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Birds and semi-automatics.

It’s an odd mix, but there’s a connection as those topics will likely dominate the Pennsylvania Game Commission’s quarterly meeting on Jan. 29 to Jan. 31.

It’s going to be a meeting full of change, and not all of it is good.

Let’s start with semi-automatic rifles. Two months ago, Gov. Tom Wolf signed a bill into law that gives the agency the authority to implement semi-automatic rifles for any season they see fit. The PGC board isn’t waiting as the meeting agenda includes language to allow semi-automatic rifles to be used for small game (limited to .22 caliber), furbearers, woodchucks, fall turkey, bear and deer.

It the language passes, it’s a mistake.

Allowing semi-automatic rifles for any of the big game seasons, especially deer, poses a safety risk to hunters, houses and everything else. There’s a provision to limit magazine capacity on semi-autos to five rounds, but it doesn’t make me feel any better about the idea.

Much of Pennsylvania’s rural landscape is just too crowded with houses to safely discharge a semi-automatic rifle during deer season. And think about the suburbs, places where there are typically lots of deer and houses. I’m not nearly convinced that semi-automatic rifles are a good idea for such areas.

Sure, a basic rule of hunting safety is to make sure there is a safe backstop behind the target. Most hunters adhere to this principal, but all it takes is one to ignore it.

All it takes is one hunter to get over-anxious at the sight of a deer and all of a sudden rip off five shots and then we have deal with the consequences later.

There’s a fair amount of support from hunters for semi-automatic rifles, but all of the arguments in favor stem from personal benefit.

But this isn’t an issue where our benefit matters. It’s about what’s best for the resource, the sport and public safety.

Birds: Now, on to the birds.

The PGC board will also consider motions to close two pheasant farms and implement a $25 pheasant hunting permit. If passed, these proposals could be the death knell of pheasant hunting in the state. Two less farms means a significant cut in the pheasant allocation, and with less birds to hunt I question how many hunters will hand over $25 for a permit.

The agency is considering the move because of its severe financial crisis due to the lack of a hunting license fee increase for the last 18 years. Closing two pheasant farms will save an estimated $1.5 million or more.

But charging hunters $25 to hunt fewer stocked pheasants won’t save the sport.

Speaking of saving a sport, the board will also consider a motion to cut the fall turkey season in Wildlife Management Unit 4E to two weeks, plus the three days over Thanksgiving. The move is being considered based on PGC findings that turkey numbers in the unit aren’t quite where they should be. Usually, I’m all in favor of any reduction made for the benefit of the resource, but based on my observations in 4E I wonder if whittling the season from three weeks to two is necessary.

I’ve seen plenty of turkeys in 4E and very few hunters pursuing them in the fall, so is hunting pressure really a significant threat?

And when it comes to threats, ruffed grouse are facing a serious one, apparently from the West Nile Virus. Numbers have declined and the bird’s susceptibility to the disease may be the main factor.

As a result, the board will consider a motion to prohibit grouse hunting in the late season after Christmas.

I’m in favor of this one. The grouse simply aren’t there and there’s nothing wrong with giving them a break and see how the population responds.

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