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Oh, that tangled Ukrainian-Russian knot

So Russia just invaded Ukraine, which is like a giant grizzly bear attacking My Little Pony.

Why is Russia doing this? What can Ukraine do? What does this portend for the rest of the world?

Few regions of the world have as much tangled, messy history as Eastern Europe, in which Ukraine and Russia kind of rest. From the Balkans to the Baltic Sea to the Urals to today’s Germany, huge and small tides of humanity have swept back and forth, now running in fear, then running in imperial expansionist savagery, for at least a thousand years.

And that is not even counting the Mongols under Ghengis Khan or Attila the Hun, both of whom wreaked incredible carnage across the region before riding back east or dying. But not before leaving their DNA behind among the surviving European women, as evidenced today by the distinctively shaped eyes of both Russian and Ukrainian Slavs.

Russia has obvious historical and strategic interests in dominating Ukraine. As the former “bread basket” grain growing region of Eastern Europe, and the otherwise impoverished USSR specifically, Ukraine also has natural gas, a pathway to Western European markets, and an awful lot of beach front property on the Black Sea.

Russian dictator Vladimir Putin also clearly demonstrates his desire to rebuild the former USSR Soviet Union, by adding Ukraine back in, if not for his own personal aggrandizement, then for the betterment of the Russian people (Putin gets A+ comments from even his most venomous detractors, because he is so clearly dedicated to improving the Russian people’s opportunities, albeit within his totalitarian iron grip and at everyone else’s expense).

For its part, Ukraine threw off the Russian yoke only ten years ago, and immediately saw its own unique flower bloom as an outpost of open-minded youth from across the world. And let’s face it, Ukrainian women are generally speaking smokin’ hot, so that every other Ukrainian woman between 21 and 30 has had a serious go at becoming or trying out life as a “Russian bride.” Demand outstrips supply, so no matter what happens from this invasion, people everywhere will still want those beautiful Ukrainian women. Under Putin’s coming dictatorship, you will probably be able to buy one for a buck fifty on eBay, with 100% of the proceeds going directly to the Kremlin in Moscow.

Ukraine may have earned some of this comeuppance, because they had a sordid past. Even recently. Well, we need to be honest here, so let’s re-state that: Ukraine was a sadistic hell-hole for religious minorities for a thousand years up until they had no more religious minorities to torture.

To understand just how bad and evil the Ukrainian peasant folk were to their gypsies and Jews, do your own internet search (I use DuckDuckGo) of “Ukraine pogroms.” The results of that search will yield un-ending horrific photographs and drawings of bestial massacres, rape, brutality beyond imagination, from the 1500s through the 1940s, all with grinning men and cruel women casually wiping the innocent human blood onto their trousers and skirts.

It seems that under that strikingly beautiful Ukrainian face there may lie an equally evil beast that tempted fate a thousand times too many… and as God is just and righteous, the sins of the fathers are now borne by their children, with Russia serving as the all-too-willing enforcers. This is just one possible view or explanation of this current situation. I am not saying it is correct.

Because Ukraine is the obvious underdog here, many freedom-loving people around the planet are understandably cheering on the Ukrainians. And because the Ukrainian government just handed out real automatic weapons and crates of ammunition to every one of its citizens, we have the weird situation of Second Amendment-hating leftists suddenly cheering the private ownership of assault weapons.

Ukraine has also brought out into the light these same hypocritical leftists to advocate for inviolate international borders, except America’s borders, which must remain wide open. For “justice.”

You just can’t make this crap up, as they say in Brooklyn, New York.

And so here we have it, a hungry bear chasing down a honey pot, with swarms of stinging insects surrounding the roaring bear, which is waving its paws all over the place, defending itself and also wrecking everything around it simultaneously.

If I could draw worth a darn, I would draw this big hairy bear vs. angry bees scene as a giant, tumultuous, tangled knot. Because that is what this Russian invasion is, and always has repeatedly been over the past five hundred years, at least. A tangled mess, neither party completely innocent and neither completely good.

Russia. Russia.

Ukraine. Ukraine. Ukraine. Ukraine.

As for the rest of us, who can say about Europe, or Canada. We Americans have our own Vladimir Putin sitting in the White House to contend with, and his Bolshevik revolutionaries are doing everything they can to destroy America from inside, using the very same government we Americans built to serve us.

So to Ukraine, I say good luck, but we have our own wars to fight here at home.

 

Anatomy of a deer season

It doesn’t matter if you archery hunt for deer religiously, from October 1 to mid-November; the archery season is always over way too fast.

It doesn’t matter if you archery hunt a bit for bear and deer, hunt the week of early muzzleloader for bear and doe, do some small game hunting, have the men up to camp for bear season for four days, and then hunt every day of deer rifle season. The ending is always the same: It ended way too fast. We wait all year for this time, and before you can blink an eye, it is over.

For many hunters, this time is about being afield, hunting. The occasional actual killing part is a welcome indication that the hunting part was done well. Proof that the time spent outside was not wasted.

Oh, we still have some late deer season remaining, which is the late archery and flintlock hunt. But by now, deer everywhere in Pennsylvania are on high alert. A twig falling out of a tree and rustling a leaf on the ground will send a nearby deer herd into panicked stampede into the next county. So getting deeply enough into the sensory zone of these intelligent animals to take one with a bow or a flintlock at this stage takes real skill, not just the usual luck.

Although I will hunt the flintlock deer season, because I have some DMAP tags left, looking back even now with a sense of longing has me thinking about the anatomy of a good deer season. Some take-aways:

  1. Eat good food. Whether it is home-made jerky and dried fruit we make ourselves for our own time afield, or it is the extra thick gourmet steaks we bring to hunting camp, eat the best quality food you can afford. Hunting alone or with friends and family is a celebration, so eat like you are celebrating. And because Man does not live on bread alone, make sure your drinks are of a commensurate high quality.
  2. Practice, practice, practice with your gun. Archery hunters practice non-stop, but for some reasons many gun hunters leave it to one box of ammo and the days right before the season to “practice” shooting. Well do I recall sharing a range with a guy from Lancaster County at the bench next to me. Friendly enough, he enthusiastically, if spastically, launched his one box of “extra” shells down range as rapid fire as a bolt action can fire. I had offered him the use of my spotting scope and Caldwell shooting sled, and he declined. He did end up relying on my spotting and calling his hurried shots, however, because he didn’t quite have his scope figured out. The old random “spray n’ pray” is the approach he packed up and drove off to hunting camp with. Do any of us think he hit what he shot at?
  3. Bring your best jokes, naughty or practical. Hunting camp is fun, and each of us must contribute to that festive atmosphere. Many years ago, I bent down to inspect a strange looking object hiding under the cabin’s kitchen counter. And just as quickly I jumped back and screamed like a little girl when the damned thing took off running. That it was merely a muskrat pelt attached to a fishing line being pulled by Bob and followed by uproarious laughter at my expense just made my revenge all the sweeter. As for naughty jokes and rhymes, the list is endless. Look them up and bring half a dozen. Maybe I am lowbrow, or maybe I have low expectations, but it sure seems that everyone present laughs at these men-only jokes.
  4. Get out into position early, like at least an hour before first light, and when you move play the wind (nose into the wind), go quietly and slowly, and carry your gun port-arms and not across your back. If you can get out into position at 4:30am, even better. Just bring a blanket and some Zippo hand warmers.
  5. Food sources matter for deer and bear, too. We humans are not the only ones who both enjoy and need food. In a year of abundant acorns, a stand of sweet tasting white oaks will draw more deer and bear, and you can sit down wind of that stand of trees. In a year of scarce acorns, like this year, any tree that had a decent crop will still draw animals pawing in the leaves for whatever may be left in early December. By this mid-November, almost all of the already scarce acorns were eaten up, and both bear and deer seemed to be moving widely across the landscape in search of any food. It makes for tough hunting, and so we have to team up with buddies and other camps to work together to scoop up what animals are out there. Be flexible and think outside the box of a permanent stand.
  6. Speak animal language. Last year I grunted in an Adirondacks wilderness buck after busting him out of his bed. He was a territorial and aggressive SOB. But the conditions were all wrong for playing around, and although his body was visible, I could not shoot through the beech brush to get him. This year I returned for Round Two with the same animal, which had probably never seen a human being, and after two days of tentative efforts, Day Three resulted in the furious huge buck storming right in to my position with leaves, twigs, snot and mouth foam flying. I shot him in the neck at five yards, five miles from my truck. Lot of work, totally worth it for that DIY hunt of a lifetime. My position was carefully chosen for what he could see or smell under a certain wind direction. I waited until it was all just right, and let fly. His response was immediate.
  7. Take pictures, send them in emails. While journaling is not dead, most people today do not write in a personal or camp journal. Instead, we take photos and email them around. The recipients always appreciate them. Especially when ten or twenty years has suddenly passed, our knees don’t seem capable of all those steep climbs and hard sidehilling drives any longer, and a lot of our best times at hunting camp are sitting around with dear friends and reminiscing together. So don’t forget to take pictures and share them.

Northern PA’s acorn crop largely failed in 2021, possibly due to a late frost that killed the acorn flowers. Acorns remaining on the ground looked OK from the outside, but were all rotten like this on the inside. Wildlife is hungry and moving widely to locate food.

My “Freedom Buck,” killed on Sunday November 28th at 7:45am, on private property in PA. The ban on Sunday hunting is an attack on freedom, and so I named this Sunday morning buck after my declaration of freedom.

 

 

PA’s must-do 21st century deer management policy

When Gern texted me on November 12th “planning to plant the entire farm with grass next Fall… 100%  hay… can’t afford to feed wildlife. Going broke trying to make money,” I knew that my best deer management efforts had finally failed over the past 13 years.

Every year I work hard to make sure our deer season is as productive as possible. Because our tenant farmer pays us a per-acre rent every year, which covers the real estate taxes and some building maintenance, and for 13 years he has grown soybeans, corn and hay in various rotations across the many fields we have. Our arrangement has generally worked out well both ways, but that text message ended my  sense of satisfaction.

While I do wear dirty bib overalls when I run the sawmill and also when I try to impress people who don’t know me, Gern is the actual farmer who tills (broad sense), fertilizes, plants, and harvests a very large farm property in Dauphin County, some of which I own and all of which I manage. Our property is one of many that comprise about 30,000 acres of farm land that Gern and his family cultivate in Central Pennsylvania. To say that his family works hard is the understatement of all understatements. Gern embodies AMERICA! in flesh and spirit, and to see him so utterly beaten down by mere deer is heartbreaking.

Over the years I knew that both overabundant deer and bears were taking a significant toll on our grain crops (Gern’s primary source of family income), and so I worked hard to recruit the kinds of good hunters who would help us annually whittle down the herds, so that the pressure was taken off of our crops. About five years ago I proudly photographed one of our late-summer soybean fields, at about four super healthy feet high, indicating a minimal amount of deer damage. When I passed the soybean field pictures around to other farmers and land managers, nothing but high praise returned. And so I patted myself on the back for our successful deer management, and congratulated our guest hunters, who were killing about 25-35 deer a year on our property. Our hunters were filling an impressive 50% to 65% of the roughly 54 DMAP deer management tags we hand out every year, as well as some of their buck tags and WMU 4C tags.

But, change is life’s biggest constant, and while I rested on my hunting laurels, deer hunting changed under my feet. The past few years have seen a lot of change in the hunting world. First and biggest change is that hunters in Pennsylvania and other states are aging out en masse, with fewer replacements following them. This means that a lot less pressure is being brought to bear on the deer herd. Which means a lot more deer are everywhere, which is not difficult to see if you drive anywhere in Pennsylvania in a vehicle. There are literally tons of dead deer along the side of every road and highway, everywhere in Pennsylvania. We should be measuring this at tons-of-deer-per-mile, not just the number of dead deer and damaged vehicles. Frankly this overabundant deer herd situation is out of control not just for the farmers who feed Americans, but for the people who want to safely drive their vehicles to the grocery store. Hunters are sorely needed to get this dangerous situation under control, and yet Pennsylvania’s deer management policies favor overabundant deer herds to keep older hunters less crabby.

So, because I am about to break out the spotlights and AK47 to finally manage our farm deer the way they need to be managed (and yes, PA farmers are allowed to wholesale slaughter deer in the crops) (and yes, I feel the same way about our favorite forested places in the Northern Tier), here below is the kind of deer management/ hunting policy Pennsylvania needs via the PGC, if we are going to get the out-of-control deer herd genie back into its bottle and stop hemorrhaging farmland on the altar of too many deer:

  1. Archery season is too long. At seven weeks long, the current archery season lets a lot of head-hunters stink up the woods, cull the very best trophy bucks, and pressure the deer enough to make them extra skittish and nocturnal before rifle season begins. Even though rifle season is our greatest deer management tool. The same can be said of bear season, which is the week before rifle season. So shorten archery season and lengthen rifle season, or make the opening week of deer season concurrent with bear season, like New York does.
  2. Rifle season must be longer, and why not a longer flintlock season, too? Is there something “extra special” about deer come the middle of January, that they are prematurely off limits to hunting? Most bucks begin to drop their antlers in early February. Have three weeks of rifle season and then five weeks of flintlock season until January 30th, every year. Or consider flintlock hunting year ’round, or a spring doe season in May.
  3. More doe tags are needed. There are too few doe tags to begin with, and most doe tags sell out and are never used. This is especially true in WMUs 5C and 5D, where despite enormous tag allocations, tags quickly become unavailable. That is because individual hunters can presently buy unlimited numbers of doe tags, for some reason having to do with the way deer were managed in the 1980s…c’mon, PGC, limit of two or three doe tags for each hunter in these high-density WMUs, and at least two doe tags in Big Woods WMUs like 2G and 4C.
  4. Despite good advancements in reducing the regulatory burden on deer hunters this past season, there are still too many rules and restrictions. For example, why can’t our muzzleloading guns have two barrels? Pedersoli makes the Kodiak, a fearsome double percussion rifle that would be just the ticket for reducing deer herds in high deer density WMUs where the PGC says they want more deer harvests. But presently it is not legal. Another example is the ridiculous interruptions in small game seasons as they overlap with bear and deer seasons. This bizarre on-again-off-again discontinuity of NOT hunting rabbits while others ARE hunting deer is an unnecessary holdover from the long-gone, rough-n-ready bad old poaching days of Pennsylvania wildlife management. PA is one of the very few states, if the only one at all, with these staggered small game and big game seasons. Bottom line is hunting is supposed to be fun, and burdening hunters with all kinds of minutiae is not only not fun, it is unnecessary. Other states with far more liberal political cultures have far fewer regulations than Pennsylvania, so come on PA, give fun a try.
  5. Artificial deer feeding with corn, alfalfa, oats etc on private land during all deer and bear seasons must end. Not only does this “I’m saving the poor starving deer” nonsense lead to spreading deadly diseases like CWD, it artificially draws deer onto sanctuary properties and away from nearby hunters. Or it is baiting, plain and simple. Feeding causes overabundant deer to avoid being hunted during hunting season, but then quickly spread out on the landscape where they eat everything out of house and home when hunting season ends. This year up north (Lycoming and Clinton counties) is a prime example. We had no acorns to speak of this Fall, and whatever fell was quickly eaten up by early November. As the weeks rolled on through hunting season, the deer began leaving their regular haunts and unnaturally herding up where artificial feed was being doled out. This removed them from being hunted, and creates a wildlife feeding arms race, where those who don’t feed wildlife run the risk of seeing none at all. So either completely outlaw artificial feeding or let everyone do it, including hunters, so they can compete with the non-hunters. And yes, people who buck hunt only, and who do not shoot does, and who put out corn and alfalfa etc. for deer during hunting season, are not really hunters. They are purposefully meddling in the hunts of other people by trying to keep them from shooting “my deer.”
  6. PGC must better communicate to its constituency that too many deer result in unproductive farms that then become housing developments. Because the landowner and farmer must make some money from the land, if farm land can’t grow corn, it will end up growing houses, which no real hunter wants. So real hunters want fewer deer, at numbers the land and farms can sustain.

 

PA’s new Sunday hunting in review

Notify the media: Sunday hunting in Pennsylvania did not throw Planet Earth off of its orbit, did not cause mass extinctions, did not cause entire animal populations to mass migrate by stampeding for the border in search of a day of rest or respite from bloodthirsty hunters, did not cause church attendance to drop across the state, and did not result in the skies opening up with fiery hail and brimstone.

Truly, I am sorry to be a smart ass about this subject, but for God’s sake did we ever unnecessarily debate and fight about this ridiculous subject for twenty years or more. And now that people are hunting for bear and deer on Sunday in Pennsylvania….there is literally nothing to write about. Nothing bad happened. Hell, nothing happened. I mean, like nothing occurred. Hardly any animals were killed on any of the Sundays we now can hunt.

All of that gnashing of teeth, the wailing, the silly dramatics that caused this essential personal freedom to be unfairly withheld from Pennsylvanians while the rest of the country happily hunts on Sunday…and now what? We see it isn’t the end of the world as we were told it would be. It is barely discernable from the middle of the week, except that most of us work in the middle of the week, and only have time to hunt on weekends.

If we expand Sunday hunting further, like all of the states adjoining Pennsylvania have, will the silly dramatics happen all over again? I can hear it now “No more freedom for you!” as we show with real-time data that Sunday hunting has not ended our civilization or resulted in hikers’ bodies piling high. So far, we didn’t even pile any animals’ bodies high on Sundays.

Well, one comfort we can take is that at least the people against Sunday hunting finally have some political chums they can run with: All the totalitarian governors who have used the never-ending CCP covid19 virus emergency to toss the US Constitution overboard while they tighten their grip on the private home gatherings of Americans while simultaneously jetting off to their own fancy mask-less wine-and-dine soirees, they also love them some big government anti freedom policies….but heck, now come to think of it, even these totalitarian governors (Cuomo – NY, Newsom – CA, Wolf – PA et al) support Sunday hunting.

Makes ya wonder and realize just how totalitarian and anti-freedom the anti-Sunday hunting folks actually are.

So far this year in Pennsylvania, Sunday hunting has been a big day of….quiet. The deer archery season Sunday did not seem to result in a mass slaughter of deer. Last week’s Sunday bear hunting day resulted in about the same number of deceased bears as the following Monday, both of which being dramatically less than the take on Saturday. And tomorrow, being the first firearms deer Sunday hunting day, is probably going to be a lot like today was….just about dead silent, with very few rifle shots heard anywhere in all of the counties I have checked in. If I am wrong about this, and tomorrow turns out to be the much advertised human bloodbath and bloody orgy that antis squealed about, then I will eat my shorts.

But I know where those shorts have been, and I don’t plan on eating them. I am quite certain that tomorrow we will hear some shooting here and there, probably the same as today, today being the freaking opener for God’s sake, a day when there should have been massive shooting non-stop. Which is to say, a lot of the excitement about hunting and hunting camp has been bled out of the hunting population by the SATURDAY opener. Sunday has nothing to do with it. In fact, it seems that though it is now legal, Sunday has very little to do with hunting, at all.

One. Big. Yawwwnnnn.

And that is the beauty of having individual freedom. Sometimes people don’t really exercise it, because of personal choice. Something I read about America and all, long ago…

UPDATE, NEXT DAY: So this Sunday morning while on stand, I counted a grand total of seven shots between 7am and 11:30am. Three were fairly close, like within a mile, and the other four were distant. To those who do not hunt, this is a very, very small number of shots, especially on an opening weekend. No big bloodbath this Sunday hunt. You could much more commonly listen to your neighbors blow off a thousand rounds of semi auto on a Sunday morning, as I did last weekend. Me personally, I find a handful of scattered shots over a five hour period to be fairly representative of rural PA, and more desirable than listening to people protest Sunday hunting by trying to create an enormous racket that really does disturb peoples’ Sunday rest.

While I had deer around me, including two nice bucks sparring with each other, which is cool as heck, I had no good shots. And so as the opponents of Sunday hunting demanded of me and all others they wished to command, I spent my Sunday morning in silent contemplation, prayer (mostly for America and the peaceful resolution of the current election fraud crisis), and deep reflection. But with a rifle across my knees. To me the whole experience has been a win-win, and a truly American opportunity based on my own personal free choice.

 

Reflections on 2020 bear season

As if by magic or just the batting of an eyelid, the much anticipated 2020 bear season is now behind us, having concluded at dark yesterday. Sad to see our friends go; we had such a fun time! The last of our bear hunting guests have left, cleanup has commenced, preparations are under way for Thanksgiving, and there are some reflections to be had on bear season.

First, where the hell were the bears? Serious question here. We hunt in a mountainous Northcentral area that is Pennsylvania’s “Bear Central.” And despite us daily scouring a lot of remote, very rugged territory that is usually home to lots of bears, we saw neither bears nor bear poop. None. It could be the warm weather has bears hunkered down under cool overhangs in even more remote places. It could be the low acorn crop has bears going in to hibernation early, because there is no more food for them to eat to put on the extra fat they need to hibernate successfully. The truth is, no bear tracks or poops have been seen around here for months, which is remarkable. I cannot think of any year prior like this.

Second, where were all the hunters? We heard only a few shots between Saturday and Sunday, and either none or one on Monday, and for sure none on Tuesday; and very few hunting parties were on the radio on any day. This means that few large scale hunting drives were going on. Without hunters moving across the landscape, the bears don’t have to move out of their way. They can just sit still and not run the risk of exposing their rib cage to a hunter’s bullet. That means that the bears can loaf about in some remote corner, escaping the unseasonable warmth or just waiting for the wafting human scent to drift away before making their usual rounds again. Which means the few hunters who are out don’t see much action.

Third, where were all the other critters, like turkeys and deer? Like with bears, we saw very little deer or turkey poop in the woods. And although I myself saw two whopper bucks and a five-point up close, no one else saw any deer. Nor did any of us see any turkeys. Once again, the absence of these otherwise ubiquitous animals could be due to the relative absence of acorns. Which would push the wildlife far afield to find food sources.

Fourth, despite all of our hunting setbacks, did any of us care a bit? No! We missed all of our friends who could not be with us for various reasons, like fear of the CCP virus, or family emergencies requiring them to stay at home. But those of us who gathered had a lot of fun nonetheless. And with or without a bear on the game pole, we would not have missed this time together for any reason at all. We caught up on our families, our work, our homes, cars, friendships, wives, and politics (yeah, there was a lot of pro-Trump  politics). Some people drank way too much alcohol, and we got some great pictures of it all, like the one guy asleep on the cold ground outside. No, we don’t post those here. We ate like kings, that is for sure, and no one lacked for food or drink.

Finally, it is possible that the new early bears seasons (archery, muzzleloader, and special junior+ senior rifle) are removing so many bears from the woods that come rifle season, very few huntable bears remain to be had. According to real-time hunting harvest data posted at the PA Game Commission website, more bears were killed in the early seasons than in the official rifle season this year. This means there are fewer bears available for the rifle hunters. It is possible that many hunters expected this, based on last year’s harvest patterns, and they stayed home or hunted alone, instead of joining the big crew at camp, like usual. As of late today, just 3,138 bears had been killed total this year. That is about a thousand fewer than expected.

Based on this raw data alone, the early bear seasons are actually backfiring. They are not removing the high surplus number of bears that are beyond Pennsylvania’s social carrying capacity. Rather, the early bear seasons are removing the easiest bears and leaving few to be hunted in the later rifle season.

And this new dynamic could be the real story in PA’s bear season: There are so many early season bear hunting opportunities for individuals that they collectively take the wind out of the sails for the regular season hunters, thereby having a boomerang effect on the entire thing and limiting it.

We won’t know what all this data really means for another few years, and by then either great or even fatal damage will have been done to Pennsylvania’s traditional bear camp culture, with its big gatherings and big drives and big camp camaraderie dying out, or we will simply all have to learn to adapt to new ways of hunting. I have to say, there is no substitute for men gathering at a camp to hunt together. The gathered hunting party is the most human of experiences; it is an institution as old as our species. Its purpose was not just making meat, but also social and sociological.

I sure hope these myriad new early bear seasons are not self-defeating, in that they do not kill that traditional bear camp culture by removing its whole purpose ahead of the game. Question for the PGC: What incentive is there to push your body hard through rugged and remote landscapes, destroying your boots, tearing your clothing, and often losing or breaking some of your gear, including damaging your gun, when the animal you are seeking has already been removed?

Below are some photos from one of our trail cameras two years ago. Just days after bear season ended, a bear was caught gloriously and most joyously rubbing its back against a young white pine tree. Almost like a pole dancer. Pretty hot hip shakes there. We haven’t seen a bear anywhere around here since May this year.

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When one of our guys is finally browbeaten into washing dishes after years, it is cause for “Notify the media” acts like taking his unhappy picture. This is back in 2015. He still has to be browbeaten into washing the damned dishes

Lycoming County is the boot-looking shape in the northcentral area. Its northwestern corner is where we hunt. The darkest township there demonstrates the importance of organized hunting drives. A bunch of large hunting clubs are located in this area, and their members put on highly coordinated, obviously successful drives.

Good luck, bear hunters!

Bear rifle season is here in Pennsylvania, starting tomorrow morning, and in many rural places bear hunting has displaced deer hunting as the primary outdoor recreational activity.

Pennsylvania’a bear population is at an all-time (modern times) high, as demonstrated at least in my own small world by the large black bear that showed up a block from my Harrisburg City home last year. Or the other bear that showed up on the same street, but ten blocks closer to the down-town area, a few months later. When bears are showing up in major cities, you know their regular rural habitat is filled up, and the younger generations are looking for new homes.

So good luck to Pennsylvania’s bear hunters tomorrow through next Wednesday. Our own crew is half of the usual number, due to some guys fearing the CCP virus, and some others having health emergencies at home that prevent them from traveling. Normally we field guys from five states across the East Coast, and at one time, all the way from California. Last year we had a guy from England. Usually the cabin is packed and noisy, and this year it will be more subdued. Nonetheless, despite the challenges this year, we will still field a hunting crew. Some will be out tomorrow, some out Sunday, and some out the rest of the week.

Here in the hills, we have not seen bear sign for a long time, which is surprising. Our township here usually produces one of the highest bear harvests in the entire state. We shall see what happens, however, as hunters enter the woods and begin to push animals around. In places where no bears have been seen all year, there could well be a bunch running through.

Good luck to those who are hunting alone, with family, or with their usual chums. For me, this time together just cannot be missed. It comes just once a year, and is gone so quickly that you almost can’t believe it was here to begin with.

Be safe and have fun!

My comments to the PA Game Commission

The Pennsylvania Game Commission board of commissioners will be meeting this weekend, to set next season’s dates and bag limits. Like many other people, I submitted comments by email last week. From past experiences with this, I know that the commissioners read comments and requests from the public. Some of my comments, and those of my son, have received direct feedback from various members of the board.

A key to getting the commissioners to read and truly consider your comments is to submit them with plenty of time for the recipients to read them. If you submit comments a day or two before the meeting, it’s a very low likelihood of anyone having time to read them. Also, try to keep comments short, to the point, and sweet. Comments with prolonged bitching, whining, and playing biologist when you have no training or education or even a novice’s interest in wildlife biology, are all ways to ensure that your audience at best glances at your comments.

“Dear Commissioners,
Hunting should be fun, and therefore our small game seasons should run unbroken from their Fall opening to their February close. Whatever long gone reason for the on again-off again pattern of small game seasons, Pennsylvania must create opportunities for everyone. No biological reason exists for hiccup-style seasons. Few if any other states have this odd pattern. Let’s just let our hunters have fun and hunt.

In that vein, please consider allowing bodygrip traps on running pole sets in our most rural WMUs. The idea that a loose domestic dog is going to get caught in a trap in the middle of a state forest wilderness is preposterous. Same is true on private land. Same goes for allowing snares. We need all the tools we can get to manage coyotes. With now three years of crazy freeze-thaw-rain winter weather cycles, it’s impossible to rely on footholds. Cable restraints should be allowed throughout the whole season, and snares should be allowed on private land and or on public land in the Big Woods WMUs.

Finally, please put one of our Sundays on the day after the Saturday bear rifle opener, and another Sunday on the day after the Saturday deer rifle opener. This will create the most energy and excitement for our hunters. Even better, make bear and deer rifle concurrent!

Thank you for considering my thoughts,

–Josh”

It’s that time of year again, Pt. II

It is now “that time of year again,” but Part Two.

A month ago your firewood had better have been laid up and close to perfectly dry, or you were going to have an uncomfortably cold winter in rural America.

Now, a month later, a whole bunch of hunting seasons are upon us. Small game, trapping, deer archery, bear archery…and many people are afield a serious amount of time. Some people try to catch the deer rut in a couple different states with their bow. It can become a crazed time, where the humans are just as worn down and rutted up by the prospect of catching unawares a big old wary buck who, in his brief moment of annual craziness, lets down his guard.

Usually, I do not begin trapping in earnest until December, when all pelts are truly prime and when the bobcat and fisher seasons begin. Early on I set out cage traps to thin out the skunks and possums that will otherwise clog up my best sets later on. Never one to sell furs, trapping for me has always been about helping ground-nesting birds against an overabundance of nest-raiding mammals pulsing out from suburban sprawl habitats. With Russia and China in bad financial and economic situations the past five years, wild fur has not been in as big demand as the past. This lower demand has led many professional trappers to abandon their lines and wait for prices to come back up. In turn, that let-off in trapping pressure results in TONS of raccoons, possums, skunks etc running around. Over the past couple of weeks I have seen more road-kill raccoons than in many years past all together.

And this high population of raccoons means higher rates of rabies, trash-raiding, fights with pets, etc.

My favorite type of hunt is the solo wilderness excursion. Sleeping in a cold tent, bundled against the night time freeze, waking up to some snow on everything, enjoying a hot tea to start the day, and wandering into the wind, trying to find buck or bear tracks. Or in the case of a big male bear, making sure he isn’t on my track, like two years ago.

Is there danger in this? Sure. Then there is danger in being hit by a car, or falling and damaging a body part. There is danger in never experiencing life, and thinking that the modern risk-free cocoon most of us live in is either normal or healthy. It is neither.

And so it is that time of year again, when every fiber in my body says “Get outside, NOW!” It is a time of forgotten or deliberately misplaced professional obligations, phone calls returned on a Friday afternoon, instead of the prior Monday morning. I hope friends and colleagues will forgive me if I am a little late in getting back.

Nature is calling on the phone, it’s for me, and I gotta run.

I’ll be back. Promise.

PA deer hunters…spending 40 years in the desert

Last week, a guy in his late 50s posted a complaint on social media. He was both complaining about “not enough deer” to hunt in Pennsylvania, and also boasting about how he buys up as many doe tags as he can get, and then he tears them up, and then he uses them to file false deer harvest reports. He hopes this all will influence Pennsylvania’s science-driven deer management. One result of all this complaining by guys like this man is that the PA Game Commission is unable to get the license fee increase from the legislature that the PGC and most hunters want.

On the one hand, this self-defeating complaining and tearing up of doe tags is pretty much insane behavior, and a complete waste of one’s own precious time on Planet Earth.

On the other hand, that someone is so passionate about hunting and wildlife is a good thing. The question is, can this guy and the thousands of other unhappy hunters like him be educated about scientific deer management? Or are they so close-minded and emotional about this subject that they are immune to empirical evidence, logic and reason?

One result of our state’s scientific wildlife management is that we are now a major trophy hunting destination. Previously unthinkably enormous bucks and gigantic bears are within reach of those who are willing to hunt hard and smart. Bucks that rival and surpass those of the “best” whitetail states in the Mid-West. Black bears that are as big as Alaskan grizzlies. These are tangible signs of policy success, and that Pennsylvania is now an outdoor Promised Land after decades of hunters being happy with a pathetic forkhorn or even a spike buck.

On my westward drive along I-80 last week, and my drive south yesterday, from northwest Lycoming County down to Dauphin County, I saw dozens of dead deer littering the sides of the roads. Actually there were so many that I lost count. There may have been a hundred dead deer along the roads. Including along very rural roads in areas where many older guys complain there “ain’t no deer.” Obviously there are a lot of deer in these places, because they are not all being killed on the highway. These dead deer are the fruit of deer-car collisions, a very expensive and dangerous result of an overabundant deer population.

To be fair to the complaining hunters, the PA deer population in these places may be too high for the road system and not high enough for hunters’ desires. That is a very real possibility. It may be that the Pennsylvania road system is just too big, too widespread into rural areas, to allow many deer to survive into the Fall hunting season.

No, we are not going to shut down the public roads to stop the carnage, though it would make sense for Pennsylvania to put a moratorium brake on road building. We taxpayers cannot afford the operations and maintenance costs on the roads and bridges we have now, let along on any new roads and bridges. PennDot must re-direct its energies into safely maintaining the infrastructure we already have, like how about wildlife tunnels? And if the deer-car collisions are any indication, our public road system has been poorly planned and badly implemented; it has spiderwebbed out into the most rural areas and wildlife habitats. Thereby inviting expensive car collisions with wildlife.

I think this unhappy hunter situation is going to be like the ancient Hebrews’ 40 years in the desert. The older generation that cannot adapt to changing habitat, changing deer behavior, changing land use patterns and changing hunting methods is going to have to die off. Then the younger generation can get in the driver’s seat on deer management policy.

The younger generation understands and values science and biology in setting policy, like doe harvest tags, the crucial importance of getting buy-in and acceptance from the larger society around us (people unhappy about hitting overabundant deer; in Europe hunters are personally responsible for keeping wildlife populations at safe levels), the need to be multifaceted and flexible when hunting deer, etc. These complaining hunters represent the ex-slave mentality of those Hebrews who left Egypt and who could not learn to live as free men. Moses could not let them enter the Promised Land because they would infect everyone with foolish ideas and weakness. That would put the entire effort at risk. So he kept them wandering until that generation died out.

Sorry, old complaining guys, you are living in a broken past. You are slaves to an unproven, non-scientific, failed approach to wildlife management. If you cannot change your mindset and embrace reality, then you will be remembered as the lost generation that stood in the way of success and happiness.

And to be fair, this same broken thinking has haunted the Pennsylvania Farm Bureau’s approach to Sunday hunting. The older generation there has successfully blocked a 50% increase in hunting opportunity for decades, just because they think it is “wrong,” for no good, defensible reason. But that also is about to change, soon, as the fed-up younger generation of farmers, including religious Mennonites, takes this important policy issue in hand and directly bucks the older guys standing in the way of family success and happiness.

To enter the Promised Land, you must shed your slave mentality. I hope the anti-science hunters and the anti-freedom PA Farm Bureau folks will join us as we enter a glorious new period in Pennsylvania’s outdoor heritage.

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