Game Commission audit ‘disgusts’ hunters

Report details failure to collect royalties; $73 million held in reserve account

Hunters are not surprised, but they are “disgusted” with the results of an audit of the Pennsylvania Game Commission, local leaders say.

An audit released Thursday by Auditor General Eugene DePasquale states the Game Commission failed to make sure that energy companies paid what they owed in royalties from oil and gas production on state hunting lands. In addition, the commission sat on a huge and growing pile of cash — $73 million in 2018 — and failed to take those reserves into account when developing an annual budget.

Thirdly, auditors found $6.5 million more in various escrow accounts, which the commission’s financial officer didn’t have knowledge of until the audit.

Numerous area hunters and landowners have been at odds with the commission since Jan­uary over its plan to conduct targeted removal of deer in Blair County to determine whether lower deer populations could slow the spread of chronic wasting disease.

The “Pa. hunters against target deer removal” Facebook group, also called “Sportsmen For The Future,” shows more than 6,000 members who do not want contracted sharpshooters to kill deer in the area.

The group’s president, Matt Johnson, said he is disgusted with the audit’s findings, in particular because the Game Commission apparently has funds for research and development of a CWD vaccination or at least to plant more food plots on game lands, which he said would spread herds out and possibly reduce the spread of CWD.

“It’s not surprising they had that much money,” Johnson said. “What is surprising is they had no clue they had that much. It all comes down to transparency. They are not transparent. You say you didn’t know you had it? It’s a joke. That’s who is running the Game Commission, a group like this who can’t even control their funds.”

Johnson said it is especially disgusting to him because efforts to find research money from other sources is ongoing as the commission is sitting on a $73 million balance.

Hearing their constit­uents’ pleas for funding re­search of CWD instead of killing deer, U.S. Reps. John Joyce, R-13th District, and Glenn “GT” Thompson, R-15th District, have cosponsored legislation that would provide $15 million for CWD research. That legislation was referred to the subcommittee on Livestock and Foreign Agriculture in April.

“We have Congressman Joyce fighting for $15 million federal dollars to be opened up for studying chronic wasting disease here, and we have the Game Commission sitting on $78 million unanswered dollars,” Johnston said. “It’s disgusting.”

Johnston added that he hopes the commission uses the money for research. After all, “it is money we gave them over the years.”

Commission spokesman Bert Einodshofer said he did not know the commission’s intent for the money, but there are strings attached to using it.

“The Game Commission just can’t tap into the reserve fund,” he said. “They need the governor’s approval. They can’t just spend it at freely. I can’t comment on if we intend to use more money for (CWD research).”

The governor appoints the eight commissioners.

Gov. Tom Wolf’s press office stated Friday in an email that Wolf is reviewing the findings of the audit.

During the timeframe of the audit, Wolf appointed two of the eight individuals on the Game Commission, both were confirmed by the Senate in July 2017.

The commission backed off its targeted removal plan for a year, in hopes that better communication will re­sult in permission for sharpshooters to enter private land to kill deer, if it comes to that. But Einodshofer said the commission’s first option is to give hunters ways to take the deer instead of using contracted USDA sharpshooters.

Nonetheless, a June 8 meeting scheduled by the commission at the Martins­burg Borough office was canceled. He said presenters needed more time to prepare.

“I want to get as much outreach as possible,” Einodshofer said. “The meeting will be for hunters and people who are not hunters. It’s about how everyone can help us slow the disease and about our management plan going forward, what we will give hunters the opportunity to do as far as slowing this disease, ultimately, if we give them the opportunity to reduce deer numbers. We know we need deer numbers reduced that has been the best method now to slow the disease. We want hunters to reach that objective. If they won’t do it for us, then we have to look at other options.”

Einodshofer said final results of CWD tests came in recently for 2018.

There were 122 CWD positive specimens in the calendar year, up significantly from 75 in 2017.

“We need to do something now until science provides a vaccine,” Einodshofer said. “How do you vaccinate a herd of CWD-positive deer at a rate of 10 percent if it grows to that level? But if you re­duce herd numbers now, there are fewer deer to come into contact with the disease.”

Einodshofer said another public meeting would be scheduled in July.

Another leader of the Sportsmen for the Future, Ken Knisely, suspected the June 8 meeting was canceled because it came on the heels of the audit report.

“Extreme disorganization seems to be the par for the course,” Knisely said. “They keep talking about hunting license increases and how they are broke, broke, broke. We are fighting for a proper way to manage CWD. We are fighting for every penny to research CWD, and they are sitting on $80 million. I’m not saying to spend it all, but there is money there that could be spent on research or to plant food plots.”

Mirror Staff Writer Russ O’Reilly is at 946-7435.

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