Game Commission delivers annual report to legislature
Pennsylvania Game Commission Executive Director Bryan Burhans recently 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.pa.gov, put your cursor on “Information & Resources” in the menu bar under the banner on the homepage, then select “Media & Reports & Surveys” in the drop-down menu, then click on the 2018 Annual Legislative Report.
Burhans’ testimony before the House Game and Fisheries Committee follows:
“Good morning, Chairman Gillespie, Chairman Kortz, and members of the House Game & Fisheries Committee.
“I am Bryan Burhans, Executive Director for the Pennsylvania Game Commission.
“To offer you a closer look at the agency’s operations, I brought along hard-copy annual reports to acquaint you with our diverse responsibilities and accomplishments.
“We live by our mission to manage Pennsylvania’s wild birds, wild mammals, and their habitats for current and future generations. That entails managing 480 wild birds and mammals, including 20 endangered species, seven threatened species and 109 species of greatest conservation need.
“The agency also manages over 1.5 million acres of state game lands in 65 of the state’s 67 counties. These lands were purchased with hunting and trapping license revenues, and with help from many conservation partners.
“State game lands are purchased and managed primarily for hunters, trappers, and wildlife’s well-being. No other state-owned lands in the Commonwealth are managed with such directness for Pennsylvania’s hunters, trappers, shooters, and wildlife.
“Wildlife’s future is tied directly to habitat. Without it, neither wildlife nor hunters will have places to go. That’s why game lands are so important; they ensure game and wildlife will always have places to live and hunters will have places to hunt.
“In the past fiscal year, over 4,000 acres were added to the game lands system. These additions included two interiors, one indenture, and seven acquisitions to improve access into existing game lands. Donations from private citizens contributed 463 acres.
“The Game Commission also used controlled burns and timber harvests on approximately 18,500 acres to improve habitat for a myriad of species on game lands.
“The agency’s infrastructure on games lands is tremendous. We maintain 360 buildings, 29 public shooting ranges, approximately 38,000 bridges and culverts, and 1,500 ponds and dams. The intensity of our wildlife habitat-management efforts on game lands and the upkeep of infrastructure needed to support management efforts is reflected in our budget; approximately 43 percent of which is invested in habitat-management activities.
“In addition, the Game Commission paid over $1.8 million to local governments, counties, school districts, and townships as payment in lieu of taxes on state game lands during the past fiscal year.
“Pennsylvania is also fortunate to have 2.5 million acres enrolled in our Hunter Access Program. Participating private landowners enroll their properties and agree to allow hunting, by permission. Agency staff continued to work with these private landowners to improve habitat using funding secured through federal Farm Bill conservation programs. This past year, we created over 2,000 acres of habitat improvement on Hunter Access Properties using federal funding from the Farm Bill.
“In the past fiscal year, the agency’s law-enforcement officers logged 180,380 contacts, which resulted in 6,617 prosecutions and 11,421 warnings, for a ratio of almost 2:1 for warnings vs. prosecutions.
“Our law-enforcement contacts were down more than 14,000 from the previous fiscal year. We believe this is because up to 30 percent of the agency’s officer districts have been vacant.
“Fortunately, we graduated a new class of cadets just this past weekend, and those 27 new wardens will help increase our law enforcement efforts.
“However, we still won’t be at a full complement of officers, and because of that, we have already begun the process of recruiting applicants for a new class, which we intend to begin around this time next year.
“In regard to wildlife diseases, the challenges before us are immense.
“Chronic Wasting Disease threatens our hunting heritage, and the state’s $1.6 billion industry tied to hunting.
“Yesterday, we announced the expansion of Disease Management Area 3 as a result of another CWD-positive pen-raised deer found on a Clearfield County deer operation, a high-fence hunting operation in this case. This deer was a buck. This Disease Management Area expansion now moves the boundary, for the first time ever, into the elk range.
“This buck was one of two CWD-positive pen-raised deer found on two deer operations that Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture announced in their February 20, 2019 press release. The other CWD-positive pen-raised deer was on a Fulton County breeding facility within Disease Management Area 2.
“According to the Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture, both deer were born and raised in an area of Fulton County where wild deer have tested positive for CWD for several years. The CWD-positive pen-raised buck found on the high-fence hunting operation was shipped alive from within Disease Management Area 2 in the southern portion of the state to the Clearfield County high-fence hunting operation which was not within a Disease Management Area at that time. The pen-raised buck was harvested by the hunter. Neither deer showed any clinical signs of CWD. In other words, the deer appeared healthy.
“Because high-fence hunting operations don’t abide by our Disease Management Area requirements or any regulations set by the Game Commission, we do not know where these CWD-positive carcasses ended up. We continue to coordinate with the Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture to gather this information.
“Last year, a deer tested positive for CWD on a Lancaster County deer farm, requiring the agency to establish a new Disease Management Area in parts of Berks, Lancaster, and Lebanon counties. No cases of CWD had been found anywhere close to this area in the past and so far it appears isolated to the deer farm. This new Disease Management Area was in addition to the already established Disease Management Areas covering all or parts of Adams, Bedford, Blair, Cambria, Cumberland, Franklin, Fulton, Huntingdon, Juniata, Perry, Somerset, Clearfield, Jefferson, and Indiana counties.
“The creation of a Disease Management Area results in increased regulations in those areas, affecting hunters, deer processors and taxidermists, as the movement of high-risk deer parts is prohibited from leaving the Disease Management Area. In addition, last year the agency instituted an all-states ban on importation of high-risk parts from deer harvested in any state that has tested positive for CWD. This ban placed a burden on hunters, deer processors, and taxidermists. However, high-risk deer parts represent a real risk factor in the spread of CWD.
“In order to determine the extent of CWD within those Disease Management Areas, we asked hunters who harvested a deer to remove the head and place it within a drop box for CWD testing. We also provide dumpsters for leaving the high-risk parts.
“Last year we received approximately 6,300 samples for testing from hunters within the Disease Management Areas and are awaiting the results of that testing.
“Understanding that our ability to combat this disease is dependent upon acceptance from the public, we increased our outreach concerning CWD to spread awareness of the risk the disease poses to our state mammal.
“This past year we held over two dozen public events and published approximately 15 press releases and social media posts concerning CWD. Those numbers will only increase as we move forward and ask our hunters to play a larger role in both monitoring the disease and combatting its spread.
“The only current strategy that is available to control the spread and prevalence of CWD is through targeted removal of deer in and around new CWD-positive deer, and herd reduction in areas with long-term infections. This, unfortunately, places the Game Commission in a very unpopular position with our hunters and the citizens of Pennsylvania.
“To ignore this disease will lead to one certain result – CWD will increase in prevalence and spread throughout the state. When CWD prevalence rates get too high, it is unlikely we can ever turn the clock back. We are witnessing this in Wisconsin right now where prevalence rates are over 50% in certain areas.
“It should be no surprise that hunters, and the public, do not like the idea of sharpshooters. We don’t like it either. However, these are the only techniques which are demonstrating progress in managing this disease. This Game Commission is not alone in being in this unfortunate position as every other state wildlife agency dealing with this disease is in the same predicament.
“Due to the constantly changing Disease Management Area boundaries, the complexity of CWD, and to combat the misinformation constantly being distributed to the public, we will be providing the agency’s hunter digest to all hunters at no cost to the hunter. In addition to the season and bag limits and regulations, the digest will include information on CWD, information on how the agency is managing this disease, and up-to-date information on the current understanding of CWD.
“Other challenges such as West Nile virus continue to impact our state bird, the ruffed grouse.
“Game Commission wildlife biologist Lisa Williams was the first scientist in North America to affirm that West Nile Virus was playing a role in grouse population declines. Now, Ms. Williams and her research colleagues are launching a project to evaluate where habitat improvements will be most successful in light of the West Nile Virus infections.
“White-nose syndrome also has eliminated 99 percent of some species of cave bats, resulting in a recent regulatory change by our Board of Commissioners to designate three species – the northern long-eared, tri-colored and little brown – as state-endangered. All three species have been decimated by white-nose syndrome since it first appeared in Pennsylvania in 2008.
“Some of these threats continue to grow. The fact Pennsylvania has more than 100 designated species of greatest conservation need speaks volumes to the difficulties that wildlife continues to face.
“On a more positive note, our hunters are enjoying some of the best hunting Pennsylvania has provided in the agency’s history.
“Here are just a few highlights: we continue to rank at the top nationally, both in number of turkeys harvested and number of turkey hunters, we have the most bear hunters in the nation, and the highest number of furtakers – demonstrating that Pennsylvania’s outdoor tradition is alive and well.
“The effectiveness of our deer-management plan continues to translate into great deer hunting, with Pennsylvania ranking at or near the top nationally for an array of categories, including number of antlered deer harvested, number of antlered deer per square mile harvested, antlerless harvest, and antlerless harvest per square mile.
“The Game Commission, and our deer-management program again received national recognition during 2018. The Game Commission was recognized by the Quality Deer Management Association as the organization’s Agency of the Year. This award comes on the heals of the Pennsylvania’s deer management plan being ranked in the number one position for all deer-management plans in North America. This ranking was conducted by a group of researchers from the University of Wisconsin, University of Victoria, Hakai Institute and the Raincoat Conservation Foundation.
“Huge bucks are being taken everywhere across the state, as evidenced by the increase of entries in this year’s Big Game Record Book.
“Black bear hunting has never been better, and despite bad weather conditions this past season, we still had a harvest that ranked as number eleven all-time.
“Turkey hunting packs plenty of excitement and our numbers show that, overall, the turkey population is robust, providing great opportunities for our hunters.
“And those lucky enough to be drawn for an elk tag can experience the hunt of a lifetime, pursuing bulls that consistently rank as world-class trophies.
“In addition, recent changes to our pheasant hunting program has proved to be a resounding success. Recently, we underwent complete restructuring of the production model of our pheasant-propagation program by cutting our propagation farms from four to two and purchasing day-old pheasant chicks from a local Pennsylvania producer instead of holding over our own laying hens and incubating the eggs.
“The changes have worked. Prior to the restructuring, pheasant propagation cost the agency approximately $4.7 million, resulting in a production cost of almost $21 per bird.
“For this past year, propagation costs were $2.55 million, resulting in a production cost of $12 per bird.
“In addition, the Game Commission’s new pheasant permit provided over $1 million in revenue to support some of the program costs.
“This past fall we released just under 220,000 pheasants for our hunters – a more than 30 percent increase – and provided hunters with an updated mapping tool on locations of pheasant release sites.
“We are proud of the opportunities we can provide our license buyers to enjoy our wildlife resources. It’s a credit to sound wildlife management, active habitat management, and the resiliency of our wildlife species.
“In addition, this past year the Game Commission continued its efforts at better serving our hunters.
“We provided a free subscription of Game News to the almost 35,000 new hunters who passed a hunter education course so they can learn tips for being successful afield and stay up to date on information that concerns them as hunters.
“We continued our webinar series on topics such as the risk to bald eagles from ingesting lead, to ways to improve your backyard habitat for wildlife.
“In order to make hunters aware of one of the biggest safety risks they may face – hunting from a tree stand without a safety harness – we launched a “tree stand safety” campaign, which included articles in Game News, social media outreach, and was displayed on 59 billboards across the Commonwealth.
“We made available an improved smartphone app, with features such as “what’s in season” and directions and maps to game lands.
“The Game Commission also made significant infrastructure improvements, including enhancements at six of our shooting ranges which included building overhead shelters, new shooting tables, and concrete walkways.
“We also completed four major road projects and 16 new bridges to provide greater access to game lands and constructed two new pavilions at the elk-viewing area. And Howard Nursery provided over a half-million seedlings, approximately 165,000 of which were distributed as part of our Seedlings for Schools program.
“These are just some of the efforts we undertook this past year in order to fulfill our mission of managing wildlife and its habitat for current and future generations.
“Before I conclude my prepared remarks, I would like to comment that our agency not only manages for the present, but we also are looking ahead to the future and preparing for challenges which lie ahead and how they can be addressed.
“To perform that task, our senior management team developed a suite of new projects that can be expanded upon to create more opportunities for our license buyers and the general public in a way that is consistent with the goals we have identified in our strategic plan.
“The results of this exercise is the second document, our Vision for the Future, which we will provide to you at the end of the accompanying video presentation to which the Game Commission sets forth – in a very tangible way – our vision for the future. The projects outlined in the document, as well as our video, are just a sampling of the many exciting new projects the agency is developing.
“We thank the committee for this opportunity to talk about our challenges, accomplishments, and plans for the future.
“We look forward to getting to know each of you in this upcoming legislative session and finding ways we can work together in pursuit of our shared goals.
“At the conclusion of this short video we will be happy to answer any questions you might have.”