When a pair of bills were introduced in the state legislature last week that would drastically change the way the Pennsylvania Game Commission does business, it caught board president Ralph Martone by surprise.
A few days later, however, Martone believed he had a good idea why the bills were introduced and what could be done to address the issue.
On Oct. 1, state Senator Richard Alloway (R-Chambersburg) introduced SB 1603, which would cut the fees for hunting licenses in half. The bill was discussed during the Senate Game and Fisheries Committee hearing on Oct. 3, but no vote was taken.
Also last week, a House bill (HB 2073), introduced by state Rep. David Maloney (R-Berks) that would remove the Game Commission's exemption from the Independent Regulatory Review Commission (IRRC) was scheduled for a vote by the House State Committee on Oct. 2, but the meeting was canceled.
Alloway could not be reached for comment last week, but Martone said SB 1603 would've cut the agency's revenues in half, forcing it to use funds realized from Marcellus Shale leases and royalties to make ends meet.
By including the Game Commission under the IRRC, it would've added months or even a year or two to the time it would take for board actions to be approved, Martone said.
"We'd have to set seasons and bag limits two to three years in advance, and we'd be very limited in how we handle population and habitat changes," Martone said. "It would absolutely create some serious issues for some species."
Maloney said even under IRRC review, some actions can be handled in an emergency manner, speeding up the process.
He said one of his main reasons for the bill was to improve the agency's accountability to hunters.
"I have an honest concern," Maloney said, citing deer management and the decline of hunting license sales. "When you have extreme circumstances, sometimes it requires extreme measures."
Since no action was taken on the bills, for now, Martone said he believes they were a result of legislators becoming frustrated with communication issues with the PGC.
"I talked to some commissioners and we all feel we can do a better job communicating with legislators, and we intend to," he said. "I would like to see a better relationship between not just the agency and legislators, but the board and legislators also."
Maloney agreed, but added the biggest communication issue is with hunters, not legislators.
"Sure they can do a better job communicating, but the real problem is the lack of communication or just listening to the sportsmen," he said.
One root of the communication issue stems from a move by the agency to seek public comments on the possibility of listing three species of bats – Northern long-eared bat, tri-colored bar and the little brown bat – on the state's endangered species list. The agency recently announced in the Pennsylvania Bulletin that it was considering the action and collected public comments for more than 30 days.
Game Commission spokesman Jerry Feaser said the agency used the bulletin to solicit public comments on the bat issue prior to any action or recommendations in an effort to be more transparent. He acknowledged that the agency could've done a better job communicating that the bulletin listing was solely seeking public comments and not advertising any proposed or adopted rulemaking.
"We had some feedback from several legislators and industry representatives that it may be a very basic situation where communication may have been better as to what was going on," Feaser said. "I believe we could've done a better job communicating through a news release that we were doing this."
The move generated great concern from the timber industry and on Thursday the PGC announced it will not move forward to list the bats.
Martone said the move is related to the recent actions by the state legislators.
"(The timber industry) went to their legislators like they're supposed to do and the legislators listened," Martone said. "We needed to do a better job communicating our intentions."
He said the idea of listing the three bat species on the endangered species list isn't a habitat issue but a disease issue, relating to white-nose syndrome. As a result, restricting timber harvests wouldn't be considered as a possible solution.
"We didn't communicate that," Martone said.
Now that action on the two bills has been delayed, Martone hopes the agency and board can resolve its communication issues with legislators to avoid future conflicts.
He also didn't shy away from taking responsibility for the problem.
"We'll take a great deal of the blame for the confusion over the bat issue and lack of communication with legislators," Martone said. "We intend to improve on that in the near future."
Even though improved communication would be a positive step, Maloney said, he still intends to pursue passage of his bill.
"As long as I have a breath I will pursue the best interests of the sportsmen in this state. If that means the passage of this bill then yes, I will continue to work for that," he said.