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