Outdoors

A matter of law: Woman’s coyote kill at center of statewide controversy

Renee Varner poses with a coyote that she legally harvested on March 10.
Renee Varner poses with a coyote that she legally harvested on March 10. Photo provided

A few years ago I interviewed a young Centre County hunter who had just harvested his first buck — a rather large one. I asked him to just tell me the story of his hunt.

“I was in my treestand when my dad called me on the cell phone to tell me that a buck was headed my way,” he said. “So I was ready.”

End of interview — that teenager and his father just broke the law and they did not even know it.

There are numerous fine points with respect to the law and hunting. More than a few of those involve the use of “electronic devices.” A cell phone is an “electronic device.”

Are you thinking about buying the new scent ionizer? Better not, at least not if you are going to hunt in Pennsylvania. It is illegal.

Text your hunting buddy, “A nice buck is headed your way.” It probably happens regularly, but you just broke the law.

New electronic devices for hunting are being introduced every month. Older devices, such as cell phones, are being used more and more. Before you purchase any new electronic device or decide to use one for hunting, you had better check the laws where you are going to hunt — and deciphering those laws might not be easy.

A Beaver County hunter recently found herself at the center of an “electronic device” controversy.

Renee Varner proudly brought a coyote to the 25th Annual Mosquito Creek Sportsmen’s Club Coyote Hunt for weigh-in on Feb. 21. It was her first coyote and the first crossbow-shot coyote ever entered in the long-standing Mosquito Creek contest.

Mosquito Creek personnel weighed and processed her coyote and congratulated her on the harvest. At least two outdoor writers took her photo, and to this writer’s knowledge, not a single hunter questioned the legitimacy of her kill. A photo of Varner, her coyote and crossbow appeared on PennLive.com that evening, and that is when the controversy began. Some hunters took screenshots and posted Varner’s photo on message boards and Facebook.

The problem was Varner had an ATN X-Sight Day/Night Generation 1 riflescope mounted on her crossbow. The pricey scope even has a built-in video camera, allowing the hunter to record the hunt as it happens. The through-the-scope nighttime video of her hunt that I watched shows Varner zeroing in on a coyote that had been attracted to bait. She steadies her aim, pauses, and releases a bolt into the chest of the coyote.

“I didn’t know that I was going to create a statewide scandal,” Varner said. “It was pitchforks and daggers all the way around. People who didn’t know me or the circumstances were attacking me online, calling me a cheater, a poacher and worse. Over 100 people reported me to the Pennsylvania Game Commission.

“My boyfriend films for a hog-hunting TV program and ATN, a show sponsor, gave him the scope to try. I used it because I wanted to share the hunt with my boyfriend who was filming in Alabama when I shot the coyote,” Varner explained. “I had no idea that the scope was illegal. From my reading of the regulations, I thought that, if the scope didn’t cast a beam, it was legal.”

A statement from the manufacturer ATN supports this. “The X-Sight Day/Night riflescope is a digital weapon sight designed to be used primarily for day use, with the capability to also be used at night. The night vision mode would be classified as passive, as it does not transmit or project a beam to the target.”

Since the coyote was shot in Beaver County, the Game Commission’s southwestern office handled the case. A conservation officer was sent to Varner’s home to investigate.

“The conservation officer was very nice. He interviewed me and my boyfriend and determined that the scope was illegal,” Varner said. “He gave me a warning and then confiscated the coyote, and I removed the scope from my crossbow. So I received the least possible consequences for my action. I couldn’t be happier with the way that I was treated.”

WCO Scott Tomlinson, Law Enforcement Supervisor for the southwestern region, explained the agency’s decision.

“The Game Commission is accused of citing everyone for anything, but what we really try to do is look at the total circumstances and make a just decision. We want to separate the blatant and chronic violators from the accidental violators,” Tomlinson said. “I know that our decision to issue a warning will not make everyone happy, but I think that it is fair under these circumstances. The young lady did not have a history of wildlife violations, and someone trying to get away with something illegal doesn’t bring the scope and crossbow to the hunt and show everyone. She obviously didn’t know the scope was illegal, and I agree that the law is complicated in this area.”

Complicated and confusing it is. Director of the Bureau of Wildlife Protection Thomas Grohol explained the law. “We can’t keep up with all of the new devices, so we list specific electronic devices that can be used. All others are illegal, including infrared scopes.”

According to Grohol, what is listed as legal includes sound amplification devices that include hearing protection — such as the ‘game ear’ — GPS and radio telemetry devices for dogs, illuminated nocks for arrows, lighted pins on bow sights and scopes with lighted reticles, electronic callers for furbearers, electronic decoys for crows and coyotes, and devices that use an electronic charge to detonate primers or gunpowder.

“We are moving to simplify this, and at the next Game Commission meeting, the Board of Commissioners will likely give final approval to the legalization of range finders and range-finding scopes that transmit an invisible beam to the target for the purpose of determining distance,” Grohol added. “These devices are currently illegal.”

As for Mosquito Creek and their contest, Varner’s coyote was disqualified. However, they do not consider her a cheater.

“They told me that I was disqualified because I broke a game law, but that I was welcome at the club any time, and welcome to enter next winter’s coyote hunt,” Varner said. “I sent them a letter explaining the circumstances and apologizing for any negative publicity this situation has caused.”

Feeling a need to redeem herself, on March 10, Varner shot her second coyote with a crossbow, this time using a regular Leupold crossbow scope. She entered the 31.4-pound coyote in the Charleroi Sportsmen hunt, which ended March 12.

“Night vision scopes are legal for coyotes in all surrounding states,” Varner noted. “Maybe hunters should try to get them legalized in Pennsylvania. In the meantime, I plan on obeying the law.”

Women’s Fly Fishing Program

The Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission is holding a Women’s Intro to Fly Fishing Program on April 10 from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m at the ageny’s Bellefonte Hatchery visitor center at 1115 Spring Creek Road, Bellefonte. The five-hour educational program is designed to introduce participants to the basics of fly-fishing (e.g. equipment needed, casting, and on-water skills). Participants will receive hands-on instruction from commission staff and community instructors.

The fishing license requirement is waived for participants age 16 and older.

Pre-registration is required, as space is limited. Register by 4 p.m. April 4. For more information and to register, contact Amidea Daniel at 359-5127 or adaniel@pa.gov.

Hunter Education

The Bald Eagle Sportsmen’s Association, located just off of Route 350 one mile north of the Bald Eagle intersection of Interstate 99, is offering a hunter safety course on April 23 from 8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Other courses are offered in the area. Sign up through the Pennsylvania Game Commission website.

Trout Unlimited Banquet

The Spring Creek Chapter of Trout Unlimited will hold its annual fundraising banquet on April 16 at Mountain View Country Club in Boalsburg. Auction and raffle items include fishing gear, artwork, woodworking, pottery, local services and much more. Contact vpres@springcreektu.org for more information. Advance ticket reservations must be made by April 2.

Mark Nale, who lives in the Bald Eagle Valley, is chairman of the board for the Pennsylvania Outdoor Writers Association. He can be reached at MarkAngler@aol.com

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