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Saturday, February 27, 2016

GAME COMMISSION DELIVERS ANNUAL REPORT TO LEGISLATURE

Pennsylvania Game Commission Executive Director R. Matthew Hough today presented the agency’s annual report to the General Assembly, and delivered testimony before the House Game and Fisheries Committee.

To view a copy of the agency’s annual report, please visit the Game Commission’s website, www.pgc.state.pa.us, put your cursor on “Resources” in the menu bar under the banner on the homepage, then select “Reports, Minutes and Surveys” in the drop-down menu, then click on “Annual Legislative Reports” and choose “2015” in the listing.

Following is Hough’s testimony before the House Game and Fisheries Committee:

“Good morning Chairman Gillespie, Vice Chairman Mullery and members of the House Game and Fisheries Committee and thank you for this opportunity to present the Pennsylvania Game Commission’s annual report.

This past year there were notable achievements for the Commission in its ongoing efforts to serve the Commonwealth’s citizens and hunters.

First is the acquisition of about 2,000 acres for new state game lands in Jefferson County. With that purchase, the Commission reached an almost incomprehensible milestone: we exceeded 1.5 million acres in the State Game Lands system. There are now 308 separate game lands, spread across 65 of the state’s 67 counties.

The agency’s commitment to conserving Pennsylvania’s wild places has helped create one of America’s oldest and largest public-land systems dedicated to hunters and trappers. It ensures the future of hunting and trapping, wild places for everyone, and that wildlife will always have a place to live.

But game lands, in and of themselves, are not enough. It also is important to actively manage areas to increase the quality of habitat for the greatest number of wildlife species and to provide improved hunter access. During the 2014-15 fiscal year, the Commission created or improved over 55,000 acres of habitat. Habitat managers planted and maintained 24,600 acres of game-land fields, created and maintained 1,850 acres of shrubland habitat, converted 704 acres to native grasses and wildflowers, improved 2,290 acres of forest habitat, and treated over 5,000 acres with herbicides. An additional 7,471 acres were used for growing agricultural crops.

During the fiscal year, more than 5,000 acres of timber were cut to create early successional habitat. The Commission also used prescribed fire on 6,672 acres – an increase of 1,500 acres from 2014. Managed by trained and experienced specialists, prescribed fire provides almost immediate habitat benefit and reduces the threat of future wildfires.

Dozens of bridges were replaced during the fiscal year, and more than 3,500 road and 500 trail miles were maintained to provide adequate access to the game lands.

On the law-enforcement front, the Commission currently employs 195 full-time Wildlife Conservation Officers. Each district officer has a coverage area of about 325 square miles. In addition, we are very fortunate to have 350 Deputy Wildlife Conservation Officers to assist our salaried officers with their array of duties and responsibilities. Officers conducted over 207,000 enforcement contacts in the past fiscal year, an increase of about 7,000. There were 20,747 violations detected, for which officers issued 12,911 warnings and filed 7,936 prosecutions.

Last fall, the Commission launched Operation Game Thief, a program that makes it easier to report confidential tips about wildlife crimes, and generate a response from officers. The program made an immediate impact and resulted in the successful prosecution of several high-profile poaching cases. The technology and enhanced efficiency built into the new hotline has cut the average time between a tip coming in and an officer receiving the information to about 20 minutes.

The Commission also continues to provide excellent hunting and furtaking opportunities to license buyers. The deer harvest remains stable across most of the Commonwealth. In the statewide 2014-2015 seasons, hunters harvested an estimated 303,973 deer. Of those, 119,260 were antlered and 184,713 were antlerless. Success rates indicate that about 18 percent of deer hunters harvested an antlered deer, while about 25 percent of the antlerless licenses issued were used to take an antlerless deer. Both rates are consistent with long-term averages for deer-hunting success.

Pennsylvania continues to offer some of America’s best black-bear hunting. Before seasons began last fall, the bear population was estimated to be about 20,000. This past season was the third-highest harvest on record, with 3,748 bears being harvested.

Wild turkey hunting also continues to maintain a solid following. The 2015 spring harvest increased 8 percent from the previous three-year average. There also has been an upsurge in fall-turkey hunting participation in recent years.

The pheasant program continues to provide excitement afield to thousands of small-game hunters. This past year, the agency’s four game farms produced 220,742 pheasants for our hunting seasons.

We also noticed an increase in furtaking in the fiscal year. More than 45,000 furtaker licenses were sold, which is the highest issuance in over 30 years. There is no doubt that bobcat, fisher and otter trapping opportunities have bolstered interest. We also have data indicating that baby-boomers are returning to the sport.

While we are proud of the accomplishments over this past year, it also must be noted that this is a challenging time for the Commission and wildlife. On several fronts, we are dealing with challenges that have the ability to have long-term impacts on the future of wildlife in the state.

Chronic Wasting Disease (CWD) continues to maintain its foothold in the Commonwealth. CWD is a fatal disease that affects the brain and central nervous system of deer and elk. It was first found on a captive deer farm in Adams County in 2012, and subsequently on two captive deer farms in Jefferson County in 2014.

Since it first appeared in free-ranging deer in 2013, 17 wild deer from Bedford, Blair and Fulton counties have tested positive for CWD. Seven of those deer were uncovered in the past year.

The Commission has issued Executive Orders establishing boundaries and regulations for three Disease Management Areas, including a ban on the movement of high-risk deer parts from these areas. It also has established an enhanced monitoring program.

The monitoring program continues to document CWD in wild deer. Those cases have prompted increased concern, and expansion of Disease Management Area 2 in 2015.

Currently, we await the results of almost 4,500 samples that were collected largely through hunter-supplied samples. We expect to receive those results within the next month, and will evaluate our potential responses based on those findings.

We also are working with wildlife professionals from across the country who are searching for solutions to this problem. One area we are studying is whether increased regulations on the use of deer products – such as prohibiting the use of urine-based attractants while hunting – would slow the spread of the disease.

Another disease that appeared on the continental landscape this past year was Avian Influenza. From December 2014 through June 2015, multiple strains of Avian Influenza were identified in wild birds, domestic poultry and captive exotic birds in the Pacific, Central, and Mississippi flyways.

The 2015 Avian Influenza outbreaks were the worst in the history of North America. In response to the identification of a strain of Avian Influenza in wild birds, the Commission increased surveillance as part of a collaborative effort involving multiple agencies and organizations.

From January 2015 through the fall, more than 1,500 wild birds were sampled in Pennsylvania. Multiple non-fatal strains of the virus were identified in wild ducks. However, none of the recent fatal strains have been detected in wild birds to date.

Currently, we do not yet know whether fatal strains of Avian Influenza have become established in North American wild birds. We will continue to monitor for the threat throughout the coming year.

Another challenge we continue to face is the ongoing impact of West Nile Virus, particularly as it relates to Pennsylvania’s state bird, the ruffed grouse. West Nile Virus is a mosquito-transmitted virus native to Africa that affects many wild birds. It was first identified in North America during the summer of 1999 and found in Pennsylvania in 2002.

To assess the long-term impact of the virus on grouse abundance, the Commission launched a study in conjunction with the Ruffed Grouse Society and other national and international collaborators. In the study, grouse chicks hatched from eggs collected in the wild were exposed to West Nile Virus to assess the lethality of the virus. Results showed West Nile Virus can be a mortality factor to grouse.

We currently are analyzing samples to further evaluate impacts on grouse that were infected, but survived. The results will provide a better understanding of the potential impacts of West Nile Virus on ruffed grouse.

This winter, we are expanding laboratory studies by testing blood samples from hunter-harvested grouse for exposure to West Nile Virus. Samples are being acquired from throughout the state. The impact of West Nile Virus, in conjunction with the loss of early successional habitat that grouse need to thrive, have resulted in Pennsylvania’s lowest estimated grouse population in the past 50 years.

We also continue to monitor the impact of the White Nose Syndrome on cave bats. First documented in New York in the winter of 2006-07, White Nose Syndrome was first documented causing fatalities within Pennsylvania hibernacula in 2009. It is estimated White Nose Syndrome has caused 99 percent population declines for some cave-bat species.

Because the disease impacts the bats while they are hibernating, it is important that their hibernacula is not disturbed. To that end, the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, the Wildlife for Everyone Foundation and the Williams Company, each have made important donations in the past year that allowed the Commission to purchase cameras that provide round-the-clock protection for our cave-dwelling bats.

The cameras provide surveillance for hibernacula in caves and abandoned mines where frequent intrusions by trespassers have occurred. With these high-tech cameras, Wildlife Conservation Officers are alerted as soon as an intrusion occurs, making it possible for them to intervene. Preventing these disturbances might mean the difference between our bats living or dying.

The Commission’s ability to effectively manage wildlife and provide public services, while confronting the many challenges it now faces, is tied directly to funding. As you know, the Commission’s main source of revenue is the sale of hunting and furtaker licenses, which have not increased in price since 1999. This 17-year period is the longest period that license fees have not increased since the Great Depression.

This almost 20-year-old pricing structure simply is not sufficient for the agency to maintain its current level of services and respond to the growing list of challenges it currently faces. For instance, it should be noted that none of the wildlife diseases I mentioned were present in Pennsylvania at the time of the last license increase.

Already the Commission has implemented budget cuts in response to decreasing revenues. This past year, we eliminated 28 full-time positions from our complement. This has been done through furloughing employees and not back-filling positions as they became vacant.

We also will not be renewing the contracts for about 45 limited-term employees. Some represented the only means we had to effectively and efficiently monitor many nongame wildlife populations.

In addition, we concluded the agency could not hold the Wildlife Conservation Officer class that was scheduled to begin in March of 2017. In light of that decision, the earliest we could begin a class would be March of 2018, with the cadets graduating a year later. By then, we project almost one-third of the officer districts will be vacant due to retirements. Obviously, the longer we go without resources to conduct a class, the greater the number of vacant districts across the state, resulting in violations going undetected, a decrease in response time and fewer services that officers can provide to the public.

While these reductions have been difficult for the employees and result in an impact on the level of services we can provide, they have a small impact on our long-term budget. In effect, they only serve as a band-aid on a much bigger problem. Without additional revenues in the near future, we will have to take even greater steps at reducing expenditures. Some of the proposals under consideration include closing facilities – such as the Middle Creek Wildlife Management Area, shooting ranges on game lands, and our Howard Nursery, and substantially reducing the pheasant-stocking program. I have no doubt that these proposals will not be popular with the general public and our hunting-license buyers, but without additional revenues we will have no choice but to make significant reductions to our budget.

Over the past year, we have had numerous meetings with members of this Committee, your colleagues in the Senate, members of the public and sportsmen clubs, and we believe there is widespread support for legislation to increase hunting fees. I would note that of the statewide sportsmen organizations, 13 have gone on record in support of increasing license fees to ensure the Commission can fulfill its mission.

As an alternative proposition, I ask the Committee to consider allowing the Commission to set hunting and trapping license fees. This would allow the Board to make slower and more incremental fee changes based upon the feedback we receive from license buyers as opposed to a significant increase every 10 to 15 years. The Board would be motivated to find the proper licensing fee structure that allows the Commission to be fully funded, but does not exceed the ability of customers to purchase a license.

Without additional funding, we simply will not be at the forefront in enhancing hunting and trapping opportunities, preserving land, creating habitat, protecting wildlife, and monitoring and responding to wildlife diseases.

I will be happy to answer any questions you may have. “