HARRISBURG — Deer were the most talked about game species Sunday at the start of the Pennsylvania Game Commission's annual winter meeting.
But unlike meetings from prior years, the board of game commissioners did not hear from throngs of dissatisfied hunters complaining about a lack of deer in Penn's Woods.
Instead, nearly all those who spoke to the board members about deer during the public comment period called for more opportunities to kill more deer.
A survey sent to members of the Pennsylvania Farm Bureau this year showed farmers complaining about "a tremendous amount of deer damage," said Jeff Grove, the bureau's local affairs director.
Grove asked the commissioners on behalf of the Farm Bureau to consider opening the firearms deer season on the Friday or Saturday after Thanksgiving.
That request mirrors Erie County state Rep. Greg Lucas' recent House Resolution 576, which expresses the lawmaker's interest in introducing legislation that would mandate the opening of the firearms deer season on the Saturday after Thanksgiving.
Pennsylvania historically has opened that season on the Monday following Thanksgiving.
Moving the opener up, Grove said, would likely give more people — especially kids — the chance to hunt deer.
"The number of schools that close for the opening of deer season is less and less each year," he said.
Grove noted that Pennsylvania always opens its archery deer season on a Saturday.
He suggested the agency try the same with the firearms season "in at least one Wildlife Management Unit, and measure its success," he said.
Pennsylvania is divided into 23 WMUs.
Several foresters, timber company representatives and land managers from northwest Pennsylvania told the commissioners Sunday that the agency's deer management program is working, and they encouraged the commissioners to keep it moving forward.
"In the Kinzua Quality Deer Cooperative, we have achieved all our goals" of improving the size and health of the deer herd and increasing the quality of the forest habitat by reducing deer numbers, while keeping hunters interested in the area, said Susan Stout, a research forester with the U.S. Forest Service.
The Kinzua cooperative is a joint effort involving forest landowners, forest managers, biologists, hunters, and local businesses to manage deer on some 74,000 acres of public and private land in McKean County.
Ed Carter of the Collins Pine Co. in northwest Pennsylvania told the commissioners that deer numbers are increasing in WMU 2F, which is where the company operates its various forest-products ventures.
"We are seeing an increase in deer-car collisions," he said.
Carter urged the board to approve an increase in the antlerless deer license allocation for that unit next season, and to double the firearms antlerless season there from one week to two.
(Antlerless deer are does and bucks without antlers. Each antlerless license allows a hunter to shoot one antlerless deer.)
The only person to speak to the commissioners Sunday about a lack of deer was state Rep. Robert Godshall of Montgomery County.
Godshall has complained to the board for years that its deer management program has reduced deer populations to nearly unhuntable levels across the state.
Godshall told the commissioners Sunday that only one buck was shot on his 270-acre farm in Tioga County, among nine hunters who spent part of the opening week of the firearms season there.
He also talked about a 3,000-acre property in Clearfield County that he "used to own," where 12 hunters bagged three bucks.
"They were the only three they saw," he said.
Without deer, Godshall warned, Pennsylvania will lose its hunters.
"When duck populations go down, we lose duck hunters, but for some reason, this agency has never seen that connection between deer and losing deer hunters," he said.
Today, the commissioners will hear reports from agency staff, including wildlife biologists responsible for managing deer, elk, turkeys and other game species.
On Tuesday, the board will vote to propose the slate of hunting seasons and bag limits for the 2014-15 hunting year.
No changes to any of the deer seasons hunters experienced this past year are proposed in the meeting agenda, although commissioners can move for changes prior to voting on the seasons Tuesday.
There are some changes proposed to turkey and bear seasons in certain parts of the state.
Once the commissioners vote on seasons and bag limits, the public will have the chance to review them over the next two months.
A final vote will take place at the commissioners' next meeting in April.
P.J. Reilly is a Lancaster Newspapers staff writer and outdoors columnist who covers municipal government. He can be reached at email@example.com or (717) 481-6138. You can also follow @PeeJayReilly on Twitter.