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Change has been a part of Pennsylvania hunting

Saturday’s sunrise will open the deer season, ending a long custom in Pennsylvania’s outdoors. Since at least the early 1960s, the season has begun on the Monday after Thanksgiving.

The board of Pennsylvania game commissioners, responsible for establishing hunting seasons and limits, voted for the switch to stoke more interest in a declining pursuit. Hunting licenses sales peaked at around 1.1 million in the early 1990s.

By 2008 the number of adult resident licenses sold had dropped to 671,000, and that trend has continued. Resident adults bought 562,000 licenses in 2018.

In a 2014 Game Commission deer hunter survey, 18 percent of hunters who reported their interest in deer hunting lagging picked “not enough time to hunt” as the reason — more than any other response. Game commissioners who supported the change (the vote for a Saturday opener was 5 to 3) cited the need for a pro-active attempt to keep youth engaged in hunting, to counter the diverse demands that compete for today’s youths’ time and attention.

“Changing the historic opening day from the Monday following Thanksgiving to the Saturday following Thanksgiving represents a change in tradition. However, retaining our younger hunters is important to preserving our hunting heritage,” stated Game Commission chief counsel Brad Bechtel before the April vote. “By shifting the opening day to a Saturday, this change will create more hunting opportunity by selecting a day which better fits the working and school schedules of youth and young adults.”

The change was controversial. Many hunters objected, noting that traveling to hunting camps on the day after Thanksgiving would disrupt the holiday for thousands of families. Others were supportive, saying that, due to their work schedules, the Saturday kickoff would give them their first opportunity to hunt deer on the season’s first day.

It may not ease the transition to a new opening date, but change has often been part of Pennsylvania deer hunting.

There was no deer season at all until 1869 when, apparently, the state Legislature set hunting dates at Sept. 1 to Dec. 31. The Game Commission was not established until 1895.

One of the new commission’s first official acts governing deer hunting was to outlaw the use of salt licks and hounds for deer in 1897.

Deer hunting, then, remained unchanged until 1907 when the commission gave complete protection to antlerless deer. Only antlered bucks could be taken.

That total protection of does was tested over the next two decades, as severely depressed deer populations exploded in response to cutover forests sprouting new, brushy growth. By the late 1920s, abundant deer were stripping the state’s farmlands and in 1928 the Game Commission not only authorized the first statewide antlerless (doe) season, it also closed the buck season that year. Hunters reported killing 25,097 antlerless deer statewide.

Thirteen years passed before the next significant change, when the fall of 1951 brought the state’s first-ever archery season for deer. That same year, the commission required hunters to buy a county-specific license to hunt antlerless deer. Before that, does could by hunted statewide. The county-specific license allowed the commission to focus deer management at the county level.

That system was tweaked in 1957 in a nod to bowhunters. Recognizing the greater difficulty of taking a deer with bow-and-arrow (no compounds or crossbows were permitted then), and the small number of participating archers, the commission authorized bowhunters to take an antlerless deer anywhere in the state without a county-specific tag.

Ten years later, in 1967, bowhunting got another boost when commissioners set the first statewide winter archery season, the “after-Christmas” hunt that continues today.

One of the most revolutionary changes came in 1987. For the first time in modern history, some Pennsylvania hunters were permitted to take two deer in a license year. To address the problem of over-abundant deer around Philadelphia and its suburbs, hunters there could buy an additional unsold “bonus” doe license and could use it to tag a second deer.

Another revolutionary change will likely be part of the 2020 deer season. Senate Bill 147, which permits hunting on three Sundays including one designated for firearms deer season, pass the Legislature and was signed by the governor.

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