Pennsylvania Game Commission Executive Director Bryan Burhans Wednesday 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 www.pgc.pa.gov, and click on the link under “Quick Clicks” on the homepage.
Burhans’ testimony before the House Game and Fisheries Committee follows:
Good morning Chairman Gillespie, Chairman Neilson and members of the House Game and Fisheries Committee. Thank you for the opportunity to appear before you today and to deliver the Game Commission’s 2020 annual report. Like everyone, The Game Commission faced many challenges and unique obstacles in 2020, but our employees found ways to ensure our hunting and trapping seasons, state game lands, wildlife conservation programs and other services we provide met the needs of Pennsylvanians and the wildlife we manage.
I am very proud of the agency’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic. When we started hearing rumors of a shutdown, staff began preparing laptops. Within 48 hours of the governor’s mandatory closure, we were able to equip our essential employees with laptops to keep all critical operations up and running. In fact, key business functions, such as license sales and law enforcement continued without interruption.
Due to the dispersed and remote work our employees are typically assigned, we were able to keep staff working throughout most of the pandemic and stay within the guidelines set by the governor. Our foresters continued to lay out forestry projects, our biologists continued with their field research, and our habitat crews continued management of our game lands. We have a very dedicated and committed workforce; their response to COVID-19 clearly demonstrated this devotion.
Our staff adapted to the challenges presented by the pandemic and found ways to overcome this adversity. For example, our staff developed and launched the Wildlife on WiFi, or WoW, an innovative program to provide home-based learning content during the state’s stay-at-home orders. This innovative program has received national recognition and was recently awarded the Stephen Kellert Award from the Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies, as well as the 2021 Pennsylvania Association of Environmental Educators “Outstanding Environmental Education Program.”
COVID-19 did increase the demands placed on the Game Commission. More people wanted to hunt and trap, visit state game lands, and purchase our products. We met that challenge head-on.
With the pandemic forcing many forms of recreation and entertainment to shut down, visitors to our state game lands system increased dramatically. For many, spending time hunting, hiking, and birdwatching on a game lands represented one of the few activities in which they could legally and safely participate.
If you happened to drive by any of the more than 300 game lands found in 65 counties across the state, chances are you noticed parking spaces were at a premium. The increased use on those game lands demonstrated the importance of the 100 years of investments made by hunters, trappers, and conservation partners in acquiring and maintaining these public lands.
In addition, we experienced increased demand in other areas of our operations, such as in the number of people who visited our website, engaged with us on social media, and viewed our livestream wildlife cameras. More people purchased hunting and furtaking licenses, applied for an elk license, hunted over managed dove fields, bought a pheasant permit, used our shooting ranges, and found time to hunt and trap.
In all these areas, the increase in participation resulted in an increase in the responsibilities and workload on our employees. And in every case, our staff rose to the challenge and met the additional demands, overcoming the obstacles presented by the disruption to our staff’s ability to communicate and collaborate.
Perhaps the best summation that can be said regarding our efforts over the previous year to deal with the COVID-19 shutdown is that members of the public saw little disruption in the services that we provided. The PGC staff met these challenges and the public continued to receive services from the Commission.
Our efforts this past year include an expansion of the Wildlife Futures Program, a partnership with the University of Pennsylvania’s School of Veterinary Medicine that is focused on improving wildlife-disease management and surveillance and promoting wildlife research. The accomplishments of this collaboration include establishing a state-of-the-art diagnostic laboratory for CWD surveillance, which reduced by almost 50 percent the turnaround time for testing samples submitted by hunters, from 15 days in 2019 to 9 days in 2020. This is a significant accomplishment especially when compared to many other states across the nation that reported substantial increases in turnaround time and declines in CWD sampling caused by complications associated with COVID-19.
Nongame species are vital for cultivating healthy and diverse ecosystems in Pennsylvania. Because the current pandemic has placed additional human pressure on global bat populations, the Wildlife Futures and PGC developed and validated COVID-19 testing for bats. This assay was initially designed to assist the PGC’s wildlife rehabilitation permittees in returning injured bats back to the wild and preventing bat/human COVID-19 exposure. This diagnostic tool can also aid with wildlife-disease surveillance of native bat species for COVID-19 and can be used for other species.
During last year’s annual report to this committee, I told you about a bold and innovative pilot project undertaken by this new partnership to train dogs to detect chronic wasting disease. I am pleased to report that two dogs have successfully passed the first phases of this pilot research and have shown that they can detect CWD infected samples and are now entering the final trial. This final trial will focus on CWD detection in field situations. Once the data are evaluated, larger field research will be conducted. The CWD-infected materials from these trials are also being used for two additional studies to try to detect CWD in several different deer tissues and in deer feces.
These projects and other initiatives focused on advanced diagnostic testing represent possible breakthroughs in our efforts to manage CWD. Being able to detect CWD in the field has the potential to provide us with another surveillance tool to identify new infections and respond accordingly.
We also began implementation of our CWD Response Plan. Based on science and input from various content experts like Dr. Krysten Schuler from Cornell University and Dr. Bryan Richards from the United States Geological Survey – National Wildlife Health Center, state agencies from Minnesota, Wisconsin, Michigan, and Illinois, supporting partners like the Wildlife Futures Program and the National Deer Association, and months of public comment, the plan sets forth a clear path forward for minimizing the impact of this disease to our deer herd. The plan incorporates measurable goals and objectives along with an adaptive approach to ensure appropriate and effective responses are implemented.
Among the strategies identified in the plan are increasing hunting opportunities, providing accurate and timely information on CWD testing results, and conducting educational and outreach campaigns to communicate key messages to stakeholders. Although CWD sampling for this fiscal year will continue through the end of June, through the participation of hunters, agency staff, and various collaborators, we already collected over 11,626 CWD samples. We still anticipate some additional samples through the collection of road-killed deer and clinical suspects. Of the samples collected so far this year, 196 were positive for CWD. In comparison, a total of 15,822 samples were collected last year, of which 206 were positive for CWD. Working with Wildlife Futures, we launched a CWD visualization tool to allow hunters and the public to view results from our testing efforts based on location. We are confident that by working with hunters and our conservation partners on implementing these strategies we can limit the spread of this disease, and in so doing, ensure thriving deer and elk populations for future generations.
With regard to increasing opportunities on state game lands, our 32 firearms/archery ranges across the Commonwealth continue to see increases in use and, in response, we have updated and enhanced nearly all of the ranges that were included in our 2020 Vision for the Future document, with the last several either under construction or nearly designed so that they can be put out to bid in the very near future. These enhancements increase not only the useability of our ranges, but also allow us to maintain them more efficiently.
Throughout the year, changes at our Haldeman Island and Blue Marsh Wildlife Management Areas were dramatic, with us heading in the direction of creating long term, year-round habitat for a multitude of wildlife species. Combined, these areas converted almost 1,500 acres into highly functional and sustainable habitats for small-game species such as cottontail rabbits, woodcock, and ring-necked pheasants as well as a multitude of non-game species. Large-scale prescribed fire will be incorporated into each of these areas to ensure that the highest-quality habitats can be maintained on site.
Also, as part of our 2020 Vision for the Future, the Shohola Falls Wildlife Management Area in Pike County received treatments for an aquatic invasive plant that rapidly overtook this large water body that supports a variety of waterfowl species. Unfortunately, this invasive species rapidly crowded out native plants that were beneficial to wildlife and through the treatments we are hopeful to return this water body to a more-productive overall wildlife habitat. The cost of these treatments in not cheap, with over $200,000 spent to date. However, the positive impacts to wildlife and the anglers who use the lake is dramatic.
And finally, the Game Commission has focused hard on creating high-quality early successional habitat on our state game lands. This habitat type continues to be in serious decline across Pennsylvania and we are working toward a long-term goal of balancing our age class distribution of forests at the landscape level on our game lands. This past year, we impacted over 16,000 acres of state game lands through commercial and non-commercial forestry activities, which is an increase from approximately 7,000 acres in just six years. This increase does not come without a cost though, with the overall costs for the non-commercial treatments nearly doubling to over $1.5 million, as well as additional costs in personnel. Leveraging GIS resources, most importantly the grouse siting tool, referred to as G-PAST (Grouse Priority Area Siting Tool), created over the last few years, has allowed us to focus habitat treatment areas so that we can have the biggest opportunity for a multitude of species including our state bird the ruffed grouse.
I would also like to take a minute to mention that the agency staff who developed the G-PAST tool received both state and national recognition. Our grouse biologist, Lisa Williams, was awarded the Association of Fish and Wildlife Association’s Ernest Thompson Seton Award, given to “to the state, provincial, or federal agency which has best promoted a public awareness of the need to support the science and practice of wildlife management.” Additionally, the Game Commission development team, including Lisa, that developed this siting tool received the Governor’s Award for Excellence for their collaboration on developing this novel tool. The G-PAST is now being used by other state wildlife agencies to assist their efforts to enhance grouse populations.
On the wildlife protection front, 103 full-time state game wardens, assisted by 247 deputy game wardens, were active across the state in 2020. Thirty-one of the agency’s 134 game warden districts were vacant and dependent upon wardens in neighboring districts for coverage. On average, each full-time warden was responsible for covering more than 400 square miles.
On February 13th, a class of 27 cadets graduated from the Ross Leffler School of Conservation and were deployed to fill some of the vacant districts. Our efforts to fully staff all districts across the state will continue into 2021, with the next class scheduled to begin later this month.
During the 2019-20 fiscal year, wardens issued just over 6,000 warnings which equates to almost one warning for each citation and demonstrates the fair-but-firm approach used by our wardens. Of the cases prosecuted by wardens, the success rate was 96.6 percent, which is testament to their training and professionalism.
And this past year we continued our efforts to provide more opportunities for Pennsylvania’s hunters.
We expanded the number of managed dove fields in all six of the agency’s regions, with more than 550 acres prepared for the 2020 season. We constantly receive feedback from hunters on how much they appreciate these fields and the hard work put in by the agency’s habitat-management crews, as managed dove fields represent the first time that dove hunters in Pennsylvania have a dedicated location on public lands to enjoy fast-action dove hunting.
The Board of Commissioners increased the length of squirrel season, starting it almost a month earlier than in prior years, creating an opportunity for young and new hunters to take advantage of a season that is often the gateway to a lifetime in the outdoors.
The agency stocked over 221,231 pheasants this year, which were hunted by 49,613 adults and 13,220 juniors for a total of 62,833 permit holders. The recreational benefits of our pheasant propagation program continue to be highly valued by hunters, as evidenced by this year’s sales of adult pheasant hunting permits being 13 percent higher than in 2017, when the permit was initiated. Under our current two-farm business model, we are stocking the same number of pheasants as we did under the previous four-farm model, but at a per-bird cost of less than $14 compared to about $21 previously. Moreover, releases now consist of 75 percent males compared to 50 percent previously, further increasing hunter satisfaction.
The board also expanded the length of the bear season, providing for the bear archery season to take place for three full weeks in 2020. This expansion is a benefit to both hunters and farmers, as this archery season allows hunters to better target bears that are impacting agricultural operations. In 2020, hunters harvested 3,608 bears – the sixth-best harvest ever – and it followed last year’s harvest of over 4,600 bears. Bear-population trends show that we are meeting our management goal of a healthy and sustainable bear population, and we will continue to address our goal of maintaining acceptable levels of bear-human conflicts by providing appropriate hunting opportunities.
The board extended archery deer season further into the rut than ever before. Given the continued growth in the popularity of archery hunting, this expansion was greatly appreciated by our hunters who took advantage of the additional chances to pursue the world-class trophy whitetails that our state has to offer.
Additionally, the board continued to start firearms deer season on a Saturday to fully maximize the impact of the legislation providing for Sunday hunting during that season. This allowed for the first two days of the firearms deer season to take place over the course of a weekend, making it much more convenient for hunters to participate.
When it comes to deer hunting in Pennsylvania, we are proud of the successes we continue to experience and the opportunities we provide our hunters. It is worth noting that a recent report from the National Deer Association credited Pennsylvania as one of only three states in the entire U.S. to harvest more than 300,000 deer annually. The report also noted that Pennsylvania is second in the nation for antlered deer harvested per square mile, and first in the nation in overall deer harvested per square mile. These numbers are a testament to the hunting culture and traditions in our state that remain alive and well, as well as the health and productivity of our deer herd.
I am pleased to report that the two elk Special Conservation licenses, one auctioned off by the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation (RMEF), and the other through raffle sales by the Keystone Elk Country Alliance (KECA), generated a record setting $150,000 and $215,375 respectively. Funds from the RMEF were used to improve elk habitat and the revenue from KECA were used for wildlife-conservation education and elk-habitat improvement in the elk range.
As we look ahead to the new legislative session, I am hopeful for the opportunity to work with this Committee on important legislation to modernize our hunting licenses to increase customer service to Pennsylvanians.
A bill that has the support of the Game Commission and our license buyers is House Bill 207 by Representative Mullery, which would allow us to leverage the advantages of our new licensing system to provide a much-more-efficient process for hunters to apply for antlerless licenses.
Today, consumers can purchase a car or apply for a home mortgage with several clicks on their phone. But hunters still must undertake a multi-step process that involves manually filling out an application and self-addressed stamped envelope and hoping that the U.S. Postal Service delivers the application in a timely manner to a county treasurer. COVID-19 significantly interrupted mail service in 2020, and in some instances negatively impacted the chances of hunters to acquire licenses for their preferred Wildlife Management Units.
The current mail-in approach is completely outdated, unpopular, and provides no benefit to our customers. With our new, recently deployed licensing system, the Game Commission is ready and able to implement a process that would allow hunters to apply and receive antlerless licenses at the point-of-sale when they purchase the rest of their licenses. It’s time to make this change and provide hunters a more convenient way to buy an antlerless license.
As part of our license-modernization focus, we also would like to work with this Committee on providing the Game Commission the authority to modernize our license sales, similar to Act 56 of 2020, which provided this authority to the Fish and Boat Commission. I applaud the Committee, and Representative Mehaffie for championing that legislation. The process defined and set forth in that bill is vital to the continued modernization of our license offerings.
Like our sister agency, the Fish and Boat Commission, the Game Commission does not receive money from the General Fund. We have a governing Board of Commissioners that sets policy, hire a workforce to implement that policy, create our budget and allocate resources where necessary, and generate revenue primarily through license sales and natural-resource development on lands owned by the Commission. But we don’t have the authority to manage our hunting licenses. This limits our ability to prepare for the future and the growing challenges our agency faces. License fees are the agency’s most stable revenue stream. Allowing us to manage them ensures we’ll always have the financial capacity to fund the Commonwealth’s wildlife conservation.
The cost of a general hunting or furtaking license has not increased since 1999. We continue to operate on a licensing structure that is over two decades old, and pricing hasn’t kept pace with inflation – even though our expenses have. Only through natural-resource development have we been able to meet our financial obligations.
This was recently noted in the 2020 audit report conducted by the Legislative Budget and Finance Committee. The audit stated: “The data shows that revenues per capita and revenues per licensee are not, at this time, placing an undue burden on hunters...That said, the Pennsylvania Game Commission has not received an increase in the price of a license since 1999. As such, the sources of revenue are trending toward an overreliance on extraction of natural resources.”
We agree with this assessment, and share the concerns raised in the audit report. In the long term, an overreliance on natural-resource development puts the Commission in a vulnerable financial situation, as a downturn in those markets would threaten the Commission’s financial wellbeing and, in turn, the important services we provide.
In fact, that very situation is occurring this year; we are projecting a decrease in revenue from oil-and-gas-development on game lands which will require us to pull over $11 million from our reserve so we don’t have to reduce services. We are projecting to pull an additional $15 million from reserve for the 2021-2022 fiscal year and slightly over $9 million from reserve for the 2022-2023 fiscal year. These revenue estimates could change due to the natural volatility of market-driven revenue sources, namely natural gas. However, when these decreases become a trend, or a “new norm,” the agency will have to reduce services to align with financial capacity. Fortunately, the agency has a healthy financial reserve, which allows us more flexibility to deal with market-driven revenue fluctuations without immediately reducing services expected by the public.
A more stable funding structure is one in which the licenses and license fees are set by the Commission, with the ability to offer new types of licenses that we can better market to our hunters and trappers, and if needed, make small, incremental adjustments in license price when necessary.
We believe it is time for such a system to be adopted and I look forward to the opportunity to work with the Committee on making this change.
We also would like to build upon the successes of Act 107 of 2019, which provided for three days of hunting on Sundays. This change was implemented in 2020 and was met with great enthusiasm by hunters who have sought the chance to hunt on Sundays for several decades. Although our human-dimensions research is still ongoing, we believe that providing Sunday hunting is at least partially to be credited for the increase in license buyers in 2020.
We know lack of free time is often cited as the No. 1 reason that hunters stop participating. The COVID-19 pandemic, if anything, demonstrated what happens when people have more free time – hunting licenses sales and participation increased. Therefore, providing more weekend hunting opportunities is one of the best steps we can take to address the issue of declining hunter participation.
The Game Commission supports opening additional Sundays to hunting and welcomes the opportunity to work with this Committee to craft legislation giving full authority to the Board of Commissioners to offer additional Sunday hunting opportunities. This year’s Sunday hunting opportunities were extremely popular with our hunters, and we did not see any substantial issues occur on these Sundays.
We also believe it is necessary to conduct a full, comprehensive update to many sections of Title 34. The last time the Game and Wildlife Code was updated was in 1987. Considering the changes that have occurred in hunting and trapping over the past three decades, it is time to modernize this statute to reflect those changes.
Over the past decade, and largely under the leadership of Chairman Gillespie, we have worked with this Committee to implement important legislative changes. From increasing the penalties for poachers, to joining the Interstate Wildlife Violators Compact, to providing equitable retirement for our game wardens, to expanding Sunday hunting opportunities – all these changes have benefited wildlife, our customers, and the agency.
Additionally, I would be remiss if I didn’t take a minute to thank Representative David Maloney for Act 27 of 2020. During the pandemic, this legislation was finally able to get across the finish line. We certainly appreciate your hard work and look forward to working with you for the betterment of wildlife and conservation in Pennsylvania. Thank you, Representative Maloney.
The legislative proposals I mentioned are an extension of those earlier efforts and will allow us to complete the process of modernizing the agency, putting us on a solid footing to meet the challenges ahead.
This concludes my prepared testimony. I thank the Committee for this opportunity to share the Game Commission’s accomplishments and challenges and to discuss ways we can work together to improve wildlife conservation for all Pennsylvanians.
I am happy to answer any questions you may have.