A move by the Pennsylvania Game Commission to change the opening day of the rifle deer season isn’t sitting well with some hunters.
In January, the Game Commission board granted preliminary approval to change the opening day of deer season from the first Monday after Thanksgiving to Saturday. The Monday after Thanksgiving had been the official opening day since 1963, and the board voted for the change hoping a Saturday start would attract new hunters to the sport.
During the board’s quarterly meeting on April 9 in Harrisburg, an amendment was introduced to do away with the change and keep the Monday opener, but commissioners voted 5-3 against, keeping the switch to Saturday in place. The amendment was made after the agency received plenty of comments against the change, and a Game Commission survey of lapsed hunters revealed the move wouldn’t compel a significant number to buy licenses again. One of the concerns echoed by hunters is the proximity of a Saturday opener to the Thanksgiving holiday and the accompanying family obligations and travel plans.
The decision to keep the Saturday opener didn’t sit well with Rep. Bill Kortz, D-Allegheny, who is the minority chairman of the House Game and Fisheries Committee. He said the change to a Saturday opener wasn’t appropriate based on the feedback the Game Commission received from hunters. According to Kortz, Game Commission officials informed him that the agency received 1,452 comments on the change, and 81 percent were opposed.
“That makes me even more angry because they didn’t take hunters into account,” Kortz said. “They did not follow the public comments, and that’s really concerning to me.”
Citing overwhelming opposition from hunters, state Rep. Keith Gillespie, R-York, who is chairman of the Game and Fisheries Committee, said he favors the tradition of the Monday opener and called the board’s action a “very poor decision.”
Gillespie added the board’s vote will make it difficult for legislators to support legislation to allow the Game Commission to set its own hunting license fees, something the agency has been seeking for years.
“It certainly isn’t going to help. I’ll continue to advocate for the Game Commission to set its own license fees, with our oversight, but it doesn’t help me win that argument when something like this was done,” Gillespie said.
Kortz agreed, and added the Game Commission board now has a credibility issue with legislators.
“When they come to me for a fee increase, it’s going to be problematic,” he said. “How do we trust them to set their own fee increases when we can’t trust them to follow public comment?”
As far as any impact on the attempt to pass Sunday hunting legislation, Kortz said legislators will continue to work on implementation in some form. He plans to introduce legislation that would make the opening day of deer season occur on the first Sunday after Thanksgiving, a move that overrides the Saturday opener.
As far as any attempt by the legislature to override the board action, Gillespie said it will be difficult because the Senate leadership supports a Saturday opener. Senator Dan Laughlin, R-Erie, who chairs the Senate Game and Fisheries Committee, testified at the meeting in favor of the change.
Gillespie and Kortz both agreed that the best solution would be for the Game Commission board to call a special meeting and rescind the action.
Board president Tim Layton, who voted for the amendment to do away with the Saturday opener, said a special meeting is an option, but it’s not likely to happen.
The five commissioners who supported the Saturday start aren’t going to change their minds, Layton said, adding that he wasn’t surprised by the vote.
“The commissioners who favored changing opening day based their decision on what they felt was best for the Game Commission moving forward,” Layton said. “I think it all came down to a timing issue. Eventually, the Saturday opener would’ve been a no-brainer. But it would’ve been smart to wait until we had Sunday hunting in place first.”
Layton also wasn’t concerned about any impact the decision could have on the legislature’s willingness to grant a hunting license fee increase. The Game Commission needs legislative approval to raise the cost of a hunting license, something that hasn’t happened since 1999.
The Game Commission has been vocal about the need for more revenue through a fee hike, but Layton said the board has to vote based on what’s best for the agency rather than appease legislators and hope to get an increase.
“I know the repercussions, but we can’t take that into consideration anymore,” he said. “For years we’ve had legislators tell us if we do certain things the fee increase will happen, and it doesn’t happen. I think we’re done with that.”