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Saturday, February 16, 2008

Say ‘Yes’ to a hunting license fee increase

by Steve Sorensen
(Originally published in the Warren Times Observer, Warren, PA, Feb. 16, 2008.)
The PGC has no taxing authority.
It has no line item in the state budget.
And it can’t run at a deficit.
I hate to say this, but it’s time the Pennsylvania Game Commission be permitted to raise license fees.

I know that lots of hunters will disagree with me. They will say a higher price will mean fewer licenses sold. They’re probably right. They will say fewer licenses sold will mean fewer hunters and fewer hunters will have a weaker voice in game management, gun and hunting rights issues. They have a good point.

Many people may not realize that the Pennsylvania Game Commission’s principle source of funding comes from the hunters who buy licenses. That means that aside from unstable timber and mineral revenues, hunters are paying all the bills. We have not had a license increase in nine years, and the costs of running a game management program continue to rise.

The Pennsylvania Game Commission was chartered in 1895 to remain independent of the state legislature, and as such it cannot run as a government. It has no taxing authority. It has no line item in the state budget. And it can’t run at a deficit.

Like a business, it depends on its customers for revenue. But unlike a business, it can’t raise and lower prices, nor are prices dependent upon the market. The state legislature must approve any license increase proposed by the PGC. Saying “No” is an easy, cost-free, high-visibility way for state legislators to look good while they do wrong.

Being saddled to the state legislature has a benefit. The PGC has no owner. It has no trustees. It has no shareholders. Without these, it would have no fiscal accountability. That’s the role the legislature plays.

Getting politicians to cooperate is time-consuming, so the lag between asking for and getting an increase creates a cumbersome situation. First, one of them must be willing to sponsor the legislation. Then they drag their feet, debate, pander and strike deals – always under pressure from voters – while PGC work goes on and PGC costs continue to rise.

Lots of deer hunters will no doubt think that the PGC has mismanaged the deer program and will say that it should be left to lie in the bed it has made. They might even say that the PGC has failed in its responsibilities. But its charter makes it responsible not just for deer, not just for game animals, but for about 400 wildlife species in the state, even if they’re not game animals. The PGC fails when any species suffers.

The PGC gets pressure from everyone – not just hunters – and there is no way to please everyone. Even the state Supreme Court has gotten into the act, now insisting that the PGC manage wild hogs that have escaped from private owners.

Some people will say that the PGC should cut out waste before asking for an increase – not realizing that the PGC has been in a stringent cost-containment program since 2006 when the legislature most recently failed to act on an increase. It sent lots of people into retirement back then, and many critical jobs have not been filled.

Some hunters will say that the PGC has destroyed small game hunting. Quality small game hunting is available on the land the PGC manages, but it cannot manage private property. Responsibility for the loss of small game habitat cannot be laid on the doorstep of the PGC.

I remember when the $5 I could get for a deer hide was enough to pay for my license. Some hunters might see that as evidence that higher license fees are a sign that hunting is becoming a rich man’s sport. But license fees have a lot less to do with that than limited access to land and the other costs that go into hunting. Comparisons are hard to make, but even with a fee increase (which would be only the second increase in 23 years), the cost of a license in Pennsylvania will be a bargain when compared to other states.

The reality is that the Game Commission has created more opportunities for today’s hunters than any hunters who have gone before. Without proper funding of the PGC, we risk someday looking back on these days as the good old days.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

I say No To License increase!! ThePGCs land is not accessable to lots of us older hunters that can not walk for miles and or drag game and gear for miles. Most of the land has very limited views to see deer let alone count points!! and state and fed owned land is over grown with 4 to 6 foot high weeds and brush or pines that you can't see thru to hunt on. Private land is being leased by Private hunting clubs for select few hunters. So we have fewer and fewer spots to hunt. Young people and new hunters are finding the same conditions and when they go for days with out even seeing game get disapointed and quit hunting. If the PGC wants to raise out of state tags OK but not resident tags. If they do they will be out of jobs when us old timers quit buying tags cause we can't afford them on our retirement and can't get to areas to hunt. Yes the exercise is good for us but when you go for years without seeing game or filling one of our tags it is expensive and extreamly disappointing. I've hunted Pa for 42 years now and the last 10 years have been the worst. Your old time friend John Colter

10:28 AM

Blogger Steve Sorensen said...

I sympathize with you on this, but I don’t think you’ve identified a good reason not to raise the license fee.

The plain fact is that the PGC cannot raise license fees at will. That’s part of the problem. It takes an act of the state legislature to do that, so the PGC is hostage to the politicians. Until one of them decides to lead the charge, the PGC has fewer dollars to meet its obligations, fewer dollars to put into land management, and fewer dollars to put into enforcement. You say that an increase in the cost of the license will cause us old-timers to quit buying tags. It may be true that a higher price will mean fewer licenses sold, but fewer licenses are being sold even at today’s low price. And at today’s low price the PGC cannot make improvements that will improve hunting. It’s a “catch-22” situation that will not go away. (By the way, I would be in favor of holding the price for junior licenses, and for the senior lifetime license.)

You are right that private land is being leased by clubs. I have lost access to land for that reason. I’ve also lost access to land on numerous occasions when it has been sold. That’s frustrating to me, too.

The things you list show that your gripes are not so much with the PGC as they are with things like private property owners, land management of public lands, and the frustrations of aging. I have all those same gripes, but the PGC isn’t the cause of any of them. The key is finding good land to hunt on and getting permission – and that takes a year ’round effort.

The PGC makes lots of land available to us. Some of the State Game Lands are huge, but the PGC cannot make short, easy trails into large, rugged lands. Everyone has one limitation or another, whether its age, handicap, limited time, or something else. Incidentally, the game land at Akeley is fairly small, has no hills, has lots of deer, and is easy to access. I invite you to hunt there, and if you’re unfamiliar with it, I’d be happy to show you around. Just give me a call.

Your friend and "everyday hunter," Steve

10:38 PM

Anonymous Anonymous said...

Reading your article in the February 27 issue of the Forest Press, you are right, I'm one who disagrees. First, I have a sporting goods store in East Hickory, and not one thing is mentioned in any article anywhere on what the current deer management program has done to all small businesses located north of interstate 80 who counted on the influx of hunters for making their living. This program has done more than manage the deer herd, they have hurt many businesses. Yes I have heard the Game Commission is in the business of game management, and can't be worried about businesses such as mine and if the Game Commission isn't worried about our business why should we worry about theirs.? In your article you say "like a business" what has the Game Commission done to help themselves? Example Egley lives on 62 above Tidioute, works in Franklin, drives everyday probably around a 90 mile round trip, give or take a few miles when gas is $3.19 a gallon, goes by my business in the biggest gas cuzzlers that the motor industry offers. Why not park that fancy vehicle and use one of the small er commissions vehiles to save a little? Take a car manufacture for instance, if they are not selling the vehicles what do they do? unfortunately they lay workers off or terminate jobs. What has the Game Commission done to cut the fat? Here in Forest county we have 2 WCO's 1 could do the job. Look out west how much territory those enforcement officers have to patrol. How about the pheasant program, here in Forest County the local sportsmens club does a better job in stocking than the Game Commission and has done so for years. On February 28, 2008 the 5 p.m. evening news on channel 4 WTAE out of Pittsburgh did a story on WCO Bimber of Clarion County on the Game Commission being too aggressive on their enforcement, featuring his detaining of some female swimmers in Clarion. What does this have to do with enforcement of game laws? Even the District Attorney made comments and as did the Governor. Isn't this WCO a product of Warren County? Why wouldn't WCO Bimber answer the questions that the reporter asked? You would think an agency so eager to show they are worthy of a hunting license increase would give answers to the questions put to them on this subject? So when you have this harrasment, by WCO's, and Deputy WCO's how are you going to convince the Sportsmen and the legislative body of Pennsylvania that the Game Commission is worthy of a hunting license increase? You mention the about small game and to me, put the blame on the private property owners for the down fall of small game, but you make no mention of all the preditors such as, coyotes, eagles, red tailed hawks, fishers, bobcats and the impact they have on the small game, don't blame the private property owners. Next time you are in the East Hickory area please do stop in I'll buy the pop, or water, and would like too debate this with you and have you talk to my customers and explain to them why the game commission needs a hunting license fee increase.
Eric George

11:56 AM

Anonymous Anonymous said...

Where to start on a license increase. First we should start with some facts. I for one am tired of every one including the PGC saying they have not had a license increase in 9 years. This is false. They created a elk tag, bobcat tag, DMAP tags, and a second turkey tag to create revenue. There has been very little in doe tag decrease when you include DMAP. Last license increase they offered a free second turkey tag and even printed it on the license. When they got the increase they pulled the tag. They raised all license fee's and created a migratory bird stamp that they said would only cost issueing fee (it was to help collect data). It is now $3 residents and $6 non residents. DMAP tags are now increased higher then doe tags.. We where told doe license where strictly a management tooland the fee's where the same for every one. Now their used as a source for revenue more then management. There is a fur taker & archery tag fee. More license more revenue. The problem as with most government agencies is not more money but more responsibility in spending it. We have to manage with what we have they should to. Predators are one of the main sourses of deer shortages i.e. bobcat, coyotes, bear, fishers eat young fawns and adults. There is a fee to buy and sell furs, own wildlife, and until most resently taxidermy fee's. There are timber sale and mineral rights. There is suppose to be wildlife habitat. I personally seen this. Cut timber off game lands then fence it in so deer can't get in. The PGC never cares what the sportsman want or try's to communicate with them. Even the commissioners tried to over through the president when he objected to continued doe harvest. This war can go on for ever. What's going to happen is the DCNR is going to take the PGC over. There is a lot of land up for grabs and the state wants it. If PGC is so broke why are they still buying land. Isn't 1.5 million acres enough? They don't pay taxes on it like the rest of us have to and I can only imagine how may billions of dollars the land, timber, and mineral rights are worth. I am a outfitter and spend most of my time in the woods. I know what I am talking about and would be willing to show any one who wants to learn. Acid rain on our timber, as well as insect, diseases and no sun from lack of select cut are the blame for poor timber regrowth not deer. Ever see what beavers and porcupines do to timber. Never hear about them and porcupines are protected. If the PGC wants and needs and increase they have to learn to work with the people who help pay the bills. A lot of research is done by state colleges, pitt robinson funds, and sportman groups, not PGC funds. So tell me where the money is going. If they need and increase talk with us and tell us the facts not fiction. One last thing, business north of I80 are in severe crisis and this has most largely been caused by the actions of the PGC. Even Mr Alt is their enemy now (Go figure). I love the outdoors and really don't care if I ever harvest another game animal. I just like to see and be with them. I am however very concerned about my grand childrens future in the outdoors. May have to move them to a more freindly state that cares. Best regard and pray for our future, Robert

1:44 PM

Blogger Steve Sorensen said...

Eric, you've given me a lot to respond to, and I’m sure I can’t respond adequately to everything.

The issue of small sporting goods stores is definitely a problem. The PGC may or may not have contributed to it, but it hasn't been the only one. People gravitate to the big boxes such as WalMart, as well as the Cabelas and Bass Pros, and the big regional stores such as Gander and Keystone Country. You know as well as I do that the shopping habits of American have changed, and every industry reflects that.

I am not unsympathetic with the small stores such as yours, but the fact is that you’ve done better than many others. In Warren, Finley’s went out of business a long time ago. Warren Outdoors made an attempt at replacing it, but couldn’t hold on. That happened before the PGC’s changes in the deer management program. I don’t see how the PGC could take into consideration the effect of game populations on business in the state. That’s not what they were chartered to do.

The PGC has actually done a lot to help themselves. Personnel costs are high in any non-manufacturing sector, and they have been trimmed deeply, at least through early retirements and avoiding pay increases, and possibly other ways. I there have been layoffs, but no one can say there have not been layoffs either. Many positions are currently vacant for a variety of reasons, with no money to fill them.

It’s a great thing that sportsman’s clubs do in habitat improvement and things such as pheasant stocking, but anyone involved in those activities knows that it takes both personnel and money, neither of which the PGC has. If we really compare the amount of land that WCOs cover in northwest Pennsylvania to the amount of land officers out west cover, what would we find? We’d find fewer roads out west, fewer hunters out west, the added expense of airplanes because of the greater distances they need to cover out west, and I’m sure we’d find bigger budgets out west. I’d like to see game agency budget comparisons between Pennsylvania and western states. My bet is that the PGC operates on a shoestring by comparison.

As far as an individual WCOs aggressive enforcement in his particular area, I don't like it either. But it’s hardly fair to tar the entire PGC with a broad brush. I don’t see how that has anything to do with the subject. If one WCO does something that’s unpopular, or outright wrong, how can that be a reason to deny a license fee increase?

I clearly did not blame private property owners for the downfall of small game populations. I’m just saying that everyone tries to maximize the economic benefit they get from their land. That’s a simple fact that merely states a reality –- who can blame landowners for that? They have the freedom to do what they gotta do, and that’s the way it should be. But we can't ignore the fact that their actions, like everyone else’s, have consequences. And worse, we can't blame the PGC for actions that private landowners have to take.

I happen to agree with you that the predator populations are high, and they have an impact on game populations. The PGC is limited about what it can do about that. Eagles, redtail hawks (and other kinds of hawks), and owls (you didn’t mention them) are federally protected. It’s against federal law to even possess a feather from a raptor, let alone kill one. As far as coyotes go, you’re free to shoot all you want. The bobcat population is healthy, and they’re trying to control it. Do you want to do away with fishers? What about black bears? They take their share of fawns, along with coyotes. Do you want a longer season on bears? If you believe what you say about the predator problem, you probably should.

Unfortunately, I seldom have the pleasure of coming to East Hickory. We’ll have to be satisfied with expressing our opinions in writing. And that’s what they are -– opinions. You’re entitled to yours, and if you’re like me, you’re probably even right some of the time. If I get to East Hickory and have the time, I’ll stop in and take you up on the offer -– if you can't get Moxie, make mine a Pepsi.

In the meantime, I don’t think you have to worry about a license fee increase. I doubt we have any legislators with the courage to sponsor the legislation, and if we do, it won’t get any traction for a couple of years. And by then, everything might be much worse than it is today. --Steve

11:21 PM

Blogger Steve Sorensen said...

Robert, I'll do my best to reply to you, but I'm running out of time.

Yes, the PGC has given us more opportunities to hunt, and it has created some revenue through those licenses. Shouldn't hunters who take advantage of those additional opportunities also pay for them? If you want to talk about facts, how much do you think a few elk tags, DMAP tags (which are greatly reduced), a few bobcat tags, and a second turkey tag generate? We’re not talking about a windfall here. Who gets the migratory bird fee? Aren’t those federally controlled? If we’re talking about facts, let’s make sure we know what the facts are.

I agree with you that doe tags were for many years a source of revenue that the PGC came to depend on. Breaking that dependency has been difficult, and like most other forms of dependency, not entirely successful. But you’re helping to make my point here. If the PGC uses the antlerless license as a game management tool and not a tool to raise revenue, doesn’t it follow that it needs an additional revenue tool, say, a license fee increase?

My response to what you say about predators is in my reply to Eric above. Please read that. I think we're mostly in agreement here -- if you realize the limits of the PGC authority here.

You mention timber and minerals as sources of revenue. You must realize that a comprehensive approach to game management includes timber management and hunter management. And the PGC has made more of an effort in the last decade to listen to hunters than ever before. But it must be a two-way street.

You said “This war can go on for ever.” You are absolutely right, and it has been going on for a long time. Read Deer Wars by Bob Frye. This war is nothing new, and it won’t end soon if ever. And that’s what makes the future bleak. If ever we have game animals managed by people to don’t care about hunting, who don’t understand hunting, or who find other tools than hunters for game management, the wildlife that we love is doomed.

How well do you understand the budget of the PGC? Could new purchases of game lands be made from investments set aside for that purpose? Are new purchases being made for common sense purposes, such as boundary issues? Are new purchases being made in areas where game lands do not exist? If you know the answers to these questions, please supply me with them because I don’t know -- I’m just asking. But I’m not ready to criticize the PGC for acquiring land without knowing why they’re buying it, or how it’s being funded, or where it is. Those are facts that are necessary for the argument you make.

You’re right about acid rain. That is part of the story, but it’s not the whole story. Acid rain doesn’t snip off tender new shoots and turn a tree into a bush, and keep pruning it until it eventually dies.

I’ve responded above to the point about businesses suffering north of I-80. But I’ll make one more point in the form of some questions: Could it be that past game management practices have caused our current situation, and not recent practices? Or that the recent practices are efforts to correct past errors? If so, should we be surprised that it's painful? Just asking.

I wish the PGC didn’t need a license fee increase. Maybe there is another way. Maybe there should be a fraction of a percent of sales tax dedicated to PGC funding -- but would that keep the PGC independent of politics? Maybe there should be a check-off box on our state income tax. Maybe there should be a lottery.

I’ll conclude by saying that part of the reason I'm asking questions is to illustrate that I don't know all the answers. I don’t presume to know what is possible or what is likely, but God help us if the PGC ever gets it funding from anyone other than hunters. I fear that by denying the PGC a license fee increase, we’re cutting of our noses to spite our faces. God help us if non-hunters ever provide the revenue for the management of game animals. --Steve

12:25 AM

Blogger Steve Sorensen said...

Eric: One more thought. I mentioned that Finleys and Warren Outdoors couldn't survive in Warren. One more comes to mind -- Captain Hook's. That's three that didn't make it in a town the size of Warren, and none of their failures had anything to do with the PGC deer program.

I admire you, although I don't envy you, for choosing to run a store in a town the size of East Hickory. I doubt that the people with bigger stores in bigger towns have any idea about the challenges you face, and I respect you for that. --Steve

8:54 AM


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