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Significant Change is Coming to Penn’s Woods
June 1, 2017

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Change. If you think about it, there are very few things in life that are as exciting, yet simultaneously potentially frightening and possibly polarizing, as change. For some people, change means progress and trying new things. While others view change as a "four-lettered word" and something to be avoided at all costs. Depending upon what is changing, people can come down on either side of a matter with probably no two individuals agreeing on everything, when it comes to different changes being positive or negative things.

If you are 25 years of age or older, you can probably think of numerous examples of significant changes that are now a routine part of your day-to-day existence. Smart phones have replaced land lines in many people's homes. Just about every home and office has a computer and depends upon it to get things done. Cars are much more advanced when it comes to safety features, information controls, technological options, and passenger comfort. How we get our news, share information, and communicate is perpetually evolving in our on-line connected society. Even how we hunt has changed considerably in my lifetime with the evolution of compound bows, trail cameras, GPS units, camouflage clothing choices, scent containment/scent dispersal technologies, and on-line hunting apps.

Recently, there have been several changes made by the Pennsylvania Game Commission (PGC) that will significantly impact how both resident and nonresident hunters can pursue game species within the Commonwealth. These regulatory changes will go into effect with the new PA 2017-18 hunting year, which runs from July 1, 2017 to June 30, 2018. I'm sure there will be divisions amongst individuals as to whether these changes are positive or negative for PA hunters, with some having the opinion they've gone too far and others opining the PGC is still being too restrictive. Let's take a closer look at four of the most significant changes that are coming to Penn's Woods.

1. Semiautomatic Rifles As of the 2016-17 hunting season, Pennsylvania was the only state in the entire United States that did not permit hunters to use semiautomatic rifles to hunt any game species at all. While semiautomatic rifle technology was invented over 100 years ago, and innovation resulted in numerous semiautomatic rifles being available to the hunting/shooting public (such as the extremely popular Ruger 10/22 .22 LR, which entered the market in 1964), semiautomatic rifles were previously restricted to shooting ranges and target practice in PA, and never legalized for PA hunters to carry afield in search of game.

The path to changing the prior restrictions on semiautomatic rifles started in November 2016 with the PA State Legislature giving the PA Game Commission the statutory authority to regulate semiautomatic rifles for hunting in PA. (This authority does NOT include semiautomatic pistols at this time.) The 8-member PA Game Commission has an established protocol for proposing and adopting hunting seasons and hunting regulations for the upcoming year. This includes formally proposing the seasons/regulations at their regularly scheduled Winter quarterly meeting (which occurred January 29-31, 2017), allowing for a public comment period (this past February/March), and then formally voting on and finalizing the seasons/ regulations at their regularly scheduled Spring quarterly meeting (which happened March 28-29, 2017) after hearing public comments from those in attendance.

The initial proposal tentatively approved at the PGC's Winter quarterly 2017 meeting proposed legalizing semiautomatic rifles for small game, woodchucks, furbearers, and even big game. After obtaining feedback during the two-month public comment period and conducting a scientific survey of 4,000 of the state's licensed hunters selected at random, the PGC amended their proposal to eliminate hunting big game (deer, bear, elk, and Fall wild turkey) with semiautomatic rifles, prior to voting at their Spring quarterly meeting. The 8-member PGC gave final approval at their Spring 2017 meeting to permit hunting small game, woodchucks, and furbearers with semiautomatic rifles during the 2017-18 hunting seasons, which start July 1, 2017. Based on respondents to the PGC's survey, while the majority supported, or did not oppose, permitting semiautomatic rifles for small game, woodchucks, and furbearers; a total of 64% opposed or strongly opposed semiautomatic rifles for big-game hunting. With some 52% responding they were strongly opposed to the proposal for big-game (thus influencing the amended proposal the PGC actually voted on).

As written, small game hunters will be permitted to use semiautomatic rifles in .22 caliber or less (rimfire or centerfire) that propel single-projectile ammunition and semi-automatic shotguns firing ammunition not larger than No. 4 lead, No. 2 steel, or No. 4 composition/alloy. Hunters in pursuit of woodchucks or furbearers (coyotes, foxes, raccoons, etc.) will also be permitted to use semiautomatic rifles propelling single-projectile ammunition. There will be no caliber restriction for hunting woodchucks or furbearers in PA.

I have to admit I'm looking forward to the upcoming 2017-18 hunting seasons, when several semiautomatic rifles I currently own will be able to make the transition from strictly range guns to legal PA hunting firearms. For the first time, I'll be able to pursue PA squirrels with my dependable Ruger 10/22 .22 LR rifle. Groundhogs and raccoons will be put on notice that they may find themselves in the sights of my very accurate semiautomatic CZ-512 in .22 WMR. While this also gives me real incentive to put a quality optic on my Smith & Wesson M&P-15 MOE in 5.56 NATO/.223 Rem. to pursue coyotes, both day and night.

Owners of modern sporting rifles (MSRs) see this regulation change as a definite step forward in PA. However, I'm sure there will be an adjustment period as the PA hunting community and the general public get used to seeing PA hunters carrying AR-15 style firearms into the woods. Not only will AR-15s become the new norm, but hunters may also to take their semiautomatic SCARs, AK-47s, or SKSs afield for woodchucks or furbearers. While there will be hunters who are disappointed the proposal to permit hunting big-game with semiautomatic rifles did not pass, owners of AR-10s in .308 Win., or semiautomatic Browning BARs (available in a myriad of calibers), will still be able to take these prized firearms afield for woodchucks or furbearers, since those game species have no caliber restrictions.

2. Air-Guns - While many shooters, myself included, honed their basic rifle marksmanship skills on a Daisy BB-gun at an early age, air-gun and pneumatic air rifle technology has advanced so far that they are now legitimate sporting arms for harvesting game. Driven in large part by advances made in Europe, where strict legislation often prohibits average citizens from owning firearms that employ gunpowder, there are now air-guns/pneumatic air rifles up to .50 caliber and more, capable of humanely downing a coyote or even a wild boar. While there currently may be only a small minority who choose to hunt with an air-gun, the PGC gave final approval at their Spring 2017 meeting to legalize air-guns for the 2017-18 hunting seasons, which start July 1, 2017.

Air-guns from .177 to .22 caliber that propel a single-projectile pellet or bullet will be legal for small game. While woodchuck and furbearer hunters will be able to employ air-guns, .22 caliber or larger, that propel a single pellet or bullet. The common BB will not be authorized air-gun ammunition for small game, woodchucks, or furbearers. While I'll probably initially restrict my air-gun hunting to European starlings that become a nuisance around the nesting boxes and bird feeders throughout our property, I can see real potential for expanded air-gun hunting opportunities, especially in populated areas where the noise from traditional gunshots can be an issue, or possibly in some municipalities where discharging a firearm is prohibited. Air-guns may open up new hunting opportunities in some areas and with their continuing technological advancements, more and more game will fall to air-guns as additional hunters learn about their capabilities.

3. New Pheasant Permit Required for 2017-18 When I started hunting in 1975, ring-necked pheasants were fairly plentiful and seeing a wild turkey was a big deal. Times certainly have changed, whereby today I see wild turkeys on pretty much a daily basis and coming across a pheasant something special. Based on numerous reasons (available habitat, farming practices, predator populations, etc.), pheasants have pretty much become a put-and-take resource across PA with stocked birds becoming the overwhelming norm. To meet the rising costs of annually raising and releasing approximately 200,000 pheasants on PA State Game Lands and other properties where public hunting is permitted, the PGC has voted to create a new $25.00 pheasant hunting permit for the 2017-18 hunting year.

Any adult or senior hunter, including senior lifetime license holders, will be required to purchase a $25.00 pheasant permit to pursue or harvest pheasants. (This means if you are rabbit hunting with your beagle, and your dog incidentally flushes a pheasant, you cannot legally harvest that pheasant unless you have purchased your $25.00 pheasant permit in advance.) Junior hunters will not need a permit to hunt pheasants.

The PGC spends about $4.7 million a year to raise and release ring-necked pheasants and previously announced in December 2016 it was closing two of the four pheasant farms they operated as a cost-cutting measure. Hopefully, this additional revenue stream will perpetuate the pheasant stocking program and enable those hunters who enjoy pursuing this beautiful non-native species to continue finding them afield. Like many additional license fees, it will be interesting to see how each individual hunter makes his/her decision on whether to spend, or not spend, the extra dollars based on how they value the resource and their opportunities afield.

4. Black Bear (Statewide) Archery I don't know about you, but I'm blessed with the special ability to see game, often trophy-sized animals at extremely close range, when they are not in season. Over the years, I've seen numerous large black bears when out archery hunting for whitetails and some of the most massive bucks I've ever encountered afield have come through when I've been bear hunting. In the past, the two seasons: archery deer and bear season did not overlap across most of the Commonwealth (the exception occurred in the highly-populated Wildlife Management Units near Philadelphia in Southeastern PA and around Pittsburgh, where bear populations are low).

There must have been other individuals who experienced this same trend, because the PGC voted at their Spring 2017 meeting to move the black bear (statewide) archery season up two weeks and instead of being Monday through Friday the week before Thanksgiving (as it has been for the past several years), it will now run October 30, through November 4, 2017. For the first-time ever, PA archers will be afield in significant numbers when both deer and black bear will concurrently be in-season for six consecutive days. With whitetails in or rapidly approaching the rut, there should be a lot of movement in the woods and black bears will be out aggressively feeding on hard mast and other food sources in anticipation of their eventual hibernation.

I think there is real potential to more than double the previous PA black bear archery annual harvest figures and it could possibly reach as high as 1,000 bears taken with a bow or crossbow statewide, based on the large number of archers participating. The big question I have is whether you will be able to legally hunt black bear over the gut pile of a deer you just harvested during this period. I know several hunters, including family members, who have had black bears show up either while they were gutting their deer or just after they finished the process. This adjustment in the black bear (statewide) archery season is probably the regulation change I'm most excited about, since I haven't harvested a black bear with a bow or crossbow yet, and this season change should greatly expand potential opportunities for every PA archer.

Keeping up with hunting regulation changes can be somewhat confusing. Each year, when new PA hunting licenses go on sale in mid-June for the upcoming hunting year, July 1st through June 30th, the PGC publishes their accompanying Pennsylvania Hunting & Trapping Digest. They normally do a good job of publishing updates on the cover and then provide a detailed summary of all changes for the new hunting year near the front as a "Welcome to Hunting and Trapping in Pennsylvania". As a resident or nonresident hunter, please take time to read through the PA Hunting & Trapping Digest to familiarize yourself with these four significant regulatory changes, other new regulatory changes, and all the existing regulations PA hunters are expected to abide by when afield. If you would like additional information on the updated regulations, you are always welcome to visit the PA Game Commission's website: www.pgc.pa.gov.

Purchasing a new hunting license always brings thoughts, dreams, and excitement over what lies ahead in the upcoming hunting seasons. PA hunters will have some significant new opportunities and that will make the 2017-18 hunting year that much more special. I can hardly wait to head afield and I'm sure you feel the same way too!

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