(The Center Square) — Pennsylvania’s recent shift of the start date of deer season wasn’t universally loved, but the deer harvest has continued to grow since 2015.
The Pennsylvania Game Commission upset a number of hunters in 2019 when it voted to move the start of deer season to the Saturday after Thanksgiving, rather than the Monday after Thanksgiving. Hunters have adjusted, however.
About 435,000 deer were harvested in the 2020–21 season, compared to 375,000 in 2018–19 and 316,000 in 2015–16, according to the PGC’s 2021 annual report.
“By moving the opening day to Saturday, a weekend day when fewer people are working or going to school and more people have off, hunting on the opening day became a reality for hunters who otherwise would have been shut out,” said PGC Spokesman Travis Lau.
READ MORE — Eight Pennsylvania GOP senators urge Toomey to support cannabis banking
A survey conducted on behalf of the PGC of hunters in Dec. 2021 found more support than opposition to the start date change for deer season.
“A majority of Pennsylvania deer hunters (60 percent) strongly or moderately support having opening day of the regular firearms deer season on the Saturday after Thanksgiving, compared to 27 percent who strongly or moderately oppose it,” the survey found.
The results, though, varied by age. “Opposition is higher among hunters 55 and older, compared to their younger counterparts,” the survey noted, and hunters who have a child that hunts had “markedly higher” support for the change.
Tradition was the leading reason for opposing the change.
Regardless, it wasn’t enough to turn away hunters. “A majority of hunters (62 percent) said that the Saturday opening has not had an impact on their deer hunting in Pennsylvania,” the survey noted. “Meanwhile, more hunters said it has had a positive impact (25 percent) than a negative impact (11 percent).”
At the time of the change in 2019, media described the move as an attempt at “creating additional opportunities to recruit and retain hunters.”
Not all sportsmen have let go of a bad feeling over the change, though.
“From what we’ve been seeing as an organization and some of the feedback from our own membership, there’s still quite a bit of mixed feeling about it,” said Lowell Graybill, past president of the Pennsylvania Federation of Sportsmen and Conservationists.
Part of the opposition came from the difficulty in saying whether the change achieved a stated objective of pulling in more hunters, or getting young people involved.
“I wouldn’t doubt that that’s given opportunity for a few more people to engage, whether youth or adult, but we have no conclusive records or numbers to indicate that that’s actually true,” Graybill said. “I don’t know if that’s happened, it might be too soon to tell whether we see more specific polling or response from the game commission to know, really, was it successful?”
He also noted a deeper problem of undermining tradition and hunting culture. Without those connections and practices in place, he said, it’s harder to keep young people engaged, or draw in adults who don’t come from hunting families.
Perhaps the hunting day changes might help, but a bigger issue is at stake.
“Is it really gonna grow passion for it, or is it going to be opportunistic?” Graybill asked. “A lot of our youth today find a lot of other opportunities in a lot of other places, much of which requires minimal commitment.”
Hearing the memories, seeing the pictures, being excited about what’s yet to come … that’s all part of feeding off a tradition.
Making hunting more convenient doesn’t pass along the importance of hunting like a family connection and keeping tradition alive. Grandparents telling grandkids hunting stories, Graybill said, is important.
“That all had to do with an interest that was generated by associating with, and by being with others who were excited about it — particularly family,” Graybill said.
“Hearing the memories, seeing the pictures, being excited about what’s yet to come…that’s all part of feeding off a tradition. I struggle with that part of the hunting community that’s so quick to lay down the aspect of tradition,” he said.
Though preserving tradition is a bigger challenge, the start date shift has at least some early data that looks promising. While general hunting licenses have dropped from 644,000 in 2011 to 550,000 in 2021 and have trended downward, resident antlerless deer licenses have gone up to 897,000 in 2021 from 843,000 in 2011, and increased overall since 2015.
The addition of a weekend start to deer hunting season has given hunters more opportunities. In 2020, 84 percent of respondents to the Game Commission’s survey said they hunted on Saturday, and 60% said they hunted on Sunday.
Those opportunities may have helped Pennsylvania avoid a dip in hunting that other states had.
“We did conduct a survey following the first year the season opened on Saturday, when we experienced an increase in license sales when most states lost sales,” Lau said. “In short, there was a strong correlation between the Saturday opener and the increase.”
Though the change broke a tradition of a Monday opening day that lasted over 50 years, many hunters have embraced it. Keeping hunting cultures and other traditions alive, however, will require more work in the commonwealth.
Anthony Hennen is a reporter for The Center Square. Previously, he worked for Philadelphia Weekly and the James G. Martin Center for Academic Renewal. He is managing editor of Expatalachians, a journalism project focused on the Appalachian region.
This article was republished with permission from The Center Square.