The Pennsylvania Game Commission proposed significant changes during its Jan. 29-31 meeting in Harrisburg. The Commission moved to legalize semi-automatic rifles for all types of hunting, combine archery bear season with the archery deer season and also shorten the season for ruffed grouse.
Last fall, the Pennsylvania legislature passed a bill that would legalize the use of semi-automatic rifles for hunting in this state. Pennsylvania is the only state that does not currently permit at least some type of hunting with semi-automatic rifles. Auto-loading shotguns have been legal here for some time.
Most hunters, including this columnist, expected that the commissioners would take a conservative approach — permitting semi-autos for a limited number of species, such as coyotes and groundhogs. Instead, they went full bore — proposing that semi-autos would be legal for all types of hunting next fall. Their preliminary vote, which could be finalized at the next quarterly meeting, actually goes against the opinions of many hunters. It will be interesting to see how this turns out.
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With respect to hunting and fishing, Pennsylvania often moves to the beat of a different drummer. We have separate agencies that manage parks, fishing and hunting. We allow only limited Sunday hunting and, until now, semi-auto rifles have been illegal. Right or wrong - almost all other states do things differently.
Should semi-automatic rifles be legal for deer hunting? During the past few weeks, I asked more than a dozen hunters that question. The non-scientific results: two — yes. All of the other votes were opposed.
Data from other states show that there is no “safety” reason that should prevent semi-automatics from being legal. Hunters using a pump-action rifle can shoot almost as quickly, so “fair chase” is not an issue, either. I own a semi-automatic .22, and I would love to be able to use it for small game.
My opinion — Hey, I’m a lifelong resident of Pennsylvania and I have been hunting for more than 50 years. So ... even knowing all of this, I would prefer if the PGC were to act more slowly — one step at a time. I think all would be better served if the agency allowed hunters to gradually get used to the idea of auto-loaders — one step at a time.
Combining archery bear with deer
Last fall, archery bear season was five days long, immediately following archery deer season, which is six weeks long. The commissioners’ new proposal would add one day to archery bear season and move it three weeks earlier — combining it with the fourth week of archery deer season in late October.
I questioned a dozen different hunters about combining archery deer and bear seasons. Unlike the semi-auto rifle issue, all but one favored the change. Many archers have been wishing for this move in recent years, although imagined that it would occur during the last week of archery deer season. Combining the two seasons will create additional hunting opportunities, sell more bear licenses and makes sense to me.
Will more bears be taken by archers? Yes. The state’s bruin population is about 20,000. Archery bear harvest has resulted in only a couple of hundred bears a year. Doubling or tripling that number should have little impact on the overall bear population.
Hunters overwhelmingly support this change, and it should not harm the resource. To me, the Commission is making a good decision.
Shortening grouse season
Last fall, the 11-weeklong season for ruffed grouse was held in three segments. The first began on Oct. 15 and ended Nov. 26, the second was Dec. 12-24, and the third ran Dec. 26 to Jan. 21. Grouse populations are normally based on available food and habitat, loss to predators, and loss to hunting.
West Nile virus is the new element that is now a part of the equation. According to Game Commission Executive Director Matt Hough, Pennsylvania’s ruffed grouse population is at its lowest level in 50 years — with the likely culprit being West Nile virus. Recent studies show that ruffed grouse are very susceptible to the disease. Most of the grouse that die from the virus do so during the summer and early fall.
At the recommendation of PGC grouse biologist Lisa Williams, the commissioners voted to close the third season, late December into January. This should allow a larger breeding population for the spring of 2018. The late season is traditionally a favorite among diehard grouse hunters, with about 28 percent of the total grouse hunting effort occurring during the winter season. Grouse hunters would be wise to support this decision for the good of the resource.
I believe that the Commission is demonstrating good judgment in following their biologist’s recommendation to shorten grouse season. With close monitoring of the population, I hope that it will be enough to reverse the downward trend in grouse numbers.
Mark Nale, who lives in the Bald Eagle Valley, is a member of the Pennsylvania Outdoor Writers Association and can be reached at MarkAngler@aol.com.