The timing of opening day of Pennsylvania’s deer season hasn’t changed in more than half a century. but it may soon.
Photo: Wikimedia Commons
A green light will set this train in motion. Whether it’s got the steam to roll very far remains unclear, though.
Opening day of Pennsylvania’s statewide firearms deer season was the Monday after Thanksgiving this year. There’s no surprise there.
That’s the way things have been since 1963.
But at least some Pennsylvania Game Commissioners want to change opening day in 2019 to the Saturday after Thanksgiving.
In fact, commissioner Jim Daley of Butler County said he’s hoping agency staff will propose just such an opener when asking board members to give preliminary approval to 2019-20 seasons and bag limits in January.
If they don’t, he said he may amend their proposal, then or in April, when board members give final approval to the slate of seasons, to bring it about.
“I truly believe it is the right thing to do and is likely long overdue,” Daley said.
Participation is the reason.
Hunter numbers – in Pennsylvania and across the nation – are declining. According to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the number of hunters in America decreased by 16 percent between 2011 and 2016, to 11.7 million. That’s the lowest total in at least 25 years.
Bryan Burhans, executive director of the commission, said one problem more than any other drives that trend. In survey after survey, hunters asked why they stopped hunting listed lack of time as their chief obstacle.
“It had nothing to do with game, it has nothing to do with anything else, it’s just time,” Burhans said.
Opening deer season on a Saturday, when students from junior high to college are out of class, and people are more likely to be off work, could put more people in the woods, said commissioner Stanley Knick of Luzerne County.
Fears that changing opening day would hurt deer populations are unfounded, too, said Matthew Schnupp, director of the commission’s bureau of wildlife management.
A Saturday opener might shift the timing of the deer harvest, by day, he noted. But it wouldn’t likely change the total kill dramatically.
And if that did occur, he said, biologists could tweak the number of antlerless licenses to accommodate it.
That makes things pretty clear, said commissioner Michael Mitrick of York County.
“There’s not a reasonable argument to keep it a Monday opener. There really isn’t a reasonable argument, other than that’s it’s always been,” he said.
Some, though, cling to that tradition.
The commission surveyed hunters in 2014 and 2017, asking them about the idea of a Saturday opener. Hunters opposed the idea by about a 2-to-1 margin.
That’s largely related to age, though. The older a hunter is, the more likely they are to want to maintain the Monday opener, said Schnupp.
Eighty percent of hunters 64 and older oppose moving opening day, for example. But only 50 percent of those younger than 25 do, according to the surveys.
Those numbers don’t mean much to Daley.
He admitted that most of the hunters voicing opinions right now oppose any change to opening day.
“But that’s not the group I want to attract,” Daley said.
Changing opening day to Saturday won’t cause any of those hunters to quit the sport, he said. But it might bring in or bring back a lot of new or lapsed people.
“I guess that’s the thing I come back to is, why wouldn’t we do it?” Daley asked.
Commissioner Scott Foradora of Clearfield County seems on board with the notion.
He wasn’t initially. When commissioners first talked about changing opening day a few months ago, he was “neutral,” he said.
But, he said, “my test case is my two kids.” One son is in college, the other in high school. Class schedules, work and sports are competing for their time and forcing them away from hunting, he said.
A Saturday opener would allow them and other young people to stay in the game, he added. Many older hunters might not agree, he admitted.
“But that’s not our future. The kids are our future,” Foradora said.
It will take at least five votes on the eight-member board to bring about a change, though. And some don’t seem supportive.
Commissioner Brian Hoover of Chester County said he would support a Saturday opening day is lawmakers legalize Sunday hunting first. Otherwise, he said, he’s not sure it makes sense.
He worries about another “political issue,” too.
The older hunters opposed to a Saturday opener are the ones most likely to voice that displeasure to their lawmakers, he said. And those lawmakers – always wary of alienating to potential voters – might wind up fighting the commission, he suggested.
“I think we need to test the political waters on a Saturday opener” before advancing the idea, Hoover said.
“I’d be more apt to vote for it if (lawmakers) said, we’re behind you 100 percent,” agreed commission president Tim Layton of Somerset County.
Burhans said the lawmakers who have spoken publicly about a Saturday opener so far have all supported the idea.
But, to be sure, between now and the board’s Jan. 27-29 meeting, commission staff will reach out to the majority and minority chairman of the Senate and House of Representatives game and fisheries committees. If they support a Saturday opener, or at least don’t oppose it, this train may at least start down the tracks.
Daley wants to jump start it and see what happens.
“Time will tell,” he said.
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