IN IT FOR THE LONG HAUL
There are a million and a half acres of land owned and maintained for hunting, trapping, fishing and conservation by the state Game Commission all across Pennsylvania.
Known as state game lands, they are found in all counties but two.
Ben Jones, chief of habitat planning and development with the commission, said efforts are being made to keep the lands rich with wildlife and the proper habitat in which they will thrive.
“We have what we call a comprehensive management plan for each game land, and they are specific to each because each is very unique,” he said.
Game lands range from several hundred acres to more than 50,000 acres.
“(There’s) a lot of diversity. We write (plans) for each one to enhance wildlife opportunity (and) to improve habitat, hunting and hunting access,” Jones said.
Habitat management actions range from planting trees, shrubs or seeds, to propagation, which means helping plants grow. The latter is accomplished via actions such as cutting invasive plant species and burning brush and vegetation from certain areas.
Hunter access improvements, Jones said, include maintenance made to roads and parking lots at the game lands.
Habitat management isn’t anything new. The Game Commission has been doing that on state game lands since the early 1970s. But, since 2008, it has amped up.
“So very important is the federal program for all statewide agencies – the Pittman and Robertson (Act). It’s federal aid and wildlife restoration,” Jones said.
The Pittman and Robertson Act, named for Sen. Key Pittman, of Nevada, and Rep. A. Willis Robertson, of Virginia, was signed into law by President Franklin D. Roosevelt on Sept. 2, 1937. It extended the life of an existing 10 percent tax on ammunition and firearms used for sport hunting, and earmarked the proceeds to be distributed to the states for wildlife restoration, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
The law, sometimes called the P-R, provides federal funding for up to 75 percent of project costs, with states putting up at least 25 percent.
Funds come from a tax on sporting arms, ammunition and bows. Each year, state wildlife agencies receive monies from the tax, based on a formula of the state’s land base and number of licensed hunters.
“In 2008, we saw a huge increase in firearms sales,” Jones said. “You will see this with administration changes sometimes so a huge bump nationally and that resulted in more money to the states through the P and R fund.”
Those in the habitat management division of the Game Commission realized this would be a perfect time to amp up management of the game lands.
Jones said they went to the executive director in 2008 and got the green light to apply the extra funding to more habitat work on game lands. This was in addition to what they already were using from the P-R fund.
“When we realized we had this additional funding, we keyed in on several needs we identified on game land plans,” Jones said.
Officials looked at improving of the amount of young forest habitat, shrublands and grasslands collectively.
Another aspect of the plans is to do more forest habitat management. For instance, Jones said aspen cuttings are contracted out. Cutting back this species of tree helps tremendously with grouse, woodcock and even deer habitat.
“Aspen doesn’t have much of a commercial market, but when it is cut, it makes a tremendous habitat for a whole host of species,” he said.
This young forest management is done in addition to the regular forest management timber sale the Game Commission does every year, Jones said. Around 7,000 to 8,000 acres of forest is commercially harvested as part of the yearly timber sale. It’s not included in the younger forest habitat plans because the P-R funds are used for noncommercial purposes.
The commission also has zeroed in on control of invasive species on game lands. Called early succession habitat, areas full of young trees and shrubs that often were abandoned agricultural fields played into one of the main focuses of habitat management.
The invasive species growing in these areas are cutting out native life – everything from trees, shrubs and grasses to the wildlife that use them.
Commission crews on game lands cut and treat areas with herbicide to kill and control invasives. Jones said another way to reclaim the area from invasives is to conduct controlled, or prescribed, burns, which are fires that target areas of habitat management.
“The controlled burning program is used to go forward in controlling invasives, to maintain grasslands, to help make sure were are getting oak back in our forests. We have good evidence that without burning we are losing a lot of oak,” Jones said.
In 2009, the commission burned about 1,000 acres, he said. By this year, officials hope to be up around 8,500 acres.
“Our goal, realistically, is not to eradicate them (invasives) – we won’t be able to do that – but to make invasives (grow) at manageable levels and not be detrimental to wildlife,” Jones said. “You have to be in it for the long haul and that is how it can be – by using controlled burning to keep it in check.”
Through habitat management planning, the Game Commission has formed relationships with other agencies and non-profit organization.
Groups from just about every corner of conservation in the state are involved with agreements to help with habitat management.
Funds and manpower come in from local chapters of non-profits such as Pheasants Forever, Ducks Unlimited and National Wild Turkey Federation. Monies help purchase seeds, materials, labor and use of equipment.
“It’s beneficial, how it all works together, these clear mutual relationships,” Jones said.
Habitat management plans will go on for years, he added. Things gradually progressed through the years since the extra funding came and in, and Jones said it will continue.