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Saturday, February 25, 2012

Pennsylvania Conservation History: the Early Years

by Steve Sorensen
(Originally published in the Warren Times Observer, February 25, 2012.)

Did you know squirrels were
classed as predators back in 1759?
The Pennsylvania Game Commission has been up and running since 1895, but for more than 200 years before that, wildlife regulations abounded. Here are a few tidbits of conservation history gleaned from that period, from the PGC’s 233 page centennial book, The Pennsylvania Game Commission, 1895-1995, 100 Years of Wildlife Conservation.

On March 4, 1681 William Penn was granted the charter to establish Penn’s Woods. He arrived at Chester on October 29, 1682. Within a year, a bounty on wolves was established at 10-15 shillings.

Thirty-eight years later, Pennsylvania's first hunting season was enacted. It allowed the hunting of deer from July 1 to January 1. Indians were exempted, and out of season hunting carried a 20 shilling fine. Other laws quickly followed, including a 5 shilling fine for hunting pigeons, doves, partridge “or other fowl in the open streets” of Philadelphia. Maybe it was OK to have a deer stand in downtown Philly.

Apparently, once wolves were brought under control, red and gray squirrels were classed as predators. In 1749, a bounty of 3 pence was placed on their fearsome heads.

Sunday hunting has been an issue since January 27, 1749 when deer hunting was made illegal on Sundays, except in “cases of necessity.” I doubt today’s WCOs would enjoy going to court to enforce that.

In 1797, John Chapman (the legendary Johnny Appleseed) set up his first apple tree nursery along the Brokenstraw Creek in western Warren County. We still have a few Chapmans around these parts. I wonder if any of them can trace back to Mr. Appleseed.

The year 1828 saw the establishment of the United Bowmen of Philadelphia, America’s first archery organization. The current club of that name traces back to that date, and still conducts 3-D, field archery and target competitions.

The 1840s and 1850s brought a spate of laws against killing small, insectivorous birds. And we think our laws are complicated today. What bird doesn’t eat insects at least once in a while?

In 1845 Warren County made it illegal to chase or hunt “unwounded deer” with dogs. Violators were fined $25. Some hunters today long for that law, because it would give permission to use dogs to recover wounded deer.

Here’s another law some hunters today might pine for. In 1851 deer hunting was banned for five years in Cumberland and Franklin counties. At the end of those five years, in 1856 deer hunting was banned for five years in Adams County.

In 1864 it became illegal to shoot ducks between April 1 and September 1 in any counties bordering the Susquehanna River or its tributaries. I assume that was intended to protect ducklings, but the prohibition was only on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Fridays. Maybe that made sense to the folks who made that rule. (I wonder if they had Mondays, Wednesdays and Saturdays off.)

In 1873, Pennsylvania’s first comprehensive Wildlife Act was passed. That year, all Sunday hunting was banned, a bag limit of two per day was placed on wild turkeys, and it became illegal to kill any fawn “when in its spotted coat.”

In the latter half of the nineteenth century, the game laws across the state became a county by county patchwork until an act was passed on June 25, 1895 to create the state Board of Game Commissioners. They had a lot to do, and they were immediately authorized to blanket the state with 10 game protectors. I guess it took eight years to recognize that was a pretty thin blanket, so in 1903 they were authorized to appoint deputy game protectors, 30 of them.

In 1901 the Game Commission decided that animals confiscated for game law violations “shall be forwarded to the nearest hospital.” I can think of two or three jokes there, but I’ll spare my doctor friends the pain of tasteless humor.

Later, any needy institution qualified as a recipient. Apparently there was a time when everyone understood the concept of “needy,” something that’s hard to nail down today.

That takes us only up to the first few years of the Game Commission. Its history is a colorful one. In a few weeks I’ll offer a few more interesting and obscure historical facts.


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