USA -(Ammoland.com)- Pennsylvania Game Commission Executive Director R. Matthew Hough 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 report, please visit the Game Commission’s website, 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 2016 Annual Legislative Report.
Following is Hough’s testimony before the House Game and Fisheries Committee:
“Good morning Chairman Gillespie, Chairman Barbin, and members of the House Game and Fisheries Committee, and thank you for this opportunity to present the Pennsylvania Game Commission’s 2016 Annual Report.
During this past year, the agency again strived to achieve our lofty goals to benefit hunters, furtakers, the public, and most importantly, our wildlife resources.
A few of the highlights in our Annual Report include:
Despite our many successes, this year was even more notable for the many challenges the agency faced in our efforts to manage and protect our wildlife resources.
On several fronts, we are dealing with wildlife diseases that have the ability to have long-term and potentially catastrophic impacts on the future of wildlife in the Commonwealth.
First is the occurrence of Chronic Wasting Disease (CWD).
CWD is always fatal in deer and elk. It was first detected in Pennsylvania on a captive deer farm in Adams County in 2012, detected later in the same year in free-ranging, hunter-harvested deer in southcentral counties, and subsequently found on two captive deer farms in Jefferson County in 2014.
Since its detection, 47 free-ranging wild deer from Bedford, Blair and Fulton counties have tested positive for CWD. Twenty-five of those deer were uncovered in the past year and more are possible as we await results from over 3,000 samples gathered during this past deer-hunting season.
We have established Disease Management Areas (DMAs), in the three locations where CWD has been detected. Despite our efforts in DMA 2, where CWD has been found in free-ranging deer in the southcentral counties, the disease continues to spread.
We have issued Executive Orders establishing boundaries and regulations for DMAs, including a ban on the movement of high-risk deer parts from these areas. We also have established an enhanced monitoring program utilizing contractors who collect road-killed deer and a system for testing hunter-harvested deer.
Earlier this month, a captive deer from a deer farm in Franklin County – about 25 miles east of DMA 2 – was diagnosed with CWD. We are currently working with the Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture to determine what actions will be necessary to deal with this case.
We are also currently working with wildlife professionals from across the country who are searching for and testing ways to slow the spread of this disease. Unless effective control measures can be found, we expect that the number of infected deer will continue to grow exponentially, which has been the case in Wisconsin and West Virginia.
Another disease challenge we face is the ongoing impact of West Nile Virus, particularly as it relates to Pennsylvania’s state bird, the ruffed grouse. West Nile Virus is a mosquito-transmitted virus native to Africa that affects many wild-bird species. It was first identified in North America during the summer of 1999 and found in Pennsylvania in 2002.
The Game Commission has been at the forefront of research into this disease and its impact on the grouse population. It now seems likely that West Nile Virus is at least partly responsible for causing precipitous declines in grouse populations. The impact of West Nile Virus, coupled with the loss of young-forest habitat across the state, have conspired to reduce Pennsylvania’s grouse population estimate to its lowest point in 50 years.
We also continue to monitor the impact of White Nose Syndrome on cave bats. First documented in New York in the winter of 2006-07, White Nose Syndrome reached Pennsylvania in 2009 and since then, it is estimated that White Nose Syndrome has caused a 99 percent population decline for some cave bat species.
In addition to the threats from diseases that wildlife is facing, the Commission’s ability to effectively enforce the laws designed to protect wildlife in the Commonwealth is also being challenged.
We currently have 18 vacancies in our Wildlife Conservation Officer force, which has resulted in officers being required to cover multiple districts, with sizes of 750 square miles or more.
Furthermore due to the lack of funding, we were unable to hold either a Wildlife Conservation Officer or Deputy Conservation Officer class during this past year.
We recently asked the Governor’s Office for the spending authority to use money in the Game Fund Reserve account specifically for the purpose of holding a Wildlife Conservation Officer class. But even if we do receive that additional spending authority, it will be difficult to catch up with the number of projected vacancies, as we anticipate more than 30 percent of our officer districts will be vacant by 2018, and up to 40 percent may be vacant by 2019, when the anticipated class would graduate.
As an agency that values our mission of protecting the Commonwealth’s wildlife, knowing that we will be short up to one-third of our officers is cause for significant concern. There is no way to skirt around the fact that poaching incidences will go undetected, and our officers will be limited in the services that they can provide to the public.
Our ability to confront these challenges is directly tied to funding. At a time when wildlife is facing unprecedented threats, we have been forced to make significant cuts in order to balance our budget.
This past year, we eliminated an additional 14 full-time positions from our complement. We currently have 74 full-time positions vacant, which is in excess of 10 percent of our overall complement. This has been done through furloughing employees and not back-filling positions as they became vacant through attrition.
We also let contracts expire for approximately 45 limited-term employees, some of whom represented the only means we had to effectively and efficiently monitor game and nongame wildlife populations.
Furthermore, we took the additional step of closing two of our four pheasant farms. This required informing our dedicated and hardworking employees at our Western and Northcentral Game Farms that there was no longer funding available to support their positions. As a result, our hunters will see approximately 70,000 fewer pheasants stocked this fall hunting season.
Without additional revenues in the near future, we will have to take even greater steps to reduce spending which will undoubtedly reduce the services we provide. Some of the proposals under consideration include closing facilities such as the Middle Creek Wildlife Management Area Visitor Center and the Howard Nursery.
I have no doubt these proposals will not be popular with the general public or our hunting-license buyers. However, without additional revenues, we will have no choice but to continue to make significant reductions in the programs and services we provide to remain within our budget.
Over the past year, we have had numerous meetings with members of this Committee, your colleagues in the Senate, members of the public, and many sportsmen’s organizations, and we believe there is widespread support for legislation to increase the Commission’s revenues to ensure we can fulfill our mission.
As an alternative to the usual one-time license-fee increase, we again ask the Committee to consider allowing the Commission to set hunting and furtaker license fees. This would allow the Board of Commissioners to make slower and more incremental fee changes, based upon the feedback we receive from license buyers, as opposed to a significant increase every 10 to 15 years.
Senate Bill 1166 from last session would have provided the Commission with this authority, and I thank Chairman Gillespie for his leadership in bringing that bill to this Committee and the members who provided their support. Unfortunately, the session ended before Senate Bill 1166 received consideration from the full House.
Whenever we discuss the subject of legislation to raise license fees, we know that there will be opposition from some segments. And that opposition will mainly focus on deer numbers. The argument being that unless the Commission provides a certain number of deer for hunters, the Commission should not have an increase in revenue.
This short-sighted argument misses the mark on several levels.
First, back in 1895, the Commission was established as an independent agency and specifically set up to utilize the best science available to manage our wildlife resources. To tie adequate funding for the agency with deer populations reaching a subjective level undercuts the very principles of sound scientific wildlife management, which is what the public expects from the agency mandated to manage the Commonwealth’s wildlife for current and future generations.
Second, as the Commission enters its 18th year without a license increase, the longest time span since the Great Depression and World War II, the cuts the agency is now being forced to make are directly impacting hunters. The lack of a license increase has resulted in fewer pheasants stocked, fewer acres of Game Lands set aside for hunting and trapping, fewer acres of habitat managed for wildlife, and fewer officers protecting wildlife from poaching.
I believe that most of our hunters understand this, which is why 13 of the statewide sportsmen’s organizations have gone on record in support of increasing license fees. They value the work that the agency is doing and recognize that withholding additional revenue does nothing but cause long-term damage to wildlife and the future of hunting and furtaking in Pennsylvania.
As I conclude, and on a more personal note, this will be the last time I deliver the Game Commission’s Annual Report, as I will be retiring from state service at the end of March.
It has been my sincere pleasure and honor to work for the Pennsylvania Game Commission for just shy of 36 years.
During my career, I have seen the agency achieve numerous accomplishments, from the successful restoration of the bald eagle, the wild turkey, and the river otter, to the growth of the elk herd, to setting aside the 1.5 millionth acre of State Game Lands and actively managing those lands for wildlife habitat.
I am proud of the first-class hunting and furtaking opportunities that the Commission continues to offer our sportsmen. Pennsylvania can boast of having the second-highest number of license buyers in the nation, and to being one of the only states that consistently ranks near the top nationally for harvests of deer, wild turkey and black bear.
As proud as I am of the Commission’s successes, I know that its ability to continue to fulfill its mission will require adequate funding. Without additional resources, it simply will no longer be able to preserve land, create wildlife habitat, provide access to hunting and trapping opportunities, protect wildlife, and monitor and respond to wildlife diseases. In short, the Game Commission will not be able to perform the tasks that have made this agency the premier wildlife agency in the nation.
But despite the difficulties that it faces, I am optimistic about the future. Over the past three years that I have served as Executive Director, I had the opportunity to meet with many members of this Committee personally.
I know that you share our commitment to wildlife and natural resources. And I trust that by working together, the Commission and this Committee can overcome the challenges, and continue to serve our wildlife, hunters and trappers, and members of the public.
Thank-you once again and I will be happy to answer any questions you may have.”
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