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Wildlife protection and commission mergers on agenda in Harrisburg

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Several important bills are in the Pennsylvania House right now which could affect hunting, fishing, boating and wildlife conservation in the state. House Bill 1576, the Endangered Species Coordination Act, would remove the ability of both the PFBC and the PGC to list or delist threatened and endangered species. This bill could be voted on tomorrow, Monday, March 10th.

Then on March 19, Game Commission officials will go in front of the House Game and Fisheries Committee to discuss a number of pieces of legislation on deer management and on March 19, the legislative Budget and Finance Committee will hold a 10 a.m. meeting on the potential merger of the Pennsylvania Game Commission (PGC) and the PA Fish and Boat Commission (PFBC) into one agency.

The Endangered Species Coordination Act, HB1517 and Senate Bill 1047, would strip the authority of listing and delisting wildlife from the state's threatened and endangered lists and turn it over to the legislature with review by the Independent Regulatory Review Commission.

This move would politicize a process that protects wildlife and its habitat, which is extremely important in the wake of the Marcellus Shale industry in the state. The Association of Zoos and Aquariums, with some input from Lehigh Valley Zoo Executive Director Rick Molchany, has issued a statement opposing the proposed bills. The AZA is one in a long list of conservation groups, including the Quality Deer Management Association, National Wild Turkey Federation, Trout Unlimited, National Audubon Society and a host of others in-state and nationwide that are against the bill.

Also, a decision to combine the PGC and PFBC through House Resolution 129 is nearing. A merger of the two commissions may save money. But there are possible downfalls. Sportsmen don't like it when politics come into play with hunting and fishing, especially if the much disliked DCNR gets involved.

PFBC executive director John Arway said the Fish and Boat Commission merger is a “bad idea.” “We think the independent form of government we've got with two commissions has worked very well over a long period of time.”

The Game Commission which doesn't have the same financial problems as the PFBC isn’t interested in a merger either.

The PFBC is responsible for managing the state’s aquatic resources and the PGC is responsible for managing the state’s wildlife and environment.

The PFBC is overseen by a board of 10 commissioners, each appointed by the governor and approved by majority vote of the Senate, and the PGC is overseen by a board of eight commissioners who are appointed in the same manor. Members of both boards receive no salary and serve eight-year terms.

The legislature studied the idea of a merger twice before, most recently in 2003. A report issued then said that a merger of the two commissions was “clearly feasible” and would save money.

"One thing PFBC Executive Director John Arway and I agree on is that it would dilute the ability, in our case, to take care of the hundreds of birds and animals we have been legislated to take care of. It would be a huge conflict for manpower and funding to take care of each thing," said PGC Executive Director Matt Hough, who took over for Carl Roe in January.

"If we merged and combined funds, there would be a huge drag on the funds to deal with deer issues because we all know the public's desire to work on deer," Arway said. "It would take us from focusing on fish and boating recreation and redirect our attention to other hot button topics that come up."

If the state legislature thinks they'd be saving money by combining the agencies, Hough said they are mistaken.

"Even though we're sister agencies, the cost of merging would be tremendous," Hough said. "It would take a tremendous amount of manpower and a lot of legislation to combine the various codes."

Wildlife conservation officers and waterways conservation officers are under two different bargaining units with different benefits and compensations. Making those uniform might be very costly.

Cross-training the officers to do each other's jobs is possible with additional training, but would limit the two types of WCOs to more law enforcement and less public outreach.

"Right now, we have specialized officers who do their jobs very well," Arway said. "If there were hybrids, we would lose a lot of that specialized training. For instance, we have specialized officers that do water rescue training. It would be very difficult to do that if we gave them both fish and game duties."

Another big hit both agencies would take would be in their deputy WCO programs, which are voluntary and actually cost the volunteers money to meet the agency requirements. The volunteer deputies provide critical trained manpower the agencies can't pay for due to lack of funds.

Arway doesn't want to see a rise in prices for the general fishing license because the agency loses about 8 to 10 percent of licensees each time a fee hike is implemented. After a 9 percent drop in fishing licenses in 2005, license numbers have stabilized with only 2008, 2010 and 2011 experiencing less licenses than the prior year. But, at the same time the game commission has begged for a license increase since the last one which came in 1998.

Founded in 1895, the state's Game Commission has a $92.89 million operating budget. The state's Fish and Boat Commission was created in 1866. It has an operating budget of slightly more than $50 million.

Funded entirely by license and registration fees, neither commission relies on Pennsylvania tax dollars to function.

While both have their license and registration fees, the Game Commission's ability to sell products like coal, hay and timber and lease land for oil and gas wells garners more than $27 million in annual revenue.

While the game commission's revenue outdoes it’s spending by almost $4 million, the fish and boat commission only brings in about $600,000 more than it spends.

The fish and boat commission operates with less than 300 employees while the game commission's staff is about 700.

Fish licenses and boat registrations are definitely down. In 1990, the Fish and Boat Commission sold 1.16 million licenses, a number that in 2013 dwindled down to around 859,000. In 2004, there were 354,172 boating registrations in Pennsylvania. Last year there were 329,841.

Sportsmen and wildlife lovers can still make their voices heard by contacting the appropriate state representatives and senators in their areas but, time is short. At stake is the future of Pennsylvania's wildlife and habitat.

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