This is the first week of Pennsylvania’s traditional firearms deer season; a long-standing tradition that has brought generations together as fathers and sons, grandfathers and grandsons, brothers and cousins, shared time together in forest and field and in hunting camps throughout the state. Times have changed and now some wives and daughters and granddaughters have joined hunting parties, and many traditional hunting camps are seeing year round use as family getaways.
Often overlooked, however, is the fact that wildlife is a public resource which, in essence, belongs to all the citizens of Pennsylvania whether they are hunters, non-hunters or anti-hunters – whether they are interested in white-tailed deer, wild turkeys, Allegheny woodrats or blue-headed vireos.
A few years ago there was a move to change the name of the Pennsylvania Game Commission to the Pennsylvania Wildlife Commission to more accurately reflect its mission; a proposal that was vehemently opposed by a faction of hunters and so Game Commission it remains.
Now it’s time for a change in two long-standing traditions. Yes indeed, it sure is – in fact it’s long past time for a change.
It’s past time to change the funding base for wildlife programs in Pennsylvania and the composition of the Board of Game Commissioners. Although there have been ups and downs, the general trend has been a steady decline in license sales from 1.3 million in 1982 to 952,000 in 2013 – a 27% decline. At some point the reduction in license sales will have a severe impact on staffing and/or wildlife related programs. Unless there is a change in the Board’s composition and the recruitment of an additional constituency consisting of wildlife watchers and photographers, the programs that will probably suffer most are those dealing with non-game wildlife.
It’s past time for a change, because the citizens of Pennsylvania view wildlife in a different light than they did 50 or 60 or 100 years ago. Look at the situation with predators, Pennsylvania paid bounties on virtually all predators for many years. Now, although a certain element among hunters would like to resume paying bounties, the general public acknowledges predators’ role in the natural world and their increasing interest to photographers and others who enjoy wildlife. Coyotes are a prime example; the Board has seen fit to continue treating them as “varmints” allowing them to be killed every day of the year, in any number.
Pennsylvania’s elk herd is a major draw for wildlife watchers and photographers and occupies only a portion of the state’s suitable habitat. When the Game Commission instituted an elk hunt in 2001 it was met with joy by hunters and complaints from wildlife watchers. Only a tiny segment of the elk range is managed as a “no kill” zone, and that’s virtually all within sight of designated viewing areas or public roads; thus elk that have lost all fear of humans and move outside of that zone are shot each year. It seems obvious that hunting is valued over wildlife watching or eco-tourism – what about serving the larger public’s interests?
The gap between the interests the Board of Game Commissioners now represent and the larger public is wide and growing wider as the number of hunters diminishes and the number of wildlife watchers and photographers has grown. The non-consumptive wildlife interests have an obligation to provide significant funding for wildlife programs and deserve a seat at the table, in the form of representation on the Board, when decisions are made. And yes, there will be contentious issues leading to much debate – Pennsylvania’s wildlife deserves no less!