Outdoor firearms season 2022

Pequea native Chuck Zegley tagged what he called a "buck of a lifetime" on opening day of the Pennsylvania firearms deer season Nov. 26.

The Pennsylvania Game Commission’s Board of Game Commissioners last week voted to set the hunting seasons and bag limits for the 2023-24 hunting year.

Among the issues discussed at the meeting were a commitment to keeping the opening day of the firearms deer season on the Saturday after Thanksgiving, and a hefty increase in the number of doe tags to be issued for the coming fall.

While heavy debating continues across social media channels, the commissioners voted to set the 2023 firearms deer season from Nov. 25 to Dec. 9.

Nov. 25 is a Saturday, which means efforts by some hunters to have the opener moved back to the former Monday after Thanksgiving failed.

Pennsylvania’s firearms opener had been the Monday after Thanksgiving for more than 50 years prior to 2019.

The Game Commission moved it to the Saturday after Thanksgiving that year in hopes of drawing in new hunters — especially kids — who couldn’t miss work or school on Monday.

A survey on the issue commissioned by the agency last year found that 60% of respondents favored the Saturday opener, 27% opposed it and 12% said they didn’t care.

A faction of Pennsylvania hunters reject those survey findings, and claim more hunters actually favor the Monday opener, which they say gives hunters more time to enjoy camp camaraderie over the weekend after Thanksgiving.

The Saturday opener, those hunters say, rushes them after the holiday.

Hunters who favor the Monday opener and the Game Commission both point to license sales as evidence that their position is correct regarding the effect of the move to the Saturday opener on hunter numbers.

Overall, hunting license sales were higher in 2019, 2020 and 2021 — the last year for which sales figures are available — than in 2018, which was the last year with a Monday opener.

However, resident adult and resident junior license sales were lower in 2021 as compared to 2018. Those are two license categories among more than two dozen delineated by the Game Commission.

But the Game Commission points to increased sales following the Saturday opener among hunters ages 18 to 34 and female hunters. Those are not license categories, but rather, subgroups within the existing categories.

“The seasons and bag limits adopted by the board (for 2023-24) would continue with a Saturday opener to the firearms deer season,” a Game Commission news release states.

“License data demonstrates a positive change following the implementation of the Saturday opener. In particular, data shows the move to a Saturday opener was followed by increased license sales by hunters ages 18 to 34 and female hunters.”

If the Monday-opener supporters hope to see a change away from Saturday, it likely will have to come from the state Legislature.

House Bill 495, introduced in March by state Rep. Brian Smith of Punxsutawney, seeks to make it state law that the firearms deer season start on the Monday after Thanksgiving.

State Rep. David Zimmerman of East Earl is the only Lancaster County legislator listed as a cosponsor.

The bill has been referred to the House Game and Fisheries Committee.

Last month, state Sen. Lisa Boscola of Bethlehem announced she plans to introduce a bill in the Senate that would call for the same move.

Doe tags

Also at the meeting, the commissioners announced doe-tag allocations for the now 22 Wildlife Management Units in the state.

There had been 23 until last week, when the board eliminated WMU 2H, and added its land to WMU 2G.

The allocations for 2023-24 represent a 16% increase over last year, and call for a total 1.095 million tags to be issued.

Like last year, hunters will be allowed to carry up to six antlerless licenses at one time. When a hunter fills one of the six tags, it can be replaced so long as tags remain available.

So technically, there is no limit to the number of antlerless deer a hunter can take in a given year. The allocations are the only limiting factor.

Among the 22 WMUs, 17 will see tag increases, one will see a decline and four will see the same number as last year.

Some of the increases are pretty hefty.

The biggest increase is in WMU 4D, where hunters will have an extra 22,000 tags available this fall, at 77,000.

With a 21,000-license increase, WMU 2C will have the most tags in the state, at 88,000.

Including those two units, 10 WMUs were granted tag increases of at least 10,000.

WMU 5B — which covers all but a tiny sliver of northeast Lancaster County — will receive the same number of tags as last year, at 60,000.

According to Game Commission spokesman Travis Lau, the units that saw the biggest tag increases all are experiencing problems with chronic wasting disease.

Chronic wasting disease is an always-fatal sickness that deer transmit to each other. A common method states use to combat the disease is to reduce deer numbers in areas where the disease is prevalent.

In all, nine WMUs are being targeted by the Game Commission for herd reduction due to chronic wasting disease: WMUs 2C, 2D, 2E, 2F, 4A, 4B, 4D, 4E and 5A.

WMU 2C also has seen forest impacts because of high deer numbers, Lau said, which added fuel to the push for more tags there.

The deer herd in WMU 5B is considered to be “stable,” according to the Game Commission, which is why tags will remain unchanged from last year.

Herds are considered to be “stable” in 20 of the 22 WMUs, in fact. Only in WMUs 2A and 2B are the herds considered by the Game Commission to be “increasing.”

Elk licenses

The number of elk licenses that will be put up for grabs this fall was slashed by 19% from last year.

A total of 144 licenses — 65 for bulls and 79 for cows — will be issued by lottery for the three 2023-24 elk seasons.

Those seasons will be a general season Oct. 30 to Nov. 4; archery season Sept. 16 to 30; late season Dec. 30 to Jan. 6.

Last year, there were 178 elk licenses issued — 60 for bulls and 118 for cows.

The allocation was adjusted “to meet population objectives” in the various elk hunting zones, according to the Game Commission.

Tag-allocation approval change

Interestingly, the board of commissioners announced in the news release regarding doe-tag and elk-tag allocations that they no longer plan to vote on the allocations proposed by the agency’s biologists.

“The April meeting of the Board of Commissioners traditionally serves as a turnstile in this process, as it’s the first time that allocations developed by staff are presented publicly and finalized,” said Kristen Schnepp-Giger, president of the board.

“If board member opinions enter the decision-making process, and allocations change because of them, science no longer is guiding wildlife management.

“To preserve the integrity of a process that relies on science-based management to achieve population objectives, this Board will be discontinuing the practice of annually approving the number of antlerless deer and elk licenses to be allocated.

“This will allow the appropriate experts within the agency to prepare and finalize allocations that are in accordance with the goals set forth in the agency’s deer and elk management plans.”

Some commissioners in the past viewed the allocation process differently. They said they weighed both the biologists’ recommendations and the views on deer numbers by hunters in their respective districts in considering the allocations.

It wasn’t unusual for commissioners to recommend lower allocations than suggested by the biologists for their districts, in response to complaints from hunters about low deer numbers.

The current board is abandoning that practice. But the members are not giving up their right to affect the agency’s deer management plan.

“The new process is designed to better allow the Commission to adhere to the deer management plan and meet the three approved goals of managing for deer health, forest habitat health and acceptable levels of deer-human conflicts,” Schnepp-Giger said.

“These goals were identified and supported by the general public and our hunters. We believe that meeting the goals of the program should determine allocations.

“Moving forward, if the board wishes to impact deer populations, the mechanism for doing so is to change the goals and objectives of the plan — not to arbitrarily reduce or add to the allocations that were developed by staff,” Schnepp-Giger said.

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

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