Pennsylvania: Game Commission Offers Support for Sunday Hunting, License Fees

Pennsylvania Game CommissionThe Pennsylvania Game Commission today offered testimony to legislators on two issues important to the state’s hunters and trappers.

First, Game Commission Deputy Executive Director Bryan J. Burhans testified before the Senate Game and Fisheries Committee about the potential expansion of Sunday hunting. Then, Game Commission Executive Director R. Matthew Hough testified before the House Policy Committee on the importance of a license-fee increase and Senate Bill 1166, which would enable the Game Commission to set its own fees for licenses.

Their testimony is provided in full below:

Sunday hunting

“Thank you Chairman Scavello, Chairman Brewster, and members of the Senate Game & Fisheries Committee for the opportunity to come before you today in regards to the expansion of Sunday hunting in Pennsylvania. I am Bryan Burhans, Deputy Executive Director for the Pennsylvania Game Commission.

To be clear, we are in fact talking about the expansion of Sunday hunting opportunities in Pennsylvania. Currently hunting on Sundays is permitted on a very limited basis in terms of species, but it is legal every Sunday throughout the year, not just the typical hunting season. I believe that point bears repeating – every Sunday throughout the year.

We have one of the most restrictive laws for Sunday hunting, and it is important to note that only four states currently prohibit Sunday hunting altogether – Maine, Massachusetts, Connecticut, and Delaware.

Contrary to some rhetoric that is floating around out there, the No. 1 reason that people stop hunting is lack of time. The overwhelming majority of hunting takes place on Saturdays; people work during the week, don’t get a lot of time off, have other commitments, etc. For a lot of hunters the only option is Saturday.

By expanding Sunday hunting, we would be able to increase recreational opportunities for hunters. Sunday hunting is an effective means of recruiting new hunters and retaining current hunters by increasing the value of the hunting license through offering additional opportunities to spend time in the field.

In a recent survey of lapsed hunters – those who at one time bought a license – 49 percent stated that having the opportunity to hunt on Sunday would encourage them to buy a license again. Without having the ability to schedule seasons to include one of the days when individuals have the most amount of time available, the PGC is limited regarding what it can do to recruit and retain hunters.

Unfortunately, we know of many cases where Pennsylvania residents, particularly near the state lines, don’t even purchase a Pennsylvania hunting license. Instead, they opt to drive an hour or so to hunt in Ohio or New York because they are able maximize the time they have available by hunting both Saturday and Sunday.

Likewise, we miss out on license sales to non-resident hunters because they don’t want to come to Pennsylvania to only be allowed to hunt on Saturday.

Youth participation is vital to maintaining the long-standing tradition of hunting in Pennsylvania. Over the past decade, we have worked to increase hunting opportunities for the youth; mentored youth hunting, early rifle season for deer, additional junior hunting privileges, early opening day for spring gobbler, junior pheasant hunts, junior waterfowl hunts, etc.

With a plethora of other activities vying for their time, especially during the week, and more and more activities taking place on Saturdays, it is difficult for young hunters to get out. Even to assume that they have Saturday free, many hunters don’t want to drive a few hours to camp just for one day to hunt. We can effectively double the number of hunting days for youths during the school year by offering Sunday hunting.

Suppose you couldn’t golf on Sundays, or ski resorts were required to close on Sundays. Would that be enough to drive the number of participants down? Maybe a better question would be, to what degree would that drive participation down? If you think about it, on a nice Sunday during the summer, just about any golf course is going to be booked with tee times from sun-up to well into the evening.

The PGC recognizes that other recreational user groups are paying close attention to this issue as they have been for years – groups like the hikers, bikers, and horseback riders, among others. These groups advocate for just one day per week that they can recreate as they choose without the fear of a hunting related incident or accident.

The truth of the matter is that these groups recreate 365 days per year, including Saturdays and Sundays during hunting seasons. They recreate on State Game Lands, State Forests, at State Parks, and in the Allegheny National Forest; all lands where hunting is permitted.

It is important to note that despite the inaccurate portrayal by these groups, hunting is an inherently safe sport. In fact, over the past decade, hunting related shooting incidents have decreased by half. In 2015, the total number of hunting related shooting incidents was 23. Out of nearly 935,000 hunters, 23 incidents represents less than one one-thousandth of 1 percent.

We have heard from many people on both sides of the issue, hunters and non-hunters. I can tell you that a majority of those that we hear from support Sunday hunting. Where the difference is lies with what season they want Sunday hunting implemented. Rest assured, that if given the authority to further regulate Sunday hunting, the PGC would be looking for input from a wide variety of stakeholder groups and will endeavor to engage these stakeholders before passing any new regulations in regard to Sunday hunting.

Additionally, Sunday hunting will provide substantial economic benefits to rural areas and businesses by increasing money spent by hunters on lodging, food, gas and other incidental items. According to the 2010 report by Southwick Associates, prepared for the Pennsylvania Legislative Budget & Finance Committee:

In 2010, if Sunday hunting were permitted, considering spending and economic multipliers… “Spending by all hunters would likely have increased by $460.0 million. The multiplier effects of that spending would have produced $803.6 million of total output in the Pennsylvania economy and supported 7,439 jobs with $247.4 million of salary and wage income. The increased activity would have generated $56.8 million in tax revenue to state and local governments and $60.7 million in federal tax revenues.”

By nature, Sunday hunting is what is commonly referred to as a blue law. Blue laws are antiquated, religious-based laws that were originally designed to restrict or ban some or all Sunday activities in order to encourage a day of worship or rest. To date, all but two blue laws in Pennsylvania have been repealed: the complete ability to hunt on Sundays, and the option to purchase a vehicle.

In 1937, the Legislature repealed the blue law that made it illegal to fish on Sundays. The law was changed so that fishermen were permitted to openly fish any public waters, and allowed to fish private waters with the permission of the landowner.

According to the Pennsylvania Fish & Boat Commission’s historical records, “The Bureau of Law Enforcement reports that relatively few landowners take action to restrict fishing on Sundays, but anglers should respect “Sunday Fishing Prohibited” signs where they are posted. A person who violates a Sunday fishing restriction commits a summary offense of the third degree.”

The PGC is willing to work with landowners who choose to not allow Sunday hunting on their land, even going as far as providing the corresponding signage at no cost to those landowners enrolled in our public access programs. We are also willing enforce a Sunday hunting restriction for landowners, much like PFBC agreed to when their blue law was repealed.

Today, with the exception of hunters, every single person in Pennsylvania has the ability to recreate as they choose every day of the week. In 1937, it was determined that fishermen should be allowed to recreate as they choose any day of the week. It wasn’t mandated that you had to fish on Sundays, but you had the option. Almost 80 years later, we are asking for the same consideration. A considerable majority of hunters want the ability to recreate as they choose to on Sunday. If an individual chooses not to, that is absolutely fine as well. The time has come and hunters deserve the option.

Thank you again for your consideration. I would be happy to take any questions you may have.”

License-fee legislation

“Thank you Chairman Benninghoff and House members for the opportunity to come before you today concerning a very much needed license increase, and in particular, Senate Bill 1166 sponsored by Senator Stefano. I am Matt Hough, Executive Director for the Pennsylvania Game Commission.

For the past 120 years, the Game Commission, in accordance with our legislatively mandated mission, has managed the Commonwealth’s wildlife resources for all current and future generations of Pennsylvanians – not only the 67 game species that are hunted or trapped, but all 480 species of Pennsylvania’s wild birds and wild mammals. Wildlife has always been an important part of Pennsylvania’s cultural heritage. Every day, it touches the lives of countless Pennsylvanians, hunters and nonhunters alike, and many of us consider wildlife to be a one of the most precious resources this state has to offer.

Although we are a state agency, we do not receive any general fund revenue. Our main funding streams come from a number of sources including Pittman-Robertson funding; the sale of oil, gas, and minerals (OGM) on state game lands; and of course, hunting and furtaking license sales. These revenue streams are not stable and fluctuate from year to year.

Our license sales are as close to a stable funding source as we can get. We can estimate what our P-R Funding will be one year in advance, and to an extent, we can also predict what our OGM revenue will be from year to year. But as we have seen, it is volatile market, as evidenced by the recent drop-off in Marcellus shale activity and the price of natural gas.

Historically, license sales revenue has been the No. 1 source of funding for the Game Commission. At the time of the last license increase, license sales accounted for 54 percent of the PGC’s funding. Last year, revenue from all license sales was down to 35 percent.

The last license increase for the PGC was in 1999. That span of 17 years without an increase represents the second longest period of time in the history of the Commission. The only time that we went longer without an increase was the period during the Great Depression and World War II. Historically, license increases were approved every 10 years or so – sometimes even less, but rarely was it longer than 10 years.

When we received our last increase in 1999, we estimated that the additional license revenue would give us five years before we would need another increase. We were very close with our predictions and about the time that the Fish & Boat Commission received their last license increase in 2006, we were again financially up against a wall. Fortunately for us, and especially for the sportsmen and women of Pennsylvania, about the time that we were in dire need of another license increase, we came into extremely good times for timber sales. Those high timber markets only lasted for a couple of years.

Around the time the timber markets were declining the Marcellus shale came into play. This bump in gas revenue has provided us with the necessary funding to continue operating at the level that the citizens of the Commonwealth have come to expect.

The fact of the matter is that despite those outlying increases in revenue, our costs have continued to skyrocket for a number of reasons: general inflation, overall increase in healthcare benefits, and retirement contributions, just to name a few. Keep in mind that despite not receiving any general fund revenues, we are subject to the same Commonwealth negotiated personnel expenses as all other state agencies.

For example, in fiscal year 1997-98, the year prior to our last license increase, our complement was 731 employees and our personnel expenses were $40.4 million. In fiscal year 2014-15, our complement had been reduced to 714 employees, and yet our personnel expenses had more than doubled to $82.1 million. The only way for us to control personnel costs is to eliminate positions. We have been forced to further reduce our complement and currently we are down to 686 employees. These cuts have come mainly by not backfilling positions when employees leave through attrition. But now we are at the point where we have not been renewing contracts and unfortunately have begun to furlough employees.

The impact of these rising personnel costs are most impacting the hunters of Pennsylvania. The more we have to contribute and pay for personnel, the less money we have available for operating expenditures. Expenditures for operational items such as prescribed fire, warm season grass plantings, creation of herbaceous openings, improved public access to State Game Lands, wildlife-disease research, wildlife protection, and youth conservation education.

We have been able to make significant cost reductions in the past two years and there are far more to come next year. To date by design, we have attempted to do so without greatly impacting the services we provide to the public or allowing the effects to be visible outside of the agency. Unfortunately, we will not be able to continue that. If we are not able to obtain a license fee increase in the very near future, the impacts will be significant and far-reaching.

This is simply the financial reality that we are facing. We have already indefinitely suspended the next class of Wildlife Conservation Officers which was set to begin in the spring of 2017. We also suspended the Pymatuning visitor center project, and have taken a serious look at potential cutbacks at the Middle Creek Wildlife Management Area. We are looking at curtailing production of our pheasant program, along with numerous other project and program cuts.

We are not gambling. There are no bluffs. This is our reality.

But enough of the bad. How about some of the good things that are going on with Pennsylvania’s wildlife.

There is lot of misinformation being spread around about the Game Commission and hunting in Pennsylvania, and I think it is time to set the record straight.

Make no mistake about it, as a whole, hunting in Pennsylvania is second to none. Let’s just talk about big-game hunting for a minute – the Big 4 that include deer, bear, turkey, and elk. I’d like to list for you a number of categories where Pennsylvania is ranked in the top five nationally: number of deer hunters, buck harvests, doe harvests, buck harvests per square mile, doe harvests per square mile, number of bear hunters, bear population, bear harvests, number of turkey hunters, turkey population, and turkey harvests. In every single one of those categories…Pennsylvania is in the top five in the country, year after year.

Quite often you hear how the PGC has lost hundreds of thousands of hunters over the past decade because of our mismanagement of the deer herd. Certainly, there is no question about it, the deer population in Pennsylvania has been reduced to balance the population with the current available habitat. Deer are healthier, our forests are providing better habitat for deer and other species of wildlife, and the number of conflicts with private landowners has been reduced. I guess I’m just not sure how being ranked in the top five nationally in deer harvests can be such a bad thing.

The reintroduction of elk in northcentral Pennsylvania has been hugely successful. Not only are we able to now hunt a sustainable population of elk, but the economic impact that the elk have had in Elk Country is inconceivable. The elk population has grown steadily, and now Pennsylvania is has become a destination for elk hunting. This spring, the state’s Special Elk Conservation Tag – a license created by the Pennsylvania General Assembly and auctioned off by the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation to benefit wildlife – commanded a stunning $85,000 at auction.

Pennsylvania hunting license sales have declined, but they haven’t declined to the extent that some would lead you to believe, and despite what is said, this is not in any way unique to Pennsylvania.

I’d like to take a minute to give you the real numbers for license sales. I have heard some talk about the decade from 2004-2014, so I will focus on that. In 2004, PGC license sales were at 1,037,960. In 2014, sales were at 988,905. This represents a decrease of 4.7 percent over 10-year period. To compare, during that same time period, the Fish & Boat Commission license sales dropped from 909,140 to 841,420 – or a decrease of 7.5 percent. This is not a deer-management problem.

The truth of the matter is that hunting and fishing license sales are declining nationally. Fortunately, we are declining at a slower rate than the majority of other states. I think you can attribute that to the high quality of hunting you can find in Pennsylvania and the amount of opportunity you have to hunt.

According to the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, in 1975, there were approximately 19.1 million hunters nationwide. In 2006, that number had dropped to 12.5 million, and the projection for 2025 is approximately 9.1 million. The bottom line is that, nationally, hunting-license sales are trending down and the No. 1 reason given is the lack of time.

Another topic of discussion revolves around what are known as escrow accounts and the $400 maximum amount payable out of the Game Fund to purchase land.

Some of the escrow accounts associated with the PGC have been around for many years. The Penn State account and the Indiana Bat account – are two of those. These escrows were set up by the U.S Fish and Wildlife Service for a specific purpose and are very restrictive.

The accounts that are often the topic of discussion are those dealing with oil, gas, and mineral extraction on state game lands. Years ago, the PGC made a policy decision that would essentially ensure no-net-loss of state game lands for sportsmen’s use. In order to achieve this, we would accept a land exchange or an agreement to purchase land in the future that would then be given to the Commonwealth. This return was at minimum a 1-to-1, and in most cases it was a 2-to-1 or even a 3-to-1 return – meaning that if 500 acres of State Game Lands were going to be taken away from sportsmen due to drilling activities, the leasing company was responsible for finding at minimum 500 acres of land to be given to the PGC to replace that, and it had to be approved by the PGC. In most cases, equitable land wasn’t immediately available so the company would place funds into an escrow account for use against future land purchases.

These escrow accounts were set up and maintained by a third party. These accounts were set-up between the third party and the drilling or leasing company. The company deposited the money into the account, and when land was identified for purchase, the third party made the payment for the land. The company deposited the money into the account, and when the time came for equitable land to be purchased, the third party made the payment for the land.

The money never came to the PGC – if it did, it would have to be deposited directly into the Game Fund and would then been subject to the $400 per acre. With the exception of indentures and inholdings, we have not paid more than $400 per acre from the Game Fund. It is important to note that all contracts we sign for these land deals must be approved by the PA Attorney General for content, form, and legality.

Hunting and trapping in Pennsylvania come at a very low cost for an exceptionally high value. When compared to the other states for a resident hunter to hunt antlered deer, spring and fall turkeys, pheasants and small game, and migratory birds, Pennsylvania has the second-lowest license fees in the nation. Even a modest increase in license fees would still keep Pennsylvania in the 10 lowest in the country.

We have the support for a license increase from a wide variety of statewide sportsmen organizations and other groups including the Pennsylvania Federation of Sportsmen’s Clubs, United Bowhunters of Pennsylvania, Quality Deer Management Association, National Wild Turkey Federation, Keystone Elk Country Alliance, Pennsylvania Beagle Gundog Federation, Pennsylvania Sporting Dog Association, Pennsylvania Trappers Association, Pheasants Forever, Congressional Sportsmen’s Foundation, Pennsylvania State Fox & Coyote Hunter’s Association, Western Pennsylvania Conservancy, Woodcock Limited, and the Pennsylvania Environmental Council.

Very simply, SB 1166 would give us the authority to set our own license prices as needed. Much like the Turnpike Commission has the ability to raise their rates to meet their expenditures, we are asking for the ability to do the same.

By granting the authority to make those changes, we would have the option to make smaller incremental increases every so often as compared to much larger increase every 10 years or more.

While we understand the perceived element of control that the Legislature would be giving up, it is just that, perceived. The reality is that you still have significant oversight and control.

The Legislature still mandates what we are charged with doing through Title 34. Additionally, you passed broader accountability measures during the last session for our Commissioners. Now, every four years, our Commissioners are reviewed for performance and then need to be reconfirmed. By law, we are required to present our annual report to the standing committees each year, and every three years the Legislative Budget & Finance Committee reviews our performance in keeping with our strategic plan.

I can assure you that we do not have any interest in pricing ourselves out of the market. It doesn’t help us to make the license price so high that we lose license buyers. Not only would that impact license sales revenue, but it also reduces the amount of revenue received through Pittman-Robertson funding.

SB 1166 also has built-in safe guards. There is a three-year sunset provision and any proposed changes would be subject to the Commission’s regulatory rule-making process, which includes a public-comment period. It is also our intention to hold at least one public meeting so that we can get additional input from our constituents. Quite frankly, SB 1166 is simply the ability to raise revenue to meet the statutory requirements that you have given us.

Again, thank you for your time and consideration and I will be happy to answer any questions that you may have.”

Media Contact:
Travis Lau
717-705-6541
trlau@pa.gov

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