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Game Commission delivers annual report

Pennsylvania Game Commission Executive Director Bryan Burhans today 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 legislative 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 2019 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.

It is my pleasure to appear before you today to deliver the annual report of the Pennsylvania Game Commission for the 2018 – 2019 fiscal year.

To offer you a closer look at the agency’s operations, I brought along hard-copy annual reports to acquaint you with our responsibilities and accomplishments.

I’d like to begin by discussing our law-enforcement efforts. As you know, our State Game Wardens often are “the face” of the Game Commission, serving on the front line, enforcing the laws and regulations that protect the Commonwealth’s wildlife.

During the previous fiscal year, game wardens issued approximately 9,500 warnings and 6,800 citations.

Graduating a new class of wardens in February of 2019 helped expand our coverage: The agency experienced an increase of approximately 6,000 law enforcement contacts in 2019 as a result of these newly filled warden positions.

That trend should continue. We just enrolled a new class of 34 cadets into the Ross Leffler School of Conservation and are currently testing for a class to take place next year. The reason for running back-to-back classes is to fill empty districts and projected retirements.

I would like to thank the Committee, and in particular, Chairman Gillespie, for working to pass Act 52 of 2019, which finally provided our game wardens with the same retirement benefits received by other state law-enforcement officers.

This crucial piece of legislation gives our officers more flexibility in career decisions in a line of work that is both mentally and physically challenging. They’ve earned this privilege, but it wasn’t possible without your commitment to them. Thank you.

Our state game lands system remains one of the finest networks of public hunting lands and managed wildlife habitat in the country.

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 the very existence of wildlife and provide Pennsylvanians more than 1.5 million acres of game lands to pursue hunting, trapping, and wildlife viewing.

This past fiscal year, the Commission added over 6,000 acres to the game lands system, this includes 3 indentures, 7 acquisitions to improve access to existing game lands, and 2 properties that contain areas of sensitive habitats for species of greatest conservation need.

Since the law was changed to allow for greater use of prescribed fire, the Game Commission has used this tool to better manage habitat on game lands, and last year over 8,000 acres were treated. This acreage would have been much higher, but we were hindered by wet weather during peak times when we conduct prescribed fire.

In addition, another 8,000 acres of forested habitat was harvested to make room for young forestland, which benefits countless wildlife including our state bird the ruffed grouse.

Wherever possible, the Commission leverages timber harvests to improve game land infrastructure, so our license-buyers can experience an immediate benefit. Last fiscal year we used services in lieu of payment from timber sales to generate 118 miles of improved roads, 157 new culverts, 3 new stream crossings, and 11 new or improved parking lots.

One of the biggest threats that wildlife continues to face is that of emerging diseases.

At the forefront is the continued spread of Chronic Wasting Disease, or CWD, which threatens the future of our wild deer herd, our hunting heritage, and the state’s $1.6 billion industry tied to hunting.

The Game Commission continues to monitor CWD throughout the Commonwealth to uncover and manage the disease wherever it exists.

In 2018-19, the Game Commission tested 9,631 deer for CWD, of which 123 tested positive. The majority of these positives were detected within DMA 2. However, the discovery of two new cases–outside of DMA 2–in Juniata and Perry counties, resulted in a 2,101-square-mile expansion of DMA 2. In addition, one positive was detected in wild deer in DMA 3, which resulted in the expansion of DMA 3, and deer in a captive facility in Lancaster County tested positive resulting in the creation of DMA 4.

In order to better inform hunters about CWD rules and regulations, we once again provided free copies of the Hunting and Trapping Digest to all license buyers.

In the summer of 2019, the Commission made available a draft CWD management plan for areas with CWD. The plan proposes a variety of management options, including increased tags, longer seasons, removing antler restrictions, and using targeted removals.

The plan was made available for public input, and we currently are reviewing public comments and finalizing the plan. The Board of Commissioners will then consider implementing management options in those areas where CWD exists.

To better manage CWD and other diseases affecting wildlife, during the summer of 2019 we announced the creation of a new partnership between the Game Commission and the University of Pennsylvania School of Veterinary Medicine called the Pennsylvania Wildlife Futures Program.

This program, established with $11 million in funding over five years from the Commission, charts a way forward for protecting wildlife from health threats, both current and future.

The program enables the School of Veterinary Medicine to hire new staff dedicated to wildlife health who will work with Game Commission employees to monitor disease threats, develop research, enhance communication and public engagement around wildlife health issues, and proactively respond to challenges as they arise.

With the support of the Pennsylvania Animal Diagnostic Laboratory System, the Wildlife Futures program resulted in immediate benefits to our hunters this year who submitted samples for CWD testing. This year, the wait time for results decreased dramatically and we were able to provide hunters with information on whether their deer tested positive for CWD in an average of 16 days; we hope to narrow this time frame further next year down to an average of 14 days.

While a majority of the program’s attention in the immediate future will focus on assisting the Game Commission in responding to CWD, that is far from the only challenge the Wildlife Future’s program will tackle.

White-nose syndrome, for one, has decimated the state’s bat population since it was first detected in Pennsylvania in 2008. Game Commission bat biologist Greg Turner is renowned for his years of research into the disease, and his efforts to analyze and minimize cave bat exposure to the disease. The Wildlife Futures partnership will lend even more support to those efforts.

And we are hopeful that the Wildlife Futures program can further the research of Commission biologist Lisa Williams, whose studies have identified West Nile virus as a major threat to Pennsylvania’s state bird, the ruffed grouse. Williams’ discovery has helped many other states in their efforts to identify an important contributing factor to ruffed grouse population declines. I note that grouse populations are being impacted by both West Nile virus, and the fact that much of our state’s forests are older. The Game Commission’s system of game lands only represents 5% of the state’s total land area. There is only so much the Game Commission can do to affect the state-wide grouse population through habitat management.

Other current disease threats, from mange in black bears and lead poisoning in bald eagles to rabies in raccoons and beyond could receive additional research attention and diagnostic support through the program in years to come.

Financially, the agency continues to do well from revenue increases from oil and gas operations on state game lands. As of the close of last fiscal year, the Game Fund’s Restricted Fund Balance was $88,666,123. This is an increase in almost $16 million over the previous year.

Also regarding finances, you may recall last summer the Auditor General released the results of a Game Commission financial audit covering July 1, 2014 through June 30, 2017.

Notably, the audit found no money was lost, nothing was stolen, and nothing was unaccounted for regarding PGC’s finances.

And even though the audit was centered on those years in question, the headlines in the days and weeks to follow focused on the amount held in our reserve fund, the details of which have always been available to the public; these numbers are published annually in Game News.

The Commission was criticized by the Auditor General for having an amount that he considered to be “too large.” However, the actual audit report stated that “the audit does not evaluate or make judgement as to whether any part of the Game Fund balance should or should not be used, or what amount of the fund balance reserve is appropriate.”

Given the volatility of market-driven revenue sources, such as oil, gas, and timber, and the fact the agency receives no general fund revenues from the state, maintaining a healthy reserve is critical for the agency to provide services expected by the public. Not only do these reserves allow us to provide public services during years when the agency is experiencing declines in revenue, these reserves allow us to make strategic investments. For example, if our Wildlife Futures program develops a new tool to help us manage CWD, these reserves allow us have funds available without reducing services.

Nonetheless the audit did shed some light on ways to improve our operations, which is the purpose of an audit.

In response to a recommendation provided by the audit, we also began reporting funds held in escrow alongside our fiscal year revenue and expenditures. Moving forward, we are working to implement other improvements related to the audit findings. In addition, we are currently developing our next strategic plan to better tie together the plan’s goals with the costs of achieving them, as recommended by the audit.

With the passage of Act 107 in November of last year, the Commission will undergo another audit later this year by the Legislative Budget and Finance Committee. We welcome this review and look forward to working with the Legislative Budget and Finance Committee.

And back to wildlife; Pennsylvania hunters continue to enjoy some of the best hunting in the agency’s history.

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. Huge bucks are being taken everywhere across the state, as evidenced by the increase of entries to the Big Game Record Book.

Black bear hunting also has never been better, as demonstrated by 2019’s record black bear harvest and increased bear hunting opportunities.

The turkey population is robust, providing great opportunities for both fall and spring turkey hunters. In 2019, Pennsylvania hunters had a perfect safety record in the spring turkey season. For the first time ever, we had no hunting-related shooting incidents reported during the month-long spring season. We credit this to the effectiveness of the Hunter-Trapper Education training course and our dedicated team of Hunter-Trapper Education Instructors who volunteer their time to train new hunters.

The pheasant program continues to provide great opportunities for those who purchase a permit, as we continue to stock over 200,000 birds each fall.

The elk herd draws hundreds of thousands of visitors each year. New archery and antlerless elk seasons were added in 2019 and those lucky enough to be drawn for a tag can experience the hunt of a lifetime, pursuing bulls that consistently rank as world-class trophies.

Title 34 of the Game and Wildlife code, section 322, subsection c 13 defines one of our agency’s duties to “Serve the interest of sportsmen by preserving and promoting our special heritage of recreational hunting and furtaking by providing opportunity to hunt and trap the wildlife resources of this Commonwealth.” 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, vigorous law enforcement, and active habitat management.

Finally, I would like to add that 2020 represents an important year for the Pennsylvania Game Commission. It is the agency’s 125th anniversary as well as the 100-year anniversary of the creation of our game lands system. We will be celebrating both events throughout the year, and asking hunters, trappers, and those who care about wildlife to commemorate these milestones with us.

These occasions provide the opportunity to remember that the current conditions which we sometimes take for granted – thriving wildlife populations, world class hunting opportunities, and over 1.5 million acres of public hunting land – didn’t just happen, but rather they are the product of 125 years of foresight, planning, and hard work by Game Commission employees and our Board of Commissioners.

Working with these employees as their executive director has given me the opportunity to see the extent to which they are devoted to fulfilling the agency’s mission of managing our Commonwealth’s wildlife resources. The Game Commission is blessed to have a hard-charging workforce of full-time and part-time employees and volunteers. Compared to other Commonwealth agencies the Game Commission is small, but our impact has been substantial.

To help celebrate the work that has taken place over the last 125 years, I would like to take this opportunity to show a video that highlights the history of the Game Commission and discusses some of the challenges that we currently face.”

www.pgc.pa.gov

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