Outdoors turkeys

The Pennsylvania Game Commission wants to further restrict the firearms allowed for fall turkey hunting as turkey populations continue to decline across the state.

Turkey season is in full swing, and we are just under two months from the start of the 2022-23 hunting license year.

The Pennsylvania Game Commission’s Board of Game Commissioners now has a quorum of seven members, so the board is able to conduct business as usual.

There still are two vacant seats on the board, but back in January, there were two additional vacancies that prevented the board from conducting business at its normal winter meeting.

Because of that, hunting seasons and bag limits for 2022-23 will mirror last year’s.

The board did meet in April with a quorum to consider a few rule changes and to set doe-tag and elk-tag allocations for this fall.

Turkey season firearm restrictions

In response to the continued decline in turkey populations across Pennsylvania, the Game Commission gave preliminary approval to yet another restriction on the firearms allowed for fall turkey hunting.

Proposed is the elimination of slug guns and muzzleloading long guns and handguns from the list of allowed firearms for fall turkey hunting.

If approved, this additional restriction would effectively outlaw all single-projectile firearms from fall turkey hunting across the state.

Realistically, the Game Commission noted that very few hunters use slug guns and muzzleloaders to hunt turkeys in the fall. But taking them out of the equation simplifies the rule to cover all single-projectile firearms.

This measure follows last year’s ban on centerfire and rimfire rifles for fall turkey hunting, which was met with displeasure from a segment of the hunting population.

Game Commission surveys found that only about 14% of fall turkey hunters used rifles, but those hunters accounted for about a third of the fall turkey kill. So while there were relatively few rifle turkey hunters, they were very effective hunters.

Eliminating single-projectile firearms is a way the Game Commission can reduce the fall turkey kill without cutting back on season lengths.

Hunters can have more time to hunt, but they must use less effective weapons.

Such restrictions are needed, agency officials state, in the face of declining turkey populations across the state.

The fall season is the only season when Pennsylvania turkey hunters can take hens, and the Game Commission wants to reduce the take of the birds that lay the eggs.

The ban on muzzleloaders and slug guns for fall turkey hunting must be voted on again in July before it takes effect this fall.

Doe tags

Antlerless license allocations for the 2022-23 season largely mirror those issued last year. For Wildlife Management Unit 5B, which covers nearly all of Lancaster County, the number of tags this fall is the same as last year: 60,000.

The commissioners voted to increase tag allocations in eight WMU, decrease them in one and hold the line in the remaining 13.

Units where more tags will be issued are WMU 1A, which will increase by 3,000 to 43,000; 1B, which will increase by 2,000 to 34,000; 2F, which will increase by 5,000 to 37,000; 2G, which will increase by 2,000 to 25,000; 3B, which will increase by 3,000 to 33,000; 3C, which will increase by 4,000 to 37,000; 3D, which will increase by 5,000 to 41,000; and 4C, which will increase by 2,000 to 31,000.

The tag allocation for WMU 2H will drop by 3,000 to 6,000 for the fall hunt.

Remember, the number of tags a hunter is allowed to obtain in a given year is now technically considered to be unlimited statewide.

However, a hunter can hold only six tags at one time. During the season, a hunter can replace any of those six tags as he or she fills them, provided there are tags left to buy in the unit where the hunter wants to hunt.

This is the new per-hunter doe-tag rule that was implemented last year.

Elk licenses

The number of elk licenses up for grabs this fall will decline.

For the 2022-23 season, the Game Commission will issue 178 elk licenses — 60 for bulls and 118 for cows. That’s down from the 187 — 56 for bulls and 131 for cows — that were sold last year.

The elk seasons will be split into three hunts this fall. There’s the early, archery-only hunt set for Sept. 10-24, the general season set for Oct. 31-Nov. 5, and the late hunt, which will run Dec. 31-Jan. 7.

By season, 14 bull and 15 cow tags will be allocated for the archery hunt, 31 bull and 70 cow tags will be issued for the general season and 15 bull and 33 cow tags will be distributed for the late hunt.

All elk licenses are awarded by lottery drawing, and hunters must apply for the drawing to be eligible.

Separate drawings are held for each season, and hunters can apply for all three, but can only receive one license per year.

Each application costs $11.97.

Deer harvest figures

Pennsylvania’s 2021-22 deer kill was down about 13% from 2020-21.

Hunters last fall shot an estimated 145,320 bucks and 231,490 antlerless deer, as compared to 174,780 bucks and 260,400 does the previous year.

The numbers that I found most interesting from last season were the buck kills by wildlife management unit.

Every WMU except two — WMUs 2C and 5D — posted a decline in the buck kill from 2020 to 2021.

To be fair, the 2020-21 buck kill is the record for the most bucks killed in a year since 2001. So to match that number or exceed it wouldn’t have been likely.

In WMU 5B, the buck kill fell from 9,600 to 7,800. In WMU 2G, where many hunters have camps, the kill dropped from 7,500 to 6,200.

WMU 3C saw the biggest decline of any unit, dropping from 10,800 to 7,600.

Also of interest to me were the antlerless kills in the Special Regulations Area units of 2B, 5C and 5D.

The Game Commission changed the way hunters in those units got antlerless deer licenses last year.

Before last year, hunters in those units could get as many doe tags as they wanted until allocations ran out, and those tags could be held in addition to the three tags hunters were allowed for the rest of Pennsylvania.

And they could get as many WMU 2B, 5C and 5D tags as they wanted before any hunting seasons started. The agency’s logic for those units had been to allow the limited hunters who have access to huntable lands in these largely suburban units to get as many tags as they want so they could take as many deer as they want.

But last year, the Game Commission changed the system to a maximum personal allowance of six tags at one time statewide. Hunters could then replace tags during the hunting season as they filled them, and as allocations held up.

I heard stories last season from some WMU 5C and 5D hunters who were unable to replace tags readily, because of mail delays, or they were unable to get to county courthouses because of work schedules.

They had to let deer pass on hunts because they didn’t have tags to take them, where they always had plenty of tags in previous years.

The doe kill in WMU 2B dropped from 15,000 to 12,100 under the new system. In WMU 5C, it dropped from 15,200 to 14,700, and in 5D, it fell from 6,500 to 6,300.

P.J. Reilly is an LNP | LancasterOnline outdoors writer. Email him at preilly@lnpnews.com.

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