Maintaining Pennsylvania’s hunting heritage
By Michael T. Crawford
Pennsylvania sells more hunting licenses than any other state with the exception of Texas. And while hunters harvest everything from crows to coyotes, geese to groundhogs, the big bucks of hunting continue to come from the big bucks themselves.
“When (Pennsylvanians) think about hunting, everybody thinks about the whitetail deer,” says Chip Brunst, information & education supervisor for the Pennsylvania Game Commission (PGC) Northwest Region.
According to the PGC’s annual report, the Commonwealth is one of only five states where more than 300,000 whitetail deer are harvested annually. During the 2017-18 deer season, hunters in Pennsylvania took more than 367,000 deer, an increase from the 2016-17 harvest of roughly 333,000.
Oddly enough, that increase came during the same time frame that the purchase of general hunting licenses was down. In 2016, the PGC sold 914,368 general hunting licenses — 864,257 to residents with the remaining sold to non-residents. Two years later, that number had dropped to 855,486 licenses with 805,393 of those issued to residents, continuing a downward slide from 2013 when the PGC sold 953,072 general hunting licenses.
Even though their numbers are down, hunters represent a massive economic force in Pennsylvania, generating more than $73.2 million in state and local taxes, and more than $116 million in federal taxes in 2016, according to an economic study conducted by Southwick Associates for the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership. Each hunter spent an average of more than $1,000 on their sport that year, totaling more than $817 million.
FAMILY AFFAIR: Lisa Skoranski, right, and her daughters, Samantha, left, and Cassie, hunt together every year. A member of Sullivan County REC, Skoranski says hunting together is fun and a good way to spend time together.
“Huge amounts are spent by hunters on archery equipment, firearms, ammunition, hunting gear, clothing (and) tree stands,” explains Mike Scott, deputy state game warden and member of Forksville-based Sullivan County REC. “As those numbers of hunters decline, there are fewer individuals making those purchases — staying in hotels, going to restaurants — because when hunters generally go away for the big game season, they’re in specific areas — rural counties — for days. Some of them stay for weeks. As the number of hunters decrease, you see restaurants, convenience stores, gas stations, hotels decrease. It impacts the state in a lot of different categories.”
Hunting supported more than 13,000 Pennsylvania jobs in 2016, according to the study, which is more than 60% of the 21,798 jobs in the state’s oil and gas extraction industry. Put in perspective, fishing supported fewer than 7,000 jobs and generated roughly $50.1 million in state and local taxes, and about $66.3 million in federal taxes, despite the Pennsylvania Fish & Boat Commission selling more than 1.37 million annual licenses and permits in the same year.
An adult hunting license for a Pennsylvania resident can be issued to anyone 16 years or older, or a youth hunting license can be purchased for children ages 12-15. Hunting stamps for specific game, if needed, are available separately. Any first-time hunter intending to obtain a hunting or trapping license in Pennsylvania, regardless of their age, is required to take the PGC’s Hunter-Trapper Education (HTE) course that exposes prospective hunters to the ethical and legal concerns hunters may face in the field. More than 2 million new hunters have become certified since Pennsylvania conducted its first HTE course in 1959. Since then, hunting-related injuries and fatalities have fallen by more than 80%. But while thousands of fresh faces go through the course annually, that hasn’t changed the fact that the number of hunters continues its downward trend.
According to the 2018 PGC Annual Report, sales of junior hunting licenses in Pennsylvania have declined more than 40% in the past decade, despite more than 24,000 youth completing the commission’s required course. Sales of adult licenses have not fared much better, dropping by approximately 13% in the same time frame.
“The numbers have slowly, but surely, declined all across the board,” Scott says. “The Commonwealth is becoming more urbanized. The idea of harvesting your own meat is becoming less popular. We’re losing touch with our roots, frankly. When I was a kid, schools would close for the first week of buck season; now only in the most remote parts of the Commonwealth do schools even close for the first day. … For the most part, unfortunately, it’s a sport — and part of our heritage — that’s in decline.”
Pennsylvania isn’t the only state to notice a decline in hunting; nationwide, hunters have been dwindling since 1982. According to the National Survey of Hunting, Fishing, and WildlifeAssociated Recreation, a report issued every five years by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, fewer than 11.5 million people hunted in 2016. That’s more than 2.2 million fewer than in 2011 and nearly 5.5 million fewer than in 1982.
But there are still thousands of hunters in Pennsylvania who are determined to pass along their love of the sport.
Billy Ayers, a member of Huntingdon-based Valley Rural Electric Cooperative (REC), is one of the Pennsylvanians who began hunting as a child and has continued the tradition as he grew to adulthood and then became a father himself. He hunts just about anything he can get a license for: ducks, geese, deer, turkey, rabbits, squirrels, foxes, coyotes — you get the idea. He started hunting when he was 12 and joined his dad’s hunting trips as early as 6 years old.
“I was always in the woods,” Ayers recalls. “I can remember, growing up, I was always out with him. ... Whenever I got older and got to the point where I could hunt by myself at 16, I started adding other things, like duck hunting. … Most weekends, I’m hunting something, depending on what season it is.”
Ayers estimates he spends between $125 and $150 annually on licenses and tags — a small price, he says, for a good time.
“For how much our licenses cost, for how much I do, it’s actually relatively cheap,” he says. “To me, it’s never been about … the cost — I love to be out doing it. I still enjoy shooting a big buck if I can, but it’s not the reason I go. It’s nice being out there, sitting in a tree and giving yourself a chance to relax and forget about your problems.”
SUCCESSFUL HUNT: Valley REC member Billy Ayers hunts just about everything that he can get a license for. Here, he poses with a whitetail deer after a successful hunt.
Like his father before him, Ayers has passed his love of hunting to his children.
“My son is really big into it — we hunt a lot together,” he says. “He shot his first buck when he was 7 or 8. Along with my dad, we still do a lot of hunting together. My daughter killed her first buck when she was 7 or 8. She did it up until she was about 12, and she’s killed two bucks. She’s gotten to the point where she doesn’t want to kill them anymore … but she still comes out and helps me hang stands and drag deer in.”
While some people think of hunting as a male-dominated sport, that’s just not the case these days.
In fact, at the Lisa Skoranski residence, hunting is a female-dominated outing. Skoranski, a nurse and Sullivan County REC member, has been hunting, as she says, “anything and everything,” with her daughters, Samantha and Cassie, for nearly a decade.
“It is not only fun, but it is a way for us to get out and spend time together,” says Skoranski. “It would turn into a little … friendly competition. We’ll pit each other against each other — my one daughter will come home and I’ll say, ‘Hey, you want to go out? Sam’s going out by herself, and this is an opportunity to tie up your buck score!’”
While many people own or lease the land they hunt on, there are many hunters who do not have that option. For them, state-owned lands are a welcoming space. According to the 2018 PGC Annual Report, the Commonwealth is home to more than 1.5 million acres of state game lands, but game wardens say that number is climbing as landowners sell or donate acres to the commission. On top of dedicated game lands, Pennsylvanians can turn toward state parks to enjoy the hunting season.
“The state park is preserved land that is there and available for people to use for hunting, fishing and other outdoor sports and recreation activities,” says Bill Hornberger, a member of Gettysburg-based Adams Electric Cooperative (EC) and chief ranger for Codorus State Park, which is served by Adams EC. “Access to Pennsylvania state parks is free. They do need a Pennsylvania hunting license, and we follow all of the Pennsylvania Game Commission’s rules and regulations for hunting with the exception that Codorus only allows shotguns, archery and muzzleloader equipment.”
While it may seem counterintuitive that hunting can actually protect animals, that is the case in Pennsylvania, where efforts to protect the Commonwealth’s 22 endangered species and seven threatened species and their habitats, as well as those of game animals, receive the lion’s share of their funding from the sale of hunting licenses.
“Hunting is the conservation effort of Pennsylvania,” emphasizes Brunst, who grew up on Northwestern REC lines in Cambridge Springs. “Hunting and trapping are the No. 1 management tool for wildlife populations in Pennsylvania — as a matter of fact, in almost all states. Without our hunters, we would not be able to keep the deer population under control. The number of road kills, vehicle accidents, damage done to people’s shrubbery and the amount of crop damage done to the fields would be way higher than it is right now without our hunters.”
At the same time increased success for hunters brings in more dollars to the state and businesses located here, it also can cut down on economic losses for farmers. That’s because deer can wreak havoc on local ecosystems if their population grows out of control. As deer devour everything from leafy greens to hardwood, smaller animals may find themselves in danger of starvation, which in turn pushes critters of all sizes and appetites toward farmland to find their meals.
“A corn field just becoming ripe is absolutely delicious for deer and bear,” Scott notes. “Our area here, much like the whole state of Pennsylvania, is ideal because you’ve got these pockets of agriculture next to big woods.”
For farmers who do suffer significant crop losses from wildlife, the PGC has some programs to help — the Deer Management Assistance Program (DMAP), which offers a way for farmers to essentially recruit hunters to their property, and the Agricultural Deer Control (Red Tag) Program, which functions similarly to DMAP.
“A farmer in specific Wildlife Management Units can apply for … coupons and hand them out to people who can send them in for an extra doe tag that is only good on that landowner’s property,” Brunst explains. “DMAP can be used during any of the hunting seasons. The Red Tag is for when hunting season is not in.”
The PGC also has a longstanding program to allow farmers to fend off hungry critters themselves.
“There are certain programs we have specifically for farmers who make their living off the land that are a little more liberal,” Scott says. “We allow them to take deer if they can prove deer damage, but they have to either consume the animal one at a time themselves or they can harvest several deer, field dress them, and store them in a cool place for us to come pick them up and get them to needy families.”
Farmers aren’t the only people who can open up their property to hunting. Through the PGC’s Hunter Access Program, landowners can open their property to hunting in exchange for patrolling and enforcement of game law by the PGC and assistance with habitat management from PGC biologists. Participants may also receive other benefits, such as free or reduced-cost seedlings and wood products, and — depending on the property’s acreage — landowners may also receive an extra doe tag or even a discounted hunting license.
As the age of the average Pennsylvania hunter — presently 51 — continues to increase, the PGC aims to shake up its longtime strategy to bring new hunters into the fold, in both an effort to reap the economic rewards of hunting and to cut down on the economic downside of a deer population that could quickly grow out of control.
“We need to keep people involved,” Brunst says. “Let’s say when they go off to college, they miss the deer season four years in a row. Then they get a job, and the interest wanes. Sometimes they may not come back until their kids are old enough to hunt.”
The PGC may get the chance it has been looking for as legislators, commission members and hunters continue to discuss the fate of a plan to allow deer hunting on some Sundays.
“If we provide more opportunities, maybe we can keep them interested longer, and maybe they never leave again,” Brunst speculates.