A Saturday opener for Pennsylvania’s deer season? That might be coming?
It’s one day. Roughly 10 hours, really, figuring the amount of daylight from dawn to dusk.
But, this year, it’s potentially a pretty historic day.
In giving preliminary approval to 2019-20 seasons and bag limits at their meeting this week, Pennsylvania Game Commissioners agreed – unanimously no less – to open the statewide 2019 firearms deer season on the Saturday after Thanksgiving.
Deer season would be 13 days instead of 12, running through Dec. 14. That excludes the two Sundays in between.
Opening day has been the Monday after Thanksgiving since 1963.
Neither that change – nor any of the significant others adopted, notably in regards to bear hunting — are set in stone. Commissioners must give final approval to everything at their next meeting, set for April 8 and 9 in Harrisburg.
But this is a big one.
Commissioners said the intent is to make it easier for more people – and especially students, including those in college, and people who work six days a week — to hunt.
That’s a problem now.
According to a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service report, participation in hunting nationally declined 16 percent between 2011 and 2016. That, it said, is the biggest decline in at least 25 years.
Pennsylvania fared pretty well by comparison. Participation here dropped just 2 to 3 percent over that same time.
But, commissioners said, the state’s hunting population is aging, with the average deer hunter older than 50.
And with wildlife agencies across the nation focusing on ‘R3,” or recruitment, retention and re-activation, commissioners said it’s beyond time to start looking at how to bring on board the next generation of sportsmen and women.
They determined a Monday opener is a roadblock.
That wasn’t always the case, said commissioner Brian Hoover of Chester County. But, he added, things have changed.
“It’s not like the Monday after Thanksgiving is a holiday like it used to be. Because it’s not,” Hoover said. “It’s not. And if we polled the school districts across the state of Pennsylvania, you’re going to find the majority don’t let the kids off to hunt.”
It’s not just students either, said commissioners Stanley Knick of Luzerne County. Many people work at least five days a week. He said a Monday opener prohibits them from getting into the woods
“So we have to accommodate the kids coming in today, the new people who are trying to get into the sport, and give them opportunity,” Hoover said.
Not all hunters agree.
A “2017 Pennsylvania Deer Hunter Survey” done by the commission asked hunters if they supported moving opening day to Saturday. They said no, by a 65-35 majority.
Agency staff, though, said a further break down of those numbers shows an age bais. Older hunters are more inclined to oppose the change. Younger hunters split 50-50 on the idea.
Commissioners admitted, too, that a majority of the emails, letters and calls they received from hunters opposed moving opening day.
Among the loudest opponents are hunting camp owners, who cited the “tradition” of opening weekend as something they fear losing.
They are a minority of hunters. The same deer hunter survey found that 24 percent of sportsmen chase deer from camps, while 76 percent do not.
That’s similar to the makeup of the commission board. Two of eight belong to hunting camps.
But they’ve been vocal. One camp hunter, Max Merell of Meyersdale, attended the commission’s meeting to call hunting camps “the incubator” of Pennsylvania’s hunting heritage.
All have their own unique traditions, he said. And all would lose them if deer season opens the Saturday after Thanksgiving, he said. That’s because it would be “logistically impossible” for many hunters, residents and non-residents, who travel to visit family over the Thanksgiving holiday to get back to camp by then.
A Saturday opener might bring some new people to hunting, he admitted.
But it would chase even more away, he claimed, while negatively impacting rural communities that depend on hunter dollars to survive.
“The Monday opener has been a hunting tradition for eons. And to change that would change the very nature of traditional rifle hunting seasons,” he said.
Others disagreed. In fact, support for the change outnumbered opposition at the commission meeting by 6-2.
One of those – who believes a Saturday opener might actually put more people in camps and the woods — is Sen. Dan Laughlin. He’s an Erie County Republican and chairman of the Senate game and fisheries committee.
He said that, last year, five adult children who would have hunted from his camp did not because they had to go back to college for opening day. Those are license sales lost, he said.
“So please, please consider that,” Laughlin said.
Kelli Ritter of Berks County also told board members she supports a Saturday opener.
A freshman at Bloomsburg University, she said her father rarely hunts opening day because he lacks the seniority at work to get the day off. She hunted the season’s first day this year only because she skipped classes and her family was willing to drive her back to school late that night.
Many of her hunting friends didn’t have that opportunity, she said. And she herself likely won’t this fall.
It makes no sense to allow that to happen at a time when the commission is working so hard to boost hunter numbers, she said.
“If the Pennsylvania Game Commission wants to keep the hunting tradition alive and thriving for the next generation, you need to start listening to the youths’ needs instead of the camp owners, who don’t have to worry about finding time to get out and hunt,” Ritter said. “We are the future of our hunting.”
The commission will learn more about how hunters feel soon.
Every few years it surveys lapsed hunters, those who didn’t purchase a license the two years prior. It is doing one this year
It will go out soon, said Steve Smith, director of the commission’s bureau of information and education.
“We’re asking them what factors led to their not buying a license. And one of the things we’re going to be asking is, would a Saturday opener of deer season influence their decision?” Smith said.
He expects results in time for consideration at the board’s April meeting
Hoover said the commission is simply trying to be progressive “and get the agency better positioned for the hunter.”
“We’re not afraid to tackle traditions, as some people call it,” he said. “Every day is a new tradition, someone told me.”
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