It is, it seems, a case of trying to live in two worlds.
Pennsylvania Game Commissioners – like their counterparts all over the nation – are trying to recruit new hunters and reactivate lapsed ones. Declining license sales that are eroding conservation funding make that a necessity.
Yet they’re simultaneously trying to hold onto the hunters they already have.
That’s the conundrum that is opening day.
Right now, it falls on the Monday after Thanksgiving. That’s been the case since 1963.
Some, though, want to move opening day to the Saturday after Thanksgiving. The idea is to make it more accessible to working families and children in middle school, high school and college. Legislation to that effect is before the House of Representatives game and fisheries committee.
Game Commissioners talked about the idea at their most recent work group, too. But the majority doesn’t seem ready to take that step.
Tradition – or more specifically, the way older hunters cling to it – and Sundays are the reasons.
Staff in the commission’s bureau of wildlife management presented a briefing paper looking at the possible pros and cons of a Saturday opener.
Matthew Schnupp, director of the bureau, noted the commission surveyed hunters about the issue twice. Once was in 2014 and once in 2017. In both cases, hunters opposed switching to a Saturday opener by a 2-to-1 margin.
Opposition wasn’t equal across all age groups, though.
Nearly 80 percent of hunters in the oldest age class – 64 and older – disliked the idea. Roughly 60 percent of those 46 to 64 felt the same way.
But hunters 25 and younger split 50-50 in their preference for a Monday versus Saturday opener.
That’s noteworthy, but shouldn’t drive decisions completely, said commissioner Jim Daley of Butler County.
For starters, he said, the average hunter in Pennsylvania is in his mid-50s. So it’s not surprising that most, when asked if they want to move opening day from where it’s been their entire lives, answered no.
“That question could just as easily have been, do you like change, and they all would have said no,” Daley said.
The survey didn’t ask those hunters whether they would “vehemently disagree” with a Saturday opener either, he said. It’s possible many might be OK with one, even if that’s not their preference, he said.
“You’re right because that same group of people is the one that is telling us we’re not doing enough to recruit new hunters,” said commission president Tim Layton of Somerset County.
The survey numbers don’t take into account potential new hunters either, Daley noted. It tells the board nothing about whether a Saturday opener might swell their ranks.
“By asking the existing people, we’re missing that boat. We haven’t gotten that information,” Daley said.
“And I don’t want to rely only on data. Sometimes you’ve got to rely on what makes sense.”
There would be real benefits to moving to a Saturday opener, too, said commissioner Stanley Knick of Luzerne County.
Once, schools all over the state closed for opening day of deer season. That’s no longer true everywhere, he said.
“You throw them an extra day out there, that’s a plus for youth,” he said.
It would also benefit families where parents have a hard time getting off work, Knick added.
A Saturday opener would help college students, too, said commissioner Scott Foradora of Clearfield County.
When he grew up in the northcentral region, he said, maybe 10 percent of young people went to college. Now, he estimated, it’s 50 to 80 percent.
And the increased cost of college these days prohibits most students from skipping class to hunt.
A Saturday opener would get more of them in the woods, he said.
But, he added, that comes with a qualifier.
“Saturday certainly makes a lot of sense for those college kids to keep them engaged. But it doesn’t make sense until we get Sunday hunting,” Foradora said.
Commissioner Brian Hoover of Chester County agreed. He’s not opposed to a Saturday opener if hunters can also hunt Sundays, he said. It “makes sense for everyone at that point.”
But until they have that option, he’s afraid hunters would go to camp, hunt Saturday, then return home.
Commissioner Dennis Fredericks of Washington County agreed.
“I think we ought to have all our ducks in a row for a Saturday opener, but wait to see what happens with Sunday hunting,” Fredericks said.
In the meantime, moving to a Saturday opener would have other implications. Schnupp noted small game and turkey hunting are allowed on that day. That might have to end.
And no one really knows if giving deer hunters another day will really recruit and reactivate any more, he added.
Bear license sales climbed after commissioners moved opening day from a Monday to Saturday. But he said they were trending up even before that.
So it’s unclear how much impact changing opening day had, he said.
“Once you pull on that one string, you’re pulling on a lot of other strings which we’re not quite sure what happens,” added Ian Gregg, chief of the commission’s game management division.
One thing biologists do believe is that moving opening day would likely have little if any impact on the deer harvest.
In the case of bear season, Schupp noted, harvest just shifted. Harvests remain consistent overall; hunters just shoot more bears on Saturday than Monday now.
He said the same would likely happen with deer.
Changes to the overall buck harvest would probably be “negligible,” Schnupp said. And doe harvests, regardless of day, are driven by the number of licenses available.
“At that point, and that’s the good thing about our deer management program, it can handle those kinds of shifts and adjust for it, if need be.” He said.
Boil it all down and there’s no real opposition on the board to moving to a Saturday opening day, Layton said. The question is “whether we need that Sunday hunting to go along with it or not.”
Only the legislature can remove the ban on Sunday hunting. Sportsmen are lobbying for them to do so.
Commissioners – who control opening day – must decide if they can wait on it to act, Layton said.
They don’t necessarily have a lot of time.
A new report done for the Council to Advance Hunting and the Shooting Sports titled “The Future of Hunting and Fishing” said the decline in hunters is going to impact wildlife management very soon.
“Reductions in conservation revenue may begin as early as 2024, and by 2032 state wildlife agencies and other conservation organizations may face great challenges in revenue shortages, loss of political capital and shrinking social relevancy,” it said.
So there’s urgency in play.
“At some point, and we talk about this all the time, we just have to do the right thing,” Layton agreed. “And whether that’s a Saturday opener or not, that’s something we have to decide.”
Next steps for a Saturday deer season opener
So where to go from here?
Matthew Schnupp, head of the Game Commission’s bureau of wildlife management, offered some recommendations. If board members want to pursue a Saturday opener, they should take some specific steps, he said.
- Quantify the number of complaints received regarding a Monday firearms deer season opener, and the split antlered/antlerless season, as barriers to participation.
- Evaluate the potential impact of a Saturday opener on participation via human-dimensions literature review.
- If potential impact warrants further consideration, conduct three citizen focus groups. Gather detailed input from the public. Include small game and turkey hunters in the focus groups.
- Based on focus group input, create and conduct one or more hunter surveys. They would better quantify the likely effects of an opening date change on participation, recruitment, retention, and reactivation of a) deer hunters, b) other types of hunters, and c) the net effect on overall license sales and participation.
- Consider information and education campaigns that emphasize the other Saturday deer hunting opportunities (muzzleloader, etc.).
- Survey lapsed hunters to determine if the opening day of deer season would play a role in hunter reactivation.
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