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Hunting opportunities exist in winter time

While the regular deer season wraps up this weekend, that doesn’t mean the end of hunting for the winter. The late small-game hunting seasons for ruffed grouse, rabbits, pheasants and squirrels begin this Monday.

The late grouse season ends Dec. 24 due to severely decreased grouse numbers throughout the state. The seasons for rabbits, pheasants and squirrels extend until Feb. 27 this year with the exception, of course, of Friday, Dec. 25.

For a quite a few years now, I have lamented the fact that small-game hunting isn’t what it used to be. While browsing the Pennsylvania Game Commission website in search of some information, I found a page that contained the estimated harvest numbers for most species of small game from 1990 to 2018. I was staggered by what those statistics revealed.

In 1990, the estimated total of squirrels harvested was 2,044,264; in 2000, 1,276,009; in 2010, 530,125; and in 2018, 298,040. That represents a decline of 85.4 percent from 1990 to 2018. In 1990, the estimated total of rabbits harvested was 1,672,360; in 2000, 770,841; in 2010, 341,288; and in 2018, 121,710. That represents a decline of 92.7 percent from 1990 to 2018. In 1990, the estimated total of grouse harvested was 353,647; in 2000, 145,525; in 2010, 66,385; and in 2018, a scant 8,717 birds. That represents a decline of 97.5 percent from 1990 to 2018.

I can’t help but wonder what has caused such an incredible decline in total small game harvests in less than 30 years. A lack of hunters participating in small-game hunting or a lack of small game to hunt? Probably a combination of both factors, and it seems unlikely either of those trends will get better any time soon.

Deer hunting, however, remains quite popular, and for those dedicated folks who still have an unfilled tag the late archery and flintlock deer seasons offer a final opportunity to put some venison in the freezer this winter. Both of those seasons begin on Saturday, Dec. 26 and end on Jan. 18.

As of my deadline for this week, the Game Commission had not released any preliminary harvest figures for the recently completed slate of 2020 bear seasons. Because of COVID-19 this year, bear check stations were only open to hunters who had harvested a bear, and members of the public were not permitted to watch the check-in process. Tally boards were also not available for viewing at the check stations.

As a replacement for them, the Game Commission posted real-time harvest figures and other information regarding this year’s bear harvest on its website. I picked a few of the statistics found there to share this week.

Because of new and expanded bear-hunting opportunities last year, 2019 produced an all-time record bear harvest of 4,653 black bears. With all those hunting opportunities in place again this year, along with high sales of bear licenses and a large bear population state wide, expectations for another record-breaking year in 2020 seemed justified. But the numbers for this season fell more than 1,000 bears short of the record mark.

The early archery, muzzleloader and special firearms seasons produced a total of 1989 bears. Even with the extra day of Sunday hunting this year, the regular statewide bear season only produced a total of 1169 bears. The extended bear season running during the first week of deer season in designated Wildlife Management Units produced 415 bears for a grand total of 3,573 bears for the 2020 season.

Bears taken in 58 of the state’s 67 counties in 2020. All the top ten heaviest bears taken had estimated live weights in excess of 600 pounds, with the heaviest bear checked being a 719-pounder harvested in Fulton County. The top four counties in total bear harvests were Potter with 186, Lycoming with 185, Tioga with 181 and Clearfield with 157. Total bear harvest for other counties in our region include Centre with 117, Huntingdon with 89, Bedford with 82, Blair with 29 and Cambria with 24.

The 2021 fishing licenses are now on sale and can be purchased online at www.gonefishingpa.com or at more than 700 issuing agents around the state. I have a lifetime fishing license but because of changes to the licensing requirements a few years back, I need to buy a trout permit each year. I’ve already purchased my 2021 trout permit in case we get a bout of nice weather in the coming weeks, giving me the incentive to spend some time on the water.

A fishing license makes a nice gift for any anglers on your holiday shopping list as well. Even the most hardcore fishermen who already owns every conceivable piece of tackle still needs a new fishing license each year. A voucher can be purchased online or from any license vendor and the recipient can redeem it for an actual license.

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