Fewer hunters, anglers may be costly
John Hartman of Worthington was born to hunt.
As a child, Hartman joined his father in the woods during hunting season and learned the trade, then began actively participating when he turned 12 years old. He, in turn, wasted little time passing down that tradition to his children, often taking his son, J.R., with him when J.R. was as young as 2.
Saturday morning, the Hartmans were along the Allegheny River, J.R. now 14 and enjoying a designated youth day for hunting waterfowl. It was another day in what’s been more than a decade of waking before dawn to enjoy each other’s company and the sport.
“It’s just something that’s been handed down through the generations with us,” John Hartman said. “My brothers all hunt. My nephews hunt. We’ve just always hunted.”
Once a common story, theirs slowly is becoming the exception across the state’s wildlife lands and streams.
Following a nationwide trend, the number of hunters and anglers in Pennsylvania is dwindling. Youngsters, either not being introduced and attracted to the activities or simply losing interest in them, are failing to replace at a proportionate rate the older sportsmen who are dying or dropping out of the sporting ranks altogether.
Local sportsmen said it’s becoming a dire situation, one that has many onlookers wondering if it’s time for Pennsylvanians who aren’t sportsmen to share the cost of managing everything from white-tailed deer and warblers to brook trout and bullfrogs.
The job of looking after Pennsylvania’s fish and wildlife rests with two agencies. The Pennsylvania Game Commission is responsible for managing the state’s birds and mammals. The state Fish and Boat Commission is responsible for its fish, reptiles and amphibians.
Both rely almost exclusively on revenue from the sale of hunting and fishing licenses. Neither gets general tax fund money, even though the Congressional Sportsmen’s Foundation estimates that hunting and fishing spark $3.89 billion in economic activity in Pennsylvania each year.
That system has worked in the past. But some Game Commission projections suggest Pennsylvania might lose 26 percent to 46 percent of its hunters by 2020. The decline in anglers is expected to be equally precipitous.
If that comes to pass, and the game and fish commissions still are being funded solely by license dollars, the agencies are going to be hard-pressed to carry out their missions, said Bob Gilford, a member of the Game Commission board from Tionesta.
“They’re going to have to cut back on services, period,” said Joe Shurina of Tarentum, a member of the Tri-County Trout Club, Pittsburgh Downriggers, Sons of Lake Erie and Frazer Sportsmen’s Club. “They’re going to have to cut back on things they’re not going to be able to do and cover. Personally, I think (the two commissions) should and would have to join together.”
Doing so, however, likely would put the state in charge of the newly created commission, something many sportsmen do not exactly favor.
“If you start getting money from the politicians,” said Verona resident Joe Connors, treasurer of the Allegheny County Sportsmen’s League, “they have their fingers in it, and they start to dictate.”
Some have said that Pennsylvania should follow Missouri’s lead and devote a portion of its existing sales tax to conservation. Senior Game Commission officials have suggested the Legislature impose a new tax on the sale of guns, fishing tackle, binoculars and other outdoors equipment, much as Texas has done. Others point to Gov. Ed Rendell’s campaign promise to raise $1 billion in new money for conservation, perhaps through a bond issue.
State Rep. Dave Levdansky, an Allegheny County Democrat, is pursuing a plan to take a portion of the tipping fee collected on each ton of garbage dumped in the state and devote it to the two agencies.
There’s proof that any one of those strategies might work, said Dennis Guise, deputy executive director of the Fish and Boat Commission.
That agency is required by law to divide its money into two funds. The first, known as the fish fund, is financed primarily through license sales and has suffered as sales have declined, he said. The other, known as the boat fund, is healthy because boat registration fees account for only about 80 percent of its revenue. The remainder comes from an excise tax on gasoline.
That nonlicense funding makes all the difference, Guise said. “The No. 1 lesson you can learn by comparing the boat fund and the fish fund is that an alternative revenue approach works, not just in other states, but right here in Pennsylvania.”
However, finding new money for the game and fish commissions does not figure to be easy.
Rendell remains committed to the cause of conservation funding, said Michael Lukens, a spokesman in the governor’s office. But in terms of priorities, it ranks below education and economic development.
Even then, it remains to be seen whether the commissions will get any of the money a conservation bond issue might supply.
There are other problems. The state’s sportsmen and nonconsumptive conservationists have not always agreed on how any new funding should be used.
Melody Zullinger, executive director of the Pennsylvania Federation of Sportsmen’s Clubs, wants to see the state’s conservation agencies get some additional money. She’s not too keen, though, on using it to do things like add to the Game Commission’s 1.3 million-acre state gamelands system.
She worries that such a move would compromise the agency’s ability to justify managing the land primarily for wildlife and hunting.
Land acquisition, though, is exactly what the Pennsylvania Sierra Club would like to see any new funding used for, said Jeff Schmidt, director of the group.
Local sportsmen said while the situation is not ideal, options exist for finding alternative funding.
“What they’re going to do is bring other seasons in,” said Ford City resident and Buffalo Valley Sportsmen’s Association member Larry Hartman, John Hartman’s brother. “They’re even talking about bringing in another doe season next year and sell licenses for that.”
Part of the problem stems from the fact children simply aren’t being introduced to hunting and fishing the way the Hartmans were when they were young.
Little League has become a three-season activity; youth football is popular in the fall in western Pennsylvania; and access to the Internet has increased dramatically in the past decade.
“You have to start a kid out early hunting and fishing,” Larry Hartman said. “You have to keep them out in the woods, and you have to keep them on the streams.”
Cabot resident Doug Baker, a member of the Allegheny County Sportsmen’s League board of directors and North Boros Sportsmen, said the Game Commission has implemented youth days to junior hunters ages 12 to 16 in which they can hunt pheasants, waterfowl and deer on specified days.
“They’re trying to, I think, provide a little bit of an advantage for kids, just to give them a good taste of how fun and exciting it can be,” Baker said.
Opening hunting on Sundays, Baker said, also would help.
“You can fish on Sunday,” he said, “but I can’t hunt on Sunday.”
“I think we’re at a crossroads. Something’s got to give,” said Bill Sabatose, a member of the Fish and Boat Commission board from Elk County. “Bottom line, somebody’s got to give us some money. We need it to survive.”
Contributing: Tribune-Review Media Service.