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A hunting license goes a long way in Pennsylvania

At first light, I listen for the distinctive melody of a brightly-colored tiny warbler as he sings the day into being. I watch for a graceful whitetail buck to pass along the edge of a dew-laden meadow. A bald eagle majestically sits on its roost branch as the sun comes up and I sit soundlessly with him for hours. Quietly hiding in a natural blind, I stealthily shoot a photo of a gentle mother bear softly letting her three baby cubs suckle at the base of a pine tree. I sit on an old stump in the Elk County woods as a towering bull elk grazes nearby. Ever see a wood duck drake in eclipse plumage? I have, and it’s all fascinating to me.

I’m a hobbyist wildlife photographer. I spend a lot of time in the woods still-hunting with my telephoto lens and camera. It’s a pastime I enjoy. There is nothing quite like the peace and serenity that comes with spending a morning outdoors.

This is a new behavior of sorts for me. I spent 40 years at a desk job. After my retirement in 2013, I donned my first camouflage clothing and looked at my image in the mirror. It wasn’t a bad look, to be honest. As the seasons moved along, I added technical clothing as base layers and refined my look. I added better footwear, a favorite camo hat, clothed my camera lens in a camo wrap, bought blaze orange for visibility during hunting season and even (briefly) toyed with the unique look and function of a ghillie suit. Sometimes I looked fairly fashionable, but other times I looked like a small version of Bigfoot.

Learning the ropes from the experts

Yet, I persevered as my interest increased. I wanted to learn more — especially about the wildlife I sought to see. For instance, if I wanted to take good bird pictures, I knew I had to know what birds were out there. So, I joined the superbly knowledgeable Lycoming Audubon Society and made friends with the excellent birders in the club.

They gently challenged me to purchase bird guide books and to learn the characteristics of the birds I sought. They encouraged me to come with them on their guided outings. They also taught me ethical birding and photography.

Over time, I learned to be comfortable in the woods, too. I learned to read a topographical map, to use a compass and to hike my way to the best spots to take photos. And I learned survival skills just in case I ended up lost.

My photography became well-known locally as time spent in the woods produced skilled photographs and experiences.

That’s the way it has been over the last five years. I have regularly enjoyed the public lands managed for all of us by the various federal and state agencies responsible for them.

The northern tier of Pennsylvania has several federal dam projects that provide excellent hiking, fishing and wildlife-watching opportunities. Add Pennsylvania’s state parks and game lands into the mix and it’s a prime opportunity for high-quality outdoor recreation.

The Game Commission’s work is far ranging

According to the state Department of Conservation and Natural Resources, 60 percent of the state is covered with trees. Additionally, the state includes over 83,000 miles of rivers and streams. More than 25,000 separate species of organisms … white tail deer, lady slipper wildflowers, rainbow trout, eastern hemlocks, hellbender amphibians, timber rattlesnakes, black bears, red tail hawks and numerous other photography subjects, exist in these public lands awaiting my and others’ visits. There are 480 species of wild birds and mammals alone, on our state game lands.

The state Game Commission owns and manages the nearly 1.5 million acres of state game lands throughout the state. Included on State Game Lands are public shooting ranges, hunting lands, designated routes for horses and bicycles and snowmobile trails. There are two designated horse/bicycle routes on State Game Land 37 in Tioga County, and four designated routes on State Game Land 75 in Lycoming County. There is a snowmobile trail in Clinton County on State Game Land 89.

But, while I was enjoying these prime-habitat and managed public properties for my outdoor recreation, I wasn’t thinking at all about how the care of state game lands is funded. And what the future will be for those resources.

According to their last annual report, the commission spends 43 percent of its budget on wildlife habitat management, 19 percent on wildlife protection, and 14 percent on wildlife management and information and education.

The commission report details its involvement in researching habitat improvement for the wild elk herd in Pennsylvania.

Its staff is also working on continuing concerns about West Nile virus in the grouse population.

The protection of bats has been a long standing conservation effort of the commission, especially in working towards bat survival rates after their near-decimation from white-nose syndrome. And importantly, managing the spread of Chronic Wasting disease in the white tail deer and elk populations is of great consequence.

Realizing that certain things matter

I enjoy taking photos of the reclusive bittern, the fascinating black-crowned and yellow-crowned heron, the graceful great egret, the fierce peregrine falcon, the at-dusk flying short-eared owl. These are all on the Endangered Species list in Pennsylvania and in such short supply that they are protected by law from hunting.

As I think about my three favorite subjects to photograph: the wild elk, the bald eagle and the osprey I recognize that their presence here is a direct result of massive protection and conservation efforts by the Game Commission.

These are all things that very much matter to me.

So, I decided to pay my share towards the goals of the PGC. Hunting license fees go a long way toward funding the Game Commission. According to their financial details for the fiscal year ending June 30, 2018, 24 percent of the budget comes from Federal Aid reimbursement. Twenty nine percent comes from Natural Resources and Rights of Way. And 31 per cent of revenues come from various hunting and fur-taking license fees.

Hunting license revenues are thus the largest local source of income for the commission. Buying a hunting license doesn’t just give a holder the right to hunt on state game lands, it directly funds important wildlife protection and conservation efforts as well as the maintenance of the properties.

From realization to action

In order to apply for a hunting license in the state, a hunter education course certificate must be presented to the agency. There are in-person hunter education classes available on a regular basis across the region. The certificate can also be achieved on-line through the use of an excellent study guide and series of practice quizzes.

A final multiple choice test seals the completion of the course.

Surprisingly, aside from the specific information about weapons and ammunition, I already knew much of what was in the course. The PGC course materials stress knowing your wildlife subjects, safety in the field, ethical behaviors, and the importance of habitat management and conservation efforts. The same behaviors encouraged by my friends at the Lycoming Audubon Society are encouraged of hunters. We all have similar approaches.

I found the course easy to understand and interesting. And I aced the test. I took my temporary hunter education certificate to the retailer and applied for my license. The process was straightforward and simple.

I don’t plan to ever hunt with my valid hunting license. But I do intend to wear it proudly and I plan to encourage all of my non-hunting photographer friends and outdoor recreation user acquaintances to get one too.

If you would rather, purchasing a fishing license does much the same thing as buying a hunting license. The Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission works tirelessly on protecting and conserving habitat for fish, amphibians, and reptiles, especially those species of most conservation need. Those high-quality streams we enjoy, like Pine Creek and Loyalsock Creek are prime examples of the work that is done by the Fish and Boat Commission. Fish and Boating licenses and fees made up 61 percent of the Commission’s revenues as of December 31, 2018, with fines and federal and state grants making up the vast majority of the rest. Read their Annual Report at www.fishandboat.com for a great look at their various programs. And read their Pennsylvania Wildlife Action Plan on the same website to see how you can get involved. There is plenty to do.

When I told my well-known Bradford County hunter friend Paula Piatt (who is a tireless advocate for habitat conservation) about my hunting license purchase, she applauded my personal effort and hoped others would do the same. “Supporting habitat conservation and all of the non-game species through your license fee is a point lost on many”, she told me. “It’s the license fees that fund much of the work the Game Commission does and the vast majority of species it protects are non-game species. There has to be a way to get everyone to work together for habitat conservation because really, that is where it all comes together. If we don’t have habitat, we don’t have anything–hunting, fishing, bird watching, or wildlife photography.”

She makes the point perfectly.

We all enjoy the superbly managed public lands, lakes, and streams in our state. Let’s support the Pennsylvania Game Commission and Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission’s efforts with a personal commitment to help fund those labors.

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