Changes to Pa. hunting laws could buck tradition, but attract more to the sport

A Philipsburg hunting club walks together in 2014 in Moshannon State Forest. Proposed changes from the state Game Commission and Legislature mean firearms deer hunting season could start the Saturday after Thanksgiving, and potentially include Sundays.
A Philipsburg hunting club walks together in 2014 in Moshannon State Forest. Proposed changes from the state Game Commission and Legislature mean firearms deer hunting season could start the Saturday after Thanksgiving, and potentially include Sundays. Centre Daily Times, file

Several proposed changes to hunting in Pennsylvania could have an effect on the many Centre County residents who hunt, farm or participate in outdoor recreation.

At its January meeting, the state Game Commission gave preliminary approval to shift the first day of firearms deer hunting season to the Saturday after Thanksgiving instead of the Monday. That would expand deer season to 13 days and include three Saturdays, instead of two, the Associated Press reported. The commissioners will decide whether to approve the measure at their April 1 meeting, to allow for public discussion and comment on the move.

Additionally, the state Senate Game and Fisheries Committee approved a bill allowing the Game Commission to introduce Sunday hunting. The ban on Sunday hunting is one of the few “blue laws” — laws designated to ban or restrict certain activities on Sundays for religious reasons — left on Pennsylvania’s books. But for the Sunday hunting ban repeal bill to become law, it still needs to be approved by the full Senate, the House of Representatives and then signed into law by Gov. Tom Wolf.

Across the Commonwealth and Centre County, there are many opinions about both potential changes to the firearm deer hunting season.

“I’m not hearing a whole lot; I think it’s probably split 50/50 both ways. There’s as many good reasons to (start deer season on Saturday) as there are not to,” said Ted Onufrak, a past president of the Pennsylvania Federation of Sportsmen’s Clubs, who lives in Centre County.

Moving the start of deer season up ties in to allowing Sunday hunting, said Onufrak, a 50-year hunting veteran, because it would allow hunters the whole weekend to hunt, instead of just one day.

“I’m not really sure yet either. I have concerns that, you lose that Monday (after Thanksgiving),” he said. “But on the other side ... from Centre County’s perspective ... you could end up getting a lot more people involved in the sport.”

Though it is a tradition in many Pennsylvania public schools and workplaces to give the Monday, and sometimes Tuesday, after Thanksgiving off for the start of buck season, Onufrak said there are still places that don’t do that. Penn State, for example, doesn’t give its students or faculty time off for buck season, he said. If the season were to start Saturday, it could pull interested people who don’t normally get the time off to hunt.

Bald Eagle Area High School, like several Centre County high schools, gets the Monday and Tuesday after Thanksgiving off for the first days of buck season. If the season began the Saturday — and possibly Sunday — after Thanksgiving, Superintendent Jeff Miles said, those traditional days off could change.

“In fact, it’s come up several times before (at school board meetings) and nothing’s happened,” he said. “It’ll be something we’ll probably talk about at the next board meeting.”

But even if the proposed changes to deer hunting season go through, Miles said, BEA will have already set its holiday schedule for next year, and it probably won’t include hunting season-related changes.

Mark Nale, an avid hunter who lives in the Bald Eagle Valley and writes an outdoors column for the Centre Daily Times, said moving the start of deer season to Saturday might interfere with his Thanksgiving plans, as his family typically celebrates the holiday on Saturday.

“We won’t be at the Thanksgiving dinner if it’s on Saturday, so that changes the family dynamics a little bit in my household,” he said. “As far as (deer season) being an extra day longer ... I think that is probably good because it increases hunting opportunities.”

For Dylan Prough, a recent Penn State graduate living in State College, the changes to deer hunting season seem like just another way for the state to get more money.

In 2017, hunting license purchases brought in $35.3 million to the Game Commission, which uses over 60 percent of its budget for wildlife habitat management and wildlife protection, according to the Commission’s annual report.

Prough, who is originally from Wellsboro, said he is wary of the changes, because extending deer season could mean attracting more less-experienced hunters.

“It’ll be interesting to see how the (Game) commissioners weigh all that ... I think they think what they’re doing is right,” said Nale. “We’ll see how they respond to the criticism and change.”

Other changes that also received preliminary approval by the Game Commission are the shortening of turkey hunting season by two days in order to accommodate lengthening firearm deer season; the expansion of the muzzleloader and special firearms deer season to include bears; a two week archery bear season and an expansion of bear season from four to six days in most places.