Pennsylvania Hunters, Hikers Debate Proposed Hunting Season Changes

Hunting transcends politics in Pennsylvania, more a way of life than a hobby in rural and suburban areas.

Gutted deer often hang from the porch of Karen Parsons' bed-and-breakfast each fall, and those carcasses, she said, are good for business.

Parsons' Fishing Creek Lodge in Columbia County sits between two of Pennsylvania's largest state game lands tracts, and each hunting season, her five rooms are often filled with hunters looking to ply those 95,514 acres for whitetail deer. No hunting day is busier in Pennsylvania than the Monday after Thanksgiving, the traditional opening day of rifle season in the state since 1963.

"I have breakfast ready for those fellas at 4:30 a.m. on Monday and Tuesday," she said behind the counter of the deli in the general store. "They want to be out and in the woods early."

But next month, the Pennsylvania Game Commission plans to vote on whether to move the opening day to the Saturday before Thanksgiving in an effort to draw more hunters. The state's hunting-license sales peaked in 1982 at 1.1 million, and the number has gone down, consistently, ever since. Pennsylvania sold just under 900,000 licenses last year. The cost of a license varies by age, but for most adult residents, the price is $20.90.

Travis Lau, a Game Commission spokesperson, said the agency has heard concerns from hunters who say they can no longer get off work on opening day. While many schools in rural areas are closed on opening day of hunting, Lau said that trend is shrinking.

"The goal is to get more people in the woods," he said.

If the Game Commission approves the change, Parsons believes her business could be a wash, gaining Friday and Saturday rentals while losing some on Monday and Tuesday. With no deer hunting allowed on Sundays in Pennsylvania, though, Parsons figured she'd make money from hunters sitting around the bed-and-breakfast all day, spending money on snacks and beverages and her famous "mountaineer" sandwich while they watched football and waited for Monday.

"That would be real good for business, yeah," she said.

A bill aimed at allowing deer hunting on Sundays passed the Pennsylvania Senate's games and fisheries committee last month, however, and that change has proven to be more divisive. State Sen. Dan Laughlin, a Republican out of Erie, introduced the bill with the goal of increasing hunter numbers in the state and bringing Pennsylvania in line with the majority of the country.

"I live near the New York border. I've been close to Sunday all my life and I know how well it works," he said. "I've wondered why Pennsylvania doesn't do it as well."

Laughlin said the Sunday hunting ban dates back to 1895. He noted that it's also illegal to sell cars in the commonwealth on a Sunday. Dealers haven't pushed to sell cars on Sundays, he said, but hunting groups have promoted deer hunting for decades.

"You can hunt coyotes and crows on Sundays," he said. "But deer? No."

Hunting transcends politics in Pennsylvania, more a way of life than a hobby in rural and suburban areas. A poll of hunters conducted by the Game Commission found that only 53 percent supported Sunday hunting, though, and not every hunter The Inquirer spoke with supported the change.

"I like the old ways," said Joe Mazurek, 73, a hunter from Dallas, Luzerne County.

Ken Yoder, a hunter from Mifflintown, Juniata County, said weekend hunting opportunities would give him more time to go out with his son, who is 15.

"I'm all for it. A lot of us work for a living," he said.

Supporters of the Sunday hunt have pointed out that state game lands are largely funded by hunting-license fees and other taxes related to hunting purchases. Some hunters have sparked debates on hiking and backpacking Facebook groups, calling the ban on Sunday hunting "unconstitutional discrimination."

"That should have been passed years ago," said Joe Mehal, a hunter sitting at the American Legion's bar in Harveys Lake, Luzerne County.

The Pennsylvania Farm Bureau and the Keystone Trails Association are two of the larger groups that are opposed to Sunday deer hunting. Joe Neville, executive director of the KTA, said hikers, mountain bikers, dog walkers, and other nature enthusiasts know Sundays are safe on Pennsylvania's 5,000 miles of major trails. Though hunting-related shooting accidents have dropped drastically in the state, from about 200 per year in 1980 to a few dozen in 2014, Neville said non-hunters deserve to have peace of mind in nature.

"Here's the analogy I use: Since I have been the director of Keystone Trails, we've had one hiker shot by a hunter and we've had one hiker bitten by a rattlesnake," he said. "There were people who will not hike in certain areas where rattlesnakes are and there are certain people who will not hike where hunters are. They have valid feelings."

Neville, who is also a hunter, cited a Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Report that found trail users outnumbered hunters 3-1. Neville wonders if Sunday hunting would merely spread the same number of hunters over seven days and not actually draw more to buy licenses while making other outdoor enthusiasts stay home.

"If you lose that, what are you gaining with Sunday hunting?" he said.

While the general store of Parsons' lodge is filled with photos of dead bucks, turtles, and bobcats, she also rents to many outdoor enthusiasts eager to hike and bike nearby trails at Ricketts Glen State Park.

"I have a group that comes in here every year that does mountain biking and they won't go if there's Sunday hunting," Parsons, 71, said. "That's when the normal public can walk in and go on game lands. I would never go out. They'll shoot you."

Laughlin, the state senator, said fear of being shot by a hunter in the woods is unfounded.

"They don't have any data to back up their fears," he said.

The Pennsylvania Farm Bureau would seem like an unlikely opponent of Sunday hunting, on the surface. Many farmers hunt. Deer can often wreak havoc on crops and forests, and hunters, in turn, often seek permission from farmers to hunt the property.

Many owners say yes, but Farm Bureau spokesperson Mark O'Neill said farmers deserve a break from "listening to gunshots ringing across their property."

"A farm is not just a piece of property," O'Neill said. "It is also the home of a farm family."

Copyright AP - Associated Press
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