Becoming an officially-permitted Pennsylvania hunting guide does not, right now, require a lot of skill. Or any, for that matter.
But that may soon change.
The Pennsylvania Game Commission is revising its guide permit program to include written and practical skills tests. No such things exist now, said Chad Eyler, chief of the agency’s special permits enforcement division.
Indeed, to get a guide permit, anyone who’s gone 10 years without a game law violation needs only to submit the $25 fee.
Once the check clears, that’s it.
“And then we basically say, you’re a guide in Pennsylvania,” Eyler said. “So literally, we have no idea if these individuals can handle a firearm and/or a trap. Or take somebody from Point A into the woods 100 yards and bring them out at Point A.
“We just have no idea.”
The commission uses tests to ensure capability elsewhere, he said. Nuisance wildlife control operators have to pass a test before they can charge people to remove squirrels or bats from attics, for example, Wildlife rehabilitators likewise have their own test, as do falconers.
A similar test would “legitimize and professionalize” the guide ranks, Eyler said.
“If we’re sanctioning that person by issuing a permit, we should have some sort of basic comfort with that individual, that they passed our test,” he added.
One-time cost of the test itself would be $50. An annual permit would be $100.
But first, there are some details to work out.
Eyler said the commission is modeling its test largely after that offered by the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife.
Would-be guides take a written test. They need to score 80 percent or higher to pass.
The practical test, Eyler said, involves demonstrating how to make them safe, identifying animal tracks, demonstrating proficiency in orienteering and first aid, identifying waterfowl mounts and the like.
Commissioners, though, had questions.
Board member Jim Daley of Butler County said he’s knowledgeable enough to be a turkey guide. he couldn’t guide for waterfowl, however.
The commission needs to differentiate who can guide for what, he said. They may be certified for one species or type of hunting, but not another.
“That’s how I believe it should be set up,” Daley said.
Commission president Tim Layton of Somerset County agreed, saying “a guide should not be a guide should not be a guide.”
“If you’re talking about a guide for pheasants, he doesn’t really need to know how to get in at Point A and get out at Point A because he’s going into a field and coming out at the same parking lot,” Layton said.
“I don’t know that he needs as rigorous a test as an elk guide. Or a waterfowl guide.”
What the commission could do, Eyler said, is have everyone take the same written test. But then guides could be certified in one or all of three categories — big game, small game or furbearers — with the practical portion of the test involving questions and skills tests specific to those kinds of hunting.
There’s also the issue of just who needs a guide permit.
Right now, not everyone does.
The commission issues guide permits for three species: elk, coyotes and bobcats. They allow guides to operate on state game lands, “whereas generally, commercial activities are unlawful,” Eyler said.
But guides taking clients out for other species on private land don’t need a permit of any kind.
That shouldn’t be, said commissioner Brian Hoover of Chester County. All guides, wherever they operate, should meet the same standards, he said.
He’s done guided hunts in other states, he said. In one case, the guide operated illegally. His license was ultiamtely revoked.
There should be similar protections for hunters in Pennsylvania, he said.
“If we’re going to allow people to say they are guides, there have to be repercussions for those who are bad. If we don’t make this mandatory for everybody to be a guide, then we have no control over it,” Hoover said.
There’s one problem, Eyler said.
Many states, from Maine to the West, have laws requiring guides to be licensed or permitted. Pennsylvania does not, Eyler said.
A properly licensed hunter can “guide” another licensed hunter on private land with no regulation, he noted.
Eyler suspects, though, that many guides would want to get a commission permit, whether they intend to guide on game lands or not. There would be a level of prestige involved, he said.
More importantly, it would be good for business.
The commission hands out the names of guides to hunters who ask for them, Eyler said. But only officially permitted guides are included.
“They’re going to want to be on that list,” Eyler said.
Finally, there’s the question of what to do with existing guides.
There’s been some thought, Eyler said, to “grandfathering” those who have guided for three consecutive years. That means they could continue to operate without taking the test.
Hoover isn’t sure that’s a good idea.
The commission is not endorsing guides, he admitted. But if it hands out a list including guides with, perhaps, no skill, and a hunter using one has a bad experience, “we’re going to look bad.”
Layton especially worries about the state’s elk hunt.
Commission officers in the elk range know who the reputable guides are and aren’t. But hunters drawing a tag – a once-in-a-lifetime experience – don’t, he said.
He’d hate to see their hunt ruined because they picked a bad guide from the commission’s list.
“That’s not fair to the hunter that we allow that to happen,” Layton said.
Eyler said no final decisions on who must take the test have been made. Additional input is being collected from agency staff, on that and other particulars.
But one thing the commission will do either way, he said, is produce a brochure outlining questions hunters should ask of prospective guides. They can use it to protect themselves, he said.
Layton applauded that idea, as well as development of the guide permit overall.
“It’s not going to fix everything,” he said. “But it’s a step in the right direction.”
Two other Pennsylvania hunting guide issues
Maine saw both crop up. Pennsylvania likely will, too.
Expanding the hunting guide program will almost certainly lead to formation of a guide association and guide schools, said Chad Eyler, chief of the Pennsylvania Game Commission’s special permits enforcement division.
The association will form to “serve as the voice” of the profession, he said. Guide schools will pop up to train new members.
That latter issue sparked some discussion.
Game Commissioner Michael Mitrick of York County asked if the commission planned to operate such a school itself.
“It seems to me, if the school is going to pop up, we should have some say as far as what’s being taught or at least have someone professional teaching people,” he said.
Eyler said that, without having done a nationwide survey, he’s not aware of any state wildlife agency operating its own guide school. Most, he said, provide a test study guide.
But they otherwise leave the teaching to privately-run schools.
That’s how commissioner Jim Daley of Butler County would like to see things work.
“The thing is, I don’t know if the state should ever do what the private sector can,” he said.