deer in a field

White-tailed deer feed in a field.

Lots of news out of the Pennsylvania Game Commission’s board of commissioners meeting last week. There are many changes to deer season that are now officially on the table.

We’ll get to those changes in a minute, since we’ve been talking quite a bit in this column the past couple of months about this very subject.

Deer season changes here in Pennsylvania always are controversial, and spark vigorous debates.

So I wanted to start off this week’s column with some news that should make every hunter in the state smile.

At its recent meeting, the Game Commissioners approved a series of land acquisitions that will add more than 530 acres to the Pennsylvania network of State Game Lands.

Challenge the Game Commission on any and all game management decisions. Debate the way they lay out our hunting seasons and bag limits. All of that is fair game.

But give them credit for continuing to secure new lands for public hunting. They do this every year, even as their resources are stretched thinner and thinner.

There were nine acquisitions in seven counties approved last week. Some involved accepting donations, while others were outright purchases.

Not many states are regularly adding public hunting lands to their property holdings at a time when development pressure is increasing along with land prices.

As hunters, we certainly don’t have to agree on everything the Game Commission does with our deer seasons. But I think we all can agree that acquiring land for public hunting is not only right - it’s commendable.

Deer changes

But back to deer seasons. According to the seasons and bag limits for 2020-21 that were given preliminary approval, Pennsylvania is going back to a statewide, two-week firearms deer season, with both bucks and does being legal game from Nov. 28-Dec. 12.

Nov. 28 is a Saturday, so the commissioners have elected to stick with that day as the opener. Nov. 29 would be one of the three Sundays open to hunting next season.

The commissioners believe moving the firearms opener from Monday to Saturday this past season was a good thing, given that hunting license sales increased for the first time in several years.

While sales had been declining each year at an average rate of 3 percent, they rose this season by .4 percent. Not a big increase, but it wasn’t a decline.

“While not everyone was in favor of moving the opening day of deer season to Saturday, most commissioners felt that after talking to the hunters in their districts, there generally was more support than opposition, and the change would enable more hunters – especially youth and young adults – to hunt on opening day,” said Board of Game Commissioners President Tim Layton.

“Now this idea seems to be backed up by increased license sales…It’s evidence that moving the opener to Saturday was the right decision to make.”

Not everyone agrees.

The Altoona Mirror published an article Jan. 22, which quoted several business owners who complained the change hurt their businesses, because it disrupted the normal travel schedule of deer hunters heading to camp for the Monday opener.

And at LNP, we received many letters from hunters who objected to the change for reasons including they felt rushed to get to camp after Thanksgiving; they had to work on that Saturday, which is Small Business Saturday; and because it ended a long-standing tradition.

Unlike this past season when deer season opened on a Saturday, was closed the next day, and then resumed on Monday, hunters next fall can start hunting Nov. 28 and hunt straight through Dec. 5, before the season closes for Sunday, Dec. 6. It then resumes Dec. 7-12.

The internet is rife with statements of fear about the Game Commission making this move to “kill all the deer in the state.”

With the addition of antlerless hunting days to the firearms calendar, look for the agency to scale back on antlerless license allocations in those Wildlife Management Units where biologists are looking to hold populations stable.

Basically, biologists are saying that if there’s an increase in hunting days for antlerless deer, they will lower the number of doe tags to accommodate that.

Commissioners have said they are considering this move back to two weeks of concurrent hunting because hunters have asked for it. They said they heard from hunters who didn’t like being out hunting bucks the first week, and encountering does they couldn’t shoot.

The second of the three Sundays that will be open to hunting next fall is scheduled for Nov. 15, which would be the last day of the fall archery deer season outside the Special Regulations Areas.

Tagging requirements are set to change, to allow hunters to take multiple deer – assuming they have the licenses to do so – before being required to tag any of them.

Currently, hunters outside the Special Regulations Areas must tag one deer before they can attempt to shoot another.

Under the proposed change, a hunter with two doe tags, who has two does come walking up to his position, could shoot both does before tagging either of them.

After receiving a request to do so from hunters, the commissioners directed agency biologists to examine the potential impacts of extending the fall archery deer season to the start of the statewide, firearms bear season.

This change is not proposed for the 2020-21 season, but if it were, the archery deer season would be extended from its current end date of Nov. 15 to Nov. 20 – adding five days to the season.

Bowhunters have asked for more time to hunt deer during the prime rut period.

In Chester County where I hunt, we are allowed to bowhunt straight through from mid-September to the start of the firearms deer season. So I can attest that the period in the middle of November often is incredible for buck activity. Some years, it’s when I’ve seen the most activity.

Biologists will report back at a later time on the potential impacts of adding those five days of bowhunting for deer outside the Special Regulations Area.

Bear changes

Archery bear season will span a whopping three weeks next fall, under a season proposal of Oct. 17-Nov. 7. This will give hunters who are chasing deer during the best hunting days ample opportunity to also take a bear, should they encounter one.

There will once again be an early muzzleloader season for bears, running from Oct. 17-24. And a proposed rule change would allow archery deer hunters to also carry muzzleloaders during that week, in case they want to shoot a bear.

Junior and senior hunters, disabled hunters and hunters on active duty in the military would have an firearms bear season Oct. 22-24, which coincides with their early firearms antlerless deer season.

And the third Sunday to be open to hunting next fall is scheduled to be Nov. 22, which would be the second day of the statewide firearms bear season. That season is scheduled to run Nov. 21-24.

All of these initiatives proposed by the board of commissioners last week are now open to public comment.

The commissioners will weigh those comments over the next two months, before taking up final votes at their next meeting in April. Also at that meeting, they will set antlerless deer license allocations for 2020-21.

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