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House Game and Fisheries Committee
10:00 a.m., 2/16/10, Room 60 East Wing
By Eric A. Failing

The committee met to receive the PA Game Commission's annual report.

Members in attendance included Chairman Edward Staback (D-Lackawanna), Minority Chairman Ronald Miller (R-York), David Levdansky (D-Allegheny), Gary Haluska (D-Cambria), Dan Moul (R-Adams), Jeffrey Pyle (R-Armstrong), Curtis Sonney (R-Erie), Todd Rock (R-Franklin), Bryan Cutler (R-Lancaster), Michael Peifer (R-Wayne), Keith Gillespie (R-York), Michael Hanna (D-Clinton), Deberah Kula (D-Fayette), Mark Keller (R-Perry), and Robert Godshall (R-Montgomery).

Chairman Staback began the meeting by informing members that the Whitetail Deer Management study is scheduled to be presented at 1:00 p.m. before the Joint Legislative Budget and Finance Committee. For that reason, no questions on that program would be taken this morning. He added the Committee will meet to discuss the study on March 9, 2010.

Carl Roe, Executive Director of the PA Game Commission, presented his yearly update to the House Game and Fisheries Committee. According to Roe, while the Commission has been able to achieve many of its annual objectives, but has been hampered by a variety of factors including a hiring freeze and a lack of financial resources. Even with these factors, Roe celebrated the wildlife protection efforts touting that apprehensions for illegal taking of game rose by 5 percent, for hunting over bait rose by 13 percent, and for hunting or taking game with a motorized vehicle rose by 31 percent.

In terms of streamlining operations, Roe cited success with regards to the implementation of the PA Automated License Sales System (PALs) and web enabling data collection for the Christmas Bird Count and the Backyard Bird Count. He also informed members that the Hunting Digest and Game News is now available electronically which enables individuals and schools to have better access.

According to Roe, the Commission expanded its pheasant reintroduction program and the Wounded Warrior Program for injured veterans, introduced a Snow Goose Conservation hunt and next year should be offering a youth rabbit hunt and short open seasons for bobcats and fishers.

On the legislative front, Roe indicated a need for owners of oil, gas and mineral right to notify surface owners of any pending sales or transfer of those rights. He also thanked the Committee for its support of House Bill 1859 or the "poaching bill."

He closed his comments stating that during fiscal year 2008 (FY08) the Commission approved three oil/gas leases within the Marcellus Shale area totaling 2,693.43 acres which were worth an average upfront payment of $907.38 dollars per acre. He added the average royalty per acre for the leases was 23.08 percent. Roe stated that while the Commission received a total of $113,336.26 in royalty revenues during FY08 from Marcellus gas production, there were two environmental degradation incidents causing the need for increased Commission coordination and oversight management scrutiny.

Chairman Staback began the round of questions by thanking Roe for his "straight talk" and the exceptional cooperation he received from Roe's staff while working on the poaching bill.

He then reflected on a conversation with Roe last year where Roe was unable to tell him the total acreage of game lands that contained mineral rights. He asked if the study on this question has been completed. Roe acknowledged marginal progress at best has been made on this front. He further explained that they had to work all year just to try and hire a geologist because of the state hiring freeze but have had an attorney doing deed research on the project. Additionally, they are looking at implementing a $1 million to $1.25 million dollar system to better automate this process. Chairman Staback again asked if the Commission knew the total number of acres with mineral rights. Roe stated he does not and at this point they are doing research only when there is activity around a portion of land. The Chairman then wondered how many of the acres that are known to possess mineral rights are under contract and if there is a plan for those that are not. Roe promised to get this information to the Chairman. Asked how much revenue was being generated from the Marcellus Shale region, Roe replied about $5 million dollars last year of which $2.2 million was from royalties.

Chairman Staback asked when Roe submitted his information on the acres with mineral rights if he could also include data on the estimated revenue the Commission hopes to receive from these lands. Roe expressed concern over this request saying the Legislative Budget and Finance Committee determined that such estimates are nearly impossible because of the fluctuations in the market value of the resources. He added the $5 million received last year did not make up for the shortfall in timber revenue.

Questioned about the status of the court case over mineral rights on State Game Land 57, Roe explained about 12,000 acres are impacted by this and that there is a hearing on the issue later this month.

Chairman Staback offered his support for the split doe hunting season proposal and wondered what kind of feedback the Commission has received on it since the January meeting. Roe admitted they have not received a lot of comments on this but the anecdotal responses they have received have been positive.

The Chairman then asked if the Commission has given any consideration to opening the second week of doe season on the second Monday rather than the first Saturday. He suggested that many hunters would view this as a second season. Roe expressed concern saying most deer are taken on Mondays and Saturdays and that removing a Saturday could negatively impact the opportunities for youth hunters.

Minority Chairman Miller asked for more information on the two incidents of environmental degradation at the drilling sites and wondered if the Department of Environmental Protection should have been involved. Roe replied the Commission prefers to be pro-active in the supervision of activities on game lands. He explained how the incidents resulted in polluting a local fish nursery.

The Minority Chairman then asked if the success of the pheasant reintroduction program was being negatively impacted by the number of other predators. Roe explained the biggest problem to overcome is having enough habitat and cover for the pheasant populations to take hold. He said the Commission only reintroduces into areas that have 15,000 to 20,000 acres. Once this is done, he said that no hunting is allowed in these areas for several years.

Rep. Cutler echoed the Chairman's comments on the hard work the Commission put in on the poaching bill. He then asked Roe why there are more fishers. Roe stated reintroduction programs have occurred in the North Central, North East and South West areas of the state and studies have shown the population has rebounded enough to allow for limited harvest opportunities. Roe quickly added that fishers are a tremendous predator.

Rep. Cutler next asked what impact the bad weather over the past couple of seasons has had up in the Northern tier. Roe replied that it knocked down harvest numbers last year but they do not have numbers for this year yet.

Rep. Pyle began by complimenting the Commission on its work to correct an issue in his district involving a federal agency. He also commented that he has a number of commercial farms in his district that supply the Commission with birds. Roe stated the Commission has a great team of workers and that they have high hopes for both their propagation and their put and take pheasant programs.

Rep. Haluska thanked the Commission for splitting the doe season and asked now that PALs is up and running if there is any talk of updating the antlerless permit system. Roe said it is talked about regularly and that they have the technical ability to update the antlerless permit system. He stressed, however, they are bound by a statute that states county treasurers have to sell the permits. Haluska acknowledged his county treasurer was a bit upset when he brought up the idea but said he would support changing the current system.

Rep. Moul wondered how many Wildlife Conservation Officers (WCOs) the Commission is short. Roe replied they are short 25 because of funding issues but added they are starting a new class in March. In total, Roe said the Commission has 90 vacancies.

Rep. Moul wondered about the impact the increased numbers of hawks are having on pheasants. Roe again stressed that habitat is key. He opined how 50 years ago there were more fence rows and farms left standing corn which provided more cover for pheasants. Asked if the two species can survive together, Roe replied that the growing numbers of hawks have an impact but reminded the Committee there are federal protection issues.

Rep. Moul then asked for Roe's thoughts on Sunday hunting on private land. Roe quipped that if the legislature changes the law, the Commission will address the issue.

Chairman Staback asked about the impact increased coyote numbers are having on the deer herd. Roe responded saying in some areas the coyote population is up and in others it is down. In terms of the impact on the deer herd, he explained the Commission is not seeing changes in the fawn to doe ratio and therefore there is little evidence of wild predator kills. Additionally, Roe stated that coyote harvest numbers are down. Asked by the Chairman if these studies are done statewide, Roe replied yes. Asked if they have done a specific fawn study, Roe said the last fawn-specific study was between 2000-2001 and 2001-2002. He said they do not have the resources to do one now.

Chairman Staback recalled how several years ago the Commission was going to hire biologists to study the impact of coyotes. He asked if this ever happened. Roe acknowledged that biologists have been hired but studying the impact of coyotes has not been a part of their duties.

Rep. Godshall, who was invited as a guest of the Committee, expressed support for modernizing the antlerless deer application process and for limited doe seasons. He argued his belief, however, that coyotes are doing more damage because there is not much for them to eat except deer.

On the issue of Marcellus Shale, he asked if the Commission shares royalties with others. Roe said the Commission owns the right for the wells on its areas but it can become complicated with wells within proximity. He stressed that the Commission's royalty rates are well above most others. Asked if the production rates have been down, Roe confirmed that has been the case which is why they go for higher royalty rates. He said the two wells are in the Centre County and Clearfield County areas. Roe further explained that the Department of Conservation and Natural Resources (DCNR) bid out its areas at a fixed royalty rate in order to maximize rental fees but the Commission does the opposite to maximize royalties.

Rep. Sonney said he's heard in the past that hunting sales have been down and the condition of the state's game lands and forest have been negatively impacted by the number of deer. He asked for an update on the situation. Roe replied that last year hunting license sales were up by one percent and that this year they are up by four percent. In terms of the game lands, he said they have seen regeneration in areas like the Northern tier and as a result increased numbers of snowshoe hares and grouse. Roe added that if they find areas where they think deer fencing is needed they will put it up. He said one of the major issues is keeping deer on the game lands because of the heavy hunting pressures they receive. He also said the Commission needs to work more with DCNR and the DMAP program.

Rep. Sonney then inquired about the impact from the reduced timber sales. Roe replied that he wants areas of production and is not as concerned over monetary goals. According to Roe the state has 10 percent of early growth forest but he would like to see that number increase to 20 percent.

Chairman Staback related how many senior hunters have complained about antler restrictions because they have difficulty in counting points on a moving deer. He asked if the Commission has thought about exempting some class of seniors from the point requirements. Roe acknowledged they have received similar concerns from senior hunters but stated they really haven't looked at the issue.

Rep. Peifer said he has received a lot of positive comments about youth mentored hunts and is happy that a youth rabbit season is being added. He also commended the Commission on its hunter education program and the extra efforts he has witnessed WCOs take to deliver mistake kills to needy families. He concluded by wishing that the Commission would leave the bear season alone and not break up the days. Roe commented on mistake kills saying that while the Commission has a relationship with the Hunters Sharing the Harvest program, WCOs have lists of needy families in their areas that they will deliver a mistake kill to as well.

Chairman Staback asked Roe to compare last year's reserve balance with this year's projected balance. Roe replied last year's reserve balance was $39 million and this year an ending balance of $37 million is projected. He quickly added that federal funding requiring matching funds could change this end amount.

Chairman Staback next asked Roe to comment on rumors of the Commission having slush funds to purchase land that does not show up as Commission funds. Roe stressed the Commission has no slush funds. He explained the Commission does have escrow accounts that are setup and managed by a third party. He explained money enters these accounts through advanced royalties received for land or in the case of a situation with Penn State, from payments for damaged land. According to Roe these funds are then used exclusively to purchase additional lands. Roe stressed that all of these transactions are voted on by the Commission's Board of Directors during meetings that are open to the public. This prompted Chairman Staback to argue that regardless of the purpose, any money the Game Commission controls should be part of the Game Fund. Roe countered that money earmarked exclusively for land does not impact his operational budget and therefore should not be listed in his general fund. He said one account has about $2 million in it and the one with the money from Penn State has about $5.2 million.

Rep. Gillespie wondered about progress in the pheasant propagation program in Somerset County. Roe said it is going well. He explained that while they are stocking areas the population numbers are typically higher then when they stop. Roe added what they are hoping is for the population number to stabilize. Roe went on to state that some birds have been tagged for tracking purposes in the past but that is an expensive process and they probably will not do this in the future because they have a pretty good idea of distribution factors now.

Rep. Gillespie next asked if PA has allowed for hunters to use electronic calls and unplugged guns for the snow goose season. Roe stated that electronic calls are allowed but guns still have to be plugged for three shots only. Asked what the limits are, Roe said fifteen.

Minority Chairman Miller asked if there is a maintenance requirement above the 25 percent match necessary for the federal funding from the Pittman-Robertson program. Roe said they anticipate approximately $12 million a year from that program and always surpass the habitat requirements. He further explained this money can be used for equipment so long as it is related to habitat development. As an example, he said he plans on purchasing firefighting equipment this year for controlled burns.

The Minority Chairman commented in this era of government transparency it would go a long way for the Commission to put information about their escrow accounts into their annual report. Roe agreed to put it in next year.

Rep. Rock recalled how the last six to seven winters have been mild and worried if this harsh winter would result in a large deer kill and if so, would it impact the number of licenses available. Roe explained license numbers are derived from pre-hunt population numbers and assured him that local impact would be taken into account. In terms of this year's winter resulting in a lot of deer deaths, Roe argued the fat percentages of the herd were good going into the winter so they should be fine.

Rep. Rock next said he has spoken with pheasant hunting groups that are advocating for a $20 pheasant stamp that could raise $2 million for pheasant restoration. Roe worried such a program could be a two edge sword that could raise money but restrict the number of individuals that could hunt the pheasants.

Questioned about the mortality rates of antlerless deer, Roe commented that of the 15,000 deer kills studied, only three were attributed to coyotes, one to a bear and one to a bobcat.

Rep. Haluska asked if Title 34 still caps the amount of money that can be spent for an acre to $400 unless special circumstances exist. Roe confirmed this is the case and that this cap does not exist for money in the escrow funds.

Rep. Keller related how trappers have questioned why they have to pay additional money for trapping fishers and bobcats. Roe replied it is so the Commission can better control the harvest number and follow-up with surveys.

Rep. Levdansky asked if the $400 cap for the purchasing of an acre needs to be raised. Roe agreed it does saying $400 doesn't buy a lot any more.

Rep. Levdansky expressed support for mandating information on who owns oil, gas and mineral rights and said this change should be made in the context of the severance tax legislation. He also expressed support to use a portion of a severance tax to fund the Game Commission and the Fish and Boat Commission.

Rep. Levdansky then said he's heard that timber inventories have only be done for 1/3 of all game lands and that only 1/5 of lands have up to date timber plans. He asked why the numbers are so low. Roe explained this was one of his major concerns from early on when he became Executive Director. He related how they put forth a forest inventory program and that they are about 1/3 of the way through it but said they have a good idea of where they stand from a macro level. He stressed the Commission approaches the issues from a habitat model and not a forestry model. Roe lamented that last year's hiring freeze kept them from hiring needed personnel to work on this issue. Asked how many foresters the Commission has, Roe replied 30 field foresters and six regional foresters.

Chairman Staback asked if license sales are up because of crossbows. Roe replied archery license sales are up by seven percent and overall license sales are up by four percent this year, but he doesn't know if it is because of crossbows.

Chairman Staback then stated any money the Commission has should show up as part of its general fund. He then thanked Roe for his professionalism.
 
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