are a voracious predator and they will have a disproportionate impact on predator and prey populations alike if allowed to expand unchecked. Fishers are cool animals and I am all for having them in our ecosystems. What is lacking now are the mountain lions and wolves that in the distant past would have eaten them, and kept them in balance with other wildlife. We humans now fulfill the role of lions and wolves. Let us at ’em.

e) Make sure bobcat populations can sustain these long trapping and hunting seasons. We are seeing a lot less bobcat sign and fewer bobcats on our trail cameras. This was the first year we did not get a bobcat through either trapping or calling in 2G and 4C, and while this may be just our observation, we are concerned. If bobcat harvests must be reduced, then we prefer that it come out of their hunting season. There is a ton of hunting opportunities in Pennsylvania, and not a lot of great trapping opportunities. Heck, muskrats are practically extinct, coyotes have eaten most of the red fox in the southcentral, and possums are clogging nearly every trap. Let us keep our bobcat trapping intact.

f) Reinstate concurrent buck and doe deer hunting. We are seeing a high number of deer nearly every place we hunt (WMUs 2G, 4C, 3A, 5C, 5D). Deer populations are definitely lower than in 2001, and deer are harder to hunt now than then, but the quality is unbelievable, and the herd can sustain both doe and buck hunting. Pennsylvania is now a real trophy destination, so keep up the scientific management, which would include allowing hunting on Christmas Day.

g) Expand the bear season by one day in WMUs 2G and 4C, or rearrange the season entirely. There are an awful lot of bears everywhere, especially in 2G and 4C. On the Friday before bear season starts, we see loads of bears having tea and crumpets in the back yard. They are watching football and hanging out leisurely in reclining chairs. Come Opening Day through Wednesday, we might see the hind end of a bear or two, or we might occasionally harvest a bear, if we work hard enough. By deer season opening day the following week, the bears are back to having tea and crumpets in the back yard, hardly disturbed by all our hunting efforts. Another way to address this is to make bear and deer seasons concurrent, at least for one week, and perhaps start that concurrent season the week of Thanksgiving.

h) Do more to end wildlife feeding. We continue to see mangy bears, and deer baiting under the guise of “helping” wildlife through artificial feeding. It’s not good for the animals, and can actually be bad. People also feed wildlife to entice game animals away from (other) hunters. This is a cultural practice that PGC needs to do more to end, through education and enforcing the bear feeding regulation.

Thank you for considering our comments. We do love the PGC and admire your field staff, especially.

Josh and Isaac First (father and son)

Harrisburg, PA

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.

PGC: Great, Old Agency Unused to Modern Limelight

If there is one take-away from my many years in federal and state government jobs, it is that agency staff cultures change slowly.  In Pennsylvania, a great example of this is one of my favorite agencies, the Pennsylvania Game Commission.  PGC is an agency that is used to doing things the way it wants, often relying on its impressive history as evidence for its present day independence and independent culture.

PGC is presently in the headlines because of a $200,000 payment to its former executive director, Carl Roe, now very recently departed of the agency.

I thought it was an amicable departure; maybe not.  PGC staff say this is a settlement to avoid a possible lawsuit.  Critics of the payment include the governor’s office, the PA Comptroller, the PA attorney general, and many elected officials.  They say this is a sidestep around the state’s prohibition of severance payments, made between a board of directors and an executive director who were actually very cozy with one another.

This is sad, because PGC is a storied agency, a trend-setter in the area of wildlife management, wildlife science, habitat management, and public land acquisition.  Something I like is that PGC has uniformed officers who stand in front of Hunter Trapper Education courses filled with 10-18-year-old kids, and tell them that they have a Second Amendment right to own firearms.  Few states in America have such a wonderful role for their uniformed law enforcement officers.  We are fortunate to have this agency with this culture, and it is for this reason that I oppose merging PGC with DCNR.  Ranger Rick and Smokey Bear are not going to purvey that valuable message.

The flip side of the culture is what is often described as a “bunker mentality” among the agency’s staff, and this payment to Roe probably fits in with that view.

Most agencies are careful to avoid controversy, especially controversy that does not have a strong basis.  This payment does not appear to have a strong basis, so it is an unnecessary controversy that is likely to damage the agency’s standing among lawmakers and executives, as well as the general public and hunters who otherwise happily buy hunting licenses to support their favorite agency.  It comes at a time when the agency is already under the gun from oversight legislation (HB 1576, which does not address actual problems, but rather imagined problems unrelated to PGC and PA Fish & Boat Commission).

Don’t get me wrong, I like Carl Roe, and PGC has also driven me nuts at times.  I clearly recall the day he was brought on to the agency as an intern.  Me, then PGC executive director Vern Ross, PGC biologist Gary Alt, Carl Roe, and senior PGC staffer Joe Neville drove together up to Bellefonte to participate in the swearing-in of a new PGC commissioner.  Carl struck me as a bright, quantitatively-oriented, inquisitive, experienced manager.  Over the years since that day I have had many opportunities to meet with Carl, and he has always impressed me as a stalwart and intelligent promoter of PGC, hunters, trappers, and wildlife conservation.  This huge payment lightning rod situation just does not make sense in that context.

But on second thought, this payment does make sense if the insular agency culture managed to eventually penetrate into Carl’s otherwise solid judgment.  That has been a phenomenon witnessed among other new PGC staff; the broad “something-is-in-their-water” observation that people’s personalities changed dramatically once they joined PGC. Other evidence of an insular culture was recently brought to my attention: Four of the agency’s biologists (all of whom have some or all of the deer program’s oversight) have graduate degrees from the same school and they studied at the same post-graduate field station.  And no, they ain’t from Penn State, or any Pennsylvania university, for that matter, dammit.

I fear for PGC, because at a time when the agency is already under scrutiny from HB 1576, this new payment debate threatens to add fuel to the flames, and add a straw onto the camel’s back.  Part of the culture driving these problems is the same kind of culture that can cause the roof to suddenly come down.  Careful there, boys, careful.

*******UPDATE:

So, as has happened before, these essays get read, and I get phone calls and emails.  People calling me usually do not want to post on the blog, being afraid of attribution, and frankly, what some other people want to post here is not always worth keeping.  So here is the gist of what came over the transom in the past half hour: Things between Carl Roe and the PGC board were not chummy.  The payment to him is seen as a real money-saver.  I am unsure how an at-will employee like an executive director has any real legal recourse, unless he is fired for his religion or political views, things that are a) hard to prove and b) unlikely.  Also, I neglected to mention that Roe had, indeed, given away about $300,000 in agency funds to Hawk Mountain (GREAT PLACE, but not necessarily deserving of big PGC money) and other groups. This unaccountable and unapproved largesse caused real friction between Roe and the board, not to mention the rest of the stakeholders whose donations to and purchases from PGC are expected to be spent in a pecuniary fashion.

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.