For years and years, the rule – or at least, the interpretation of it – has been clear.
A bait pile is not a food plot.
Hunters can legally hunt a standing crop field. They can’t legally hunt over a pile of corn
“You can plant a food plot, or an agricultural crop, and you can leave it standing for food and cover of wildlife,” said Randy Shoup, chief of the Pennsylvania Game Commission’s bureau of wildlife protection.
“But once you manipulate it, that crosses the line under state law to a baiting violation.”
The commission is wrestling with that because board members want to do something that would – according to the agency’s own direction – apparently be considered illegal now.
Namely, some board members want to create “managed dove fields” on some state game lands, perhaps by this coming fall.
Those are fields of crops like corn and sunflowers. They’re planted, then cut down a few rows at a time, with the grain left on the ground.
That’s commonly done in several states as a way of attracting mourning doves, said commission president Brian Hoover of Chester County. He hunts such fields in Maryland and Delaware, for example.
“The hunting is just phenomenal, when you get into some managed dove fields,” he said.
He, for one, would like to see them tried here, in part to offer young hunters a fast-paced, fun opportunity.
“I’m all for it, to be honest with you. I think we’re behind in what everyone else is doing,” Hoover said.
There’s no biological reason for opposing managed dove fields, said Ian Gregg, game management division chief for the commission.
“We have plenty of room to expand harvest on doves without worrying about any negative impacts on that population,” he said.
There are financial considerations, though. Pete Sussenbach, chief of the commission’s bureau of wildlife habitat management, said it would be “fairly costly” to plant fields for doves and then cut them, a few rows at a time, throughout the month of September.
That job might fall to commission food and cover crew employees. It might also be something the commission could require of sharecroppers under lease agreement, Sussenbach said.
But either way, it might be possible to do some experimentation, he added. The commission could try creating a few fields, perhaps on its Middle Creek Wildlife Management Area property in Lebanon County, to see how things go.
“It shouldn’t be too hard to see some place on the landscape that we could at least take a shot at this, to at least see what the utilization is, to see what the interest is,” Sussenbach said.
“And I think over time, in a few years, there very well could be a demand that grows out there with success.”
But there’s that pesky baiting issue.
Randy Shoup, director of the commission’s bureau of wildlife protection, said the commission has long told hunters – especially those pursuing deer, bears and turkeys – that they can’t leave food lying on the ground.
That’s how managed dove fields operate, though. If the commission permits them – even promotes them – there could be issues, he suggested.
“Then how do we ensure that does not cross over and impact additional species?” Shoup asked.
That’s the question.
The answer might be related to time.
Dove season typically opens on Sept. 1. The other small game seasons, and the statewide archery season, don’t begin until October.
“If we could put a limit on this, (allo0wing it) to the end of September, I think we could alleviate a lot of these concerns,” said Tom Grohol, a deputy executive director with the commission.
That alone may not be a total solution.
Doves – like ducks and geese – are migratory wildfowl managed under the federal Migratory Bird Treaty Act. Those federal rules allow for managed dove fields, but not baiting for web-footed birds.
Pennsylvania does have an early resident Canada goose season that runs through most of September. Hunters those birds in managed fields would presumably be illegal.
So the commission may need to draft not only time-specific, but species-specific, regulations for managed fields, he added. That’s something he’s looking at.
Hoover said he believes “everybody would be happy with that.”
Looking at dove hunting hours
There’s one other possible change coming to dove hunting by fall of 2018. It’s related to a regulation so old that no one remembers why it even exists.
Traditionally, Pennsylvania’s dove season consists of three segments.
In 2017-18, the first segment ran from Sept. 1 through Oct. 7, the second from Oct. 14 to Nov. 25 and the third from Dec. 23 through Jan. 1.
In the latter two segments, hunting is from one half hour before sunrise to sunset.
In the first segment, though, by regulation, hunters can’t start until noon.
That’s not a federal rule, said the Game Commission’s Ian Gregg. The commission, somehow, somewhere along the way, adopted it specifically for Pennsylvania.
No one knows why.
“This is one of those things, there must have been a good reason for implementing it at the time. But we don’t know what it is,” he said.
“We’re kind of having a hard time putting our finger on the exact reason for the noon start,” agreed Randy Shoup of the commission’s bureau of wildlife protection.
That’s an issue because of a coming rules change.
Each year, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service tells states how many days of dove hunting they can offer. It’s up to agencies like the commission to slot them into the calendar.
This year, for the first time, states are being offered “compensatory days.”
“Which means we no longer have to count Sundays against ourselves when we count dove hunting days,” Gregg said.
Hunting on Sundays in Pennsylvania is illegal, of course.
Thanks to compensatory days, the commission will be able to add 10 to 12 days to the dove season this fall, Gregg said. The “most logical” place to put them is the roughly two weeks between the first and second segments of dove season.
That would create one long continuous first segment.
The problem is the existing regulation limits hunters throughout the entire segment – from Sept. 1 right up to the start of the firearms deer season – to starting hunting at noon.
“So, actually, in a strange way, even though we’d be adding days, we’d be taking away opportunity,” Gregg said.
Staff would like to change the rules and eliminate the noon opener altogether, he said.
Commissioners will consider approving that when they meet in Harrisburg on Jan. 28-30.