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 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 2017 Annual Legislative Report.
Burhans’ testimony before the House Game and Fisheries Committee follows:
“Good morning, Chairman Gillespie, Chairman Barbin, and members of the House Game & Fisheries Committee. I am Bryan Burhans, Executive Director for the Pennsylvania Game Commission. On a personal note, this is my first report before this committee. I am honored to be here.
“The Pennsylvania Game Commission is the Commonwealth’s state wildlife agency.
“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 primarily 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 conservationists and the creatures that put the “wild” in 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, almost 2,000 acres were added to the game lands system. The Game Commission also used controlled burns on nearly 15,000 acres, and timber harvests on 8,500 acres to improve habitat for a myriad species on game lands.
“The agency’s infrastructure on games lands in tremendous. For example, our habitat management crews are responsible for maintaining 3,871 miles of roads – long enough to stretch from Harrisburg to California, and then halfway back across the country. We maintain 368 buildings, 29 shooting ranges, 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; 43 percent of our budget is invested in habitat-management activities.
“In addition, the Game Commission paid out $1,798,320 to local governments, counties, school districts, and townships in lieu of taxes on state game lands during the fiscal year.
“However, it is important to note that 1.5 million acres of games lands only represents 5 percent of the state’s land area.
“Pennsylvania is also blessed 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.
“The Pennsylvania 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 when you count the number of Commonwealth citizens who volunteer their time to support the agency’s mission, the head count is impressive.
“For example, the agency has 2,217 Hunter-Trapper Education Program instructors spread across the state who receive no compensation for their services. These volunteers provide $1,071,811 in volunteered time that we match with federal dollars. Countless others participate in habitat improvements on state game lands, or in surveys to document changes in wildlife populations.
“In addition, the agency has over 350 deputy game wardens who are appointed and work side-by-side with state game wardens to protect wildlife and serve Pennsylvanians. Our team represents an amazing and effective workforce dedicated to wildlife conservation.
“In the past fiscal year, the agency’s law-enforcement officers logged 195,160 contacts, which resulted in about 7,500 prosecutions and approximately 12,000 warnings. Our law-enforcement contacts were down more than 17,000 from the previous fiscal year because currently 20 percent of the agency’s officer districts are vacant. A projected 40 percent of the districts will be vacant before a new class, that started this month, graduates next spring.
“On a final law-enforcement note, the agency has changed the title of wildlife conservation officer to game warden to more fully identify the unique and diverse responsibilities of these officers. As one of the most familiar faces of our agency, it is critical that game wardens are recognized for who they are and what they do. Anything less is unacceptable.
“The decision to launch the new game warden change in January was deliberate. Inventories of uniforms, patches, and vehicle decals were nearly depleted. And with a current class of game wardens in training right now, these supplies had to be purchased anyway. The net cost of this change is about $25,000. Now was the most prudent and financially responsible time to roll out this change. We are already seeing a great response from the public.
“The challenges before us are immense. Chronic Wasting Disease threatens our hunting heritage, and the state’s $1.6 billion industry tied to hunting. Like the loss of the American chestnut tree from chestnut blight, the introduction of CWD into Pennsylvania is an ecological disaster unfolding before our eyes.
“A new captive deer turned up positive for CWD on a Lancaster County deer farm recently, requiring the agency to establish a new Disease Management Area in parts of Lancaster, Lebanon and Berks counties. It will take time to assess what, if any, biological consequences this deer farm poses to the state whitetail population, and deer hunters. At the very least, local hunters will be inconvenienced for years to come. However, deer processors and taxidermists will be affected by CWD as movement of high-risk deer parts are prohibited from the Disease Management Area.
“Speaking of hunters, I should point out that hunter numbers continue to decline. It’s a trend that isn’t unique to Pennsylvania. Most states face this challenge. This trend is driven by complex cultural changes and aging populations of hunters. Declines in hunter numbers started in 1981 and continues today, although at a rate much slower than 20 to 30 years ago.
“The loss of hunters who buy licenses is a threat to wildlife conservation as we know it. We simply cannot maintain effective and responsive wildlife programs with less income.
“In addition, there is a new proposed federal regulation, 80 CFR section 50, that will require a minimum license revenue of $2 instead of the current $1. Ten of our licenses only net the agency $1, including disabled vet licenses, certain military licenses, mentored youth, and senior lifetime license holders. This will result in a $750,000 loss of annual revenue to the agency due to the loss of federal match, which is $37 for every license sold. We would like to work with you and the Senate on a fix to this issue.
“Other challenges such as West Nile virus threaten our state bird, the ruffed grouse. PGC wildlife biologist Lisa Williams was the first scientist in North American to affirm that WNV 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 WNV infections.
“White nose syndrome also has eliminated 99 percent of some species of cave bats. And invasive plant species continue to damage quality wildlife habitats across the state.
“Some of these threats continue to grow. Others smother wildlife populations. That Pennsylvania has more than 100 species of greatest conservation need speaks volumes about the tough times wildlife endures.
“Remember, for every bald eagle success story, there are a dozen others about struggling species, such as the cerulean warbler, the northern flying squirrel and the American bittern.
“Pennsylvanians, however, should know our employees, volunteers, and our partners are committed to reversing these trends. It won’t be easy and it won’t happen overnight. But know that we won’t throw in the towel.
“Wildlife is too important to too many Pennsylvanians.
“On a more positive note, our hunters are enjoying some of the best big-game hunting Pennsylvania has provided in decades, likely even in the agency’s history. Here are just a few highlights:
- Highest turkey harvest in the nation
- Highest number of turkey hunters in the nation
- Most fall turkey hunters in the nation
- Most bear hunters in the nation
- Highest number of furtakers in the nation
“And our most popular game species, the white-tailed deer, further demonstrates the effectiveness of the state’s deer-management program. In fact, researchers from Simon Fraser University, University of Wisconsin, University of Victoria, Hakai Institute, and the Raincoast Conservation Foundation released a study last week and reported that the Game Commission’s deer-management plan was in a four-way tie for No. 1 in North America with Montana’s bighorn sheep plan, Washington’s mountain goat and bighorn sheep plan and Wisconsin’s deer-management plan for the highest-scoring species plan in North America. A total of 667 species plans were evaluated. These plans were evaluated based on four criteria: measurable objectives, evidence, transparency, and independent scientific review. These findings further recognize the quality of our agency’s wildlife biologists and the validity of our deer-management program.
“And the effectiveness of our deer-management plan translates to great deer hunting. The following facts were reported in the Quality Deer Management Association’s 2018 Whitetail report:
- Top 5 in the nation for total antlered buck harvest
- 2 in the nation for antlered buck harvest per square mile (only 0.3 deer away from No. 1)
- 3 in nation for antlerless harvest
- 3 in nation for antlerless harvest per square mile
- Top 5 for greatest increase in buck harvest
“Huge bucks are being taken everywhere.
“Black bear hunting has never been better.
“Turkey hunting also packs plenty of excitement, and, if you’re lucky enough to be drawn for an elk tag, you’ll be on the hunt of a lifetime.
“Speaking of the elk tag, thank you again for reauthorizing the conservation tag for the Keystone Elk Country Alliance. Last year, the raffle for that tag raised $179,849 for elk conservation. This funding was used by KECA to purchase land, provide conservation education, and enhance elk habitat.
“In addition, the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation auctioned off their special elk tag and raised $85,000. This funding was used to purchase additional land for elk conservation adjacent to State Game Lands 311.
“In all, last year, these two organizations raised over a quarter of a million dollars for elk conservation here in Pennsylvania.
“It’s hard to imagine so much opportunity coming from our resource at a time when Pennsylvania’s human population is so large; as more and more wild acres continue to be consumed by development.
“It’s a credit to sound management and the resiliency of these big-game species. But it’s also closely related to habitat. Remember, no species thrives on bad habitat. That’s why state game lands and sound wildlife management matter so much in Penn’s Woods.
“The importance of quality wildlife habitat was again demonstrated this year with our first wild pheasant hunt in decades. Working with our partners at Pheasants Forever, the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service, and the Farm Service Agency, we hosted our first wild pheasant hunt for youth on our Central Susquehanna Wild Pheasant Recovery Area. This success clearly demonstrates that providing quality habitat is the key to supporting wildlife and the importance of partnerships.
“Speaking of pheasants, our changes to the pheasant-propagation program were very successful. We underwent complete restructuring of the production model of our pheasant-propagation program by cutting our propagation farms from four to two and furloughing half of the pheasant-propagation staff. A major change in our production model was purchasing day-old pheasant chicks from a local Pennsylvania producer instead of holding over our own laying hens and incubating the eggs.
“And it worked. Prior to the restructuring, pheasant propagation cost the agency approximately $4.4 million resulting in a production cost of $19.87 per bird. For the fiscal year 2018-19, propagation costs are projected to be $2.3 million resulting in a production cost of $10.23 per bird. In addition, the Game Commission’s new pheasant permit provided over $1.1 million (42,844 permits) in new revenue to help support costs. This brings the overall net expense for pheasant propagation to less than $1.2 million for the fiscal year 2018-19 season.
“And more good news; the Game Commission has applied for a grant through the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to bring our total number of birds released back to 220,000 birds. Pheasant hunters should look forward to an outstanding season.
“The Pennsylvania Game Commission distinguishes its statutory responsibility to protect wildlife as its most critical role in conservation. We roll up our sleeves every day and work diligently to meet wildlife’s challenges head-on. After all, the future of hunting, trapping, and wildlife conservation is at stake.
“To offer you a closer look at the agency’s operations, I have brought along hard-copy annual reports to acquaint you with our diverse responsibilities and accomplishments. It provides those additional details you might seek. I also have a short video to share with you. It’s a fast-moving tour about what we do and what we’re all about.
“I’d like to thank the committee for this opportunity to outline our accomplishments and challenges. The agency stands ready to assist and work with this committee to sustain and improve our Great Outdoors. Together, we have made this happen for countless generations of Pennsylvania hunters, trappers and wildlife enthusiasts. I am confident there is much more we will accomplish together.
“Now, I will be happy to answer any questions you might have.”
Courtesy PA Game Commission