Saturday, March 19, 2016

Middle Creek To Close ?

Recently there has been much ado in the outdoor press about the possible closing of Middle Creek Wildlife Management Area, which is located on the Lebanon/Lancaster County line close to Kleinfeltersville, Pa. Middle Creek is home to a wide variety of wildlife, but it is best know for the massive snow goose migration that occurs each year in late February and March.

The migration attracts large numbers of bird watchers and photographers, many of which return year after year to enjoy an exciting and fulfilling experience.  Unfortunately some in the hunting community view bird watchers, photographers, hikers, etc. with contempt and would like to see the area maintained for hunting only, with other user groups excluded. If they had their way scenes such as those below would be a thing of the past.

Snow Geese At Dawn-Willow Point
Morning Take-off At Willow Point
The problem is that the Pennsylvania Game Commission has not been granted a license increase since 1999 and officials say they cannot continue operating at their current level without making substantial cuts. On February 24, 2016 Executive Director Matt Hough gave the agency's annual report to the General Assembly and testified in front of the House Game and Fisheries Committee. In his report Hough gave an overview of agency activities and accomplishments during the past year, and then went on to discuss some of the cuts the agency is considering if a license increase is not approved.

Here is a portion of Mr. Hough's statement as stated in News Release #017-16:: (to read the release in its' entirety, click Here. )

"This almost 20-year-old pricing structure simply is not sufficient for the agency to maintain its current level of services and respond to the growing list of challenges it currently faces. For instance, it should be noted that none of the wildlife diseases I mentioned were present in Pennsylvania at the time of the last license increase.

Already the Commission has implemented budget cuts in response to decreasing revenues. This past year, we eliminated 28 full-time positions from our complement. This has been done through furloughing employees and not back-filling positions as they became vacant.

We also will not be renewing the contracts for about 45 limited-term employees. Some represented the only means we had to effectively and efficiently monitor many non-game wildlife populations.

In addition, we concluded the agency could not hold the Wildlife Conservation Officer class that was scheduled to begin in March of 2017. In light of that decision, the earliest we could begin a class would be March of 2018, with the cadets graduating a year later. By then, we project almost one-third of the officer districts will be vacant due to retirements.  Obviously, the longer we go without resources to conduct a class, the greater the number of vacant districts across the state, resulting in violations going undetected, a decrease in response time and fewer services that officers can provide to the public.

"Without additional revenues in the near future, we will have to take even greater steps at reducing expenditures. Some of the proposals under consideration include closing facilities – such as the Middle Creek Wildlife Management Area, shooting ranges on game lands, and our Howard Nursery, and substantially reducing the pheasant-stocking program. I have no doubt that these proposals will not be popular with the general public and our hunting-license buyers, but without additional revenues we will have no choice but to make significant reductions to our budget."


But is Middle Creek really likely to close? While I was at Middle Creek last week I did not talk to any Pennsylvania Game Commission personnel, but rather discussed the situation with fellow  wildlife photographers.  In addition I have read quite a bit of  commentary in articles posted online and comments on the PGC Facebook Page.

"Middle Creek being considered for closure cast-strapped Game Commission says" by Ad Crable and published by Lancaster Online on 02/25/2016  is one of the  best articles I have read on the subject. It features interviews with PGC officials both past and present  and has an informative comments section as well.
We always hear that the State Game Lands System was bought and paid for with hunter's license dollars, and in many cases that is true, but according to the article and other information included in the comments section, Middle Creek itself was bought with Project 70 Funds, while Game Lands 46, which adjoins it, was indeed bought with PGC funds. Below is a direct quote from the article which touches on the source of funding and the purpose for building Middle Creek.

"Middle Creek was built with state taxpayer money as part of a statewide referendum and opened in 1973. Its ongoing management is by the Game Commission, which pays for its operation.

Its main purpose was to provide a vital resting stop for migrating waterfowl whose numbers at the time were worrisome. Since then, Canada geese and other species have rebounded."

Another quote, this one from past Game Commissioner, Stephen Mohr, brings us to the main point that I wish to address today. 

 “They are digging themselves a big hole,” Stephen Mohr, a former Game Commissioner and Conoy Township supervisor, said in reaction to the Game Commission's consideration of closing Middle Creek.

“Closing Middle Creek will infuriate the nonhunters. The hunters could care less. The PGC is only attempting to divide the troops. Middle Creek was built with general revenue moneys. Our elected officials should call their bluff.”.

In reading the comment section on the Pennsylvania Game Commission Facebook page it is clear that some of the more militant hunters would like to see the non-consumptive user excluded from Middle Creek.

Most disturbing to me was a thread on the PGC FB page which began with an individual(from now on referred as commenter A) asking, "Is there snow goose hunting opportunities at Middle Creek? Why can't the bird watchers go ask the farmers instead of us? 

Another person replies-"If you could hunt snows at MC they would not be there.

A replies-"Not true. An area that size, with that quaility of habitat, and along a traditional migratory corridor would always draw snow gesse. Yes it will not be the artificial refugia it is as evinced by these disgusting photos, but the geese will still use the wma, they will just be one their toes more, like wildlife should be"

The photos he was referring to are much like the ones posted below and shows large numbers of snow geese or snow geese with photographers and bird watchers looking on.

"Disgusting photo of Snow Geese In artificial Refugia"
Another "disgusting photo of Snow Geese In artificial Refugia"
 This was a bit too much to take  so I posted the following reply:

Willard Hill "So it is disgusting to have wildlife that is easily view-able by the public? I am sure that if and when the vast numbers of easily view-able birds are gone at some point in the future, that there will be a great effort extended to get them back. You may still have snow geese if the refuge portion of the WMA was opened, but you would not see them in large numbers for long. As for contribution to the upkeep of Middle Creek- many bird watchers would be willing to pay to help support this area, but the Game Commission does not ask them to do so."

This entire string of comments vanished soon after I made the above comment, and I have looked repeatedly to find it again.  Commenter A posted his question in the comments immediately under the main PGC post and all of the replies that vanished were in response to his comment and not as responses to the main PGC post so it is possible that he removed his question and thus deleted the entire string.

Researching this individual led to a Face Book post by  a group called "The Bird Hunting Society", which among other things supports the closing of all but the hunting part of Middle Creek and getting the non-hunters out.  Here it is in their own words.

"If you hunt Pennsylvania take action!

Middle Creek WMA is an upland and waterfowl mecca. Although hunting is allowed, the wma is used more for bird watching. That may be changing. There is a proposal to CLOSE Middle Creek. We are NOT sure but do not believe that means hunting will end, but think rather it will get the non hunters out and decommission many of the unnecessary (useless to hunters and wildlife) facilities. Waterfowl hunting has been by lottery permit on this wma, and that may be a good thing or a bad thing, however we doubt the closure is because of the expense of running the hunting program. We ask you to support the closure but still keep the wma remain available to hunters, and if appropriate to distribute hunting opportunity and provide quality hunting, the controlled waterfowl hunt be kept."

Middle Creek Visitor Center-Some consider it useless to hunters and wildlife and want to see it closed
So there you have it--get rid of those pesky bird watchers and photographers so that the WMA is used only by the real owners and by the way let's forget that this land was not purchased solely with hunting license dollars,

Another thing that really rings my bell is the common refrain to ask the photographer, the bird watcher, etc. to help foot the bill for wildlife conservation, while at the same time making sure they are unable to do so in a method that quantifies their input.  It is really quite simple--make it so that to be present on Game Commission  land within the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania that one must be in possession of a valid hunting licenses or in lieu thereof a valid use permit. The fee could be based on the cost of a resident adult general hunting license.  Since it would be very expensive for a large family, this could be modeled on what  I have seen at the national parks where if one person in the group has a valid pass,this allows all in the vehicle access. There would be some sticky fine points to address for sure, but it could be done.

Many photographers, bird watchers, hikers, etc. that do not hunt, do purchase a hunting license or donate to the PGC. This is a good thing, but the problem with buying the license, is that you are counted as just another hunter.  If every photographer, bird watcher, and hiker bought a hunting license under the current system, there would still be those that said that these groups were still not contributing.  Now if there was a box to check as to why you bought the license that would statistically record what interest group you belong to it would be a different story.  As it currently stands you are still considered a dead-beat who refuses to pay their way because no one but you knows why you bought the license.   The same would be true to a certain extent with donating money because it would be assumed you were basing your donation on a glowing approval of programs as they are currently implemented. I wish to emphasize that this is not a criticism of those that do chose to contribute by buying a license or donating.

Another aspect of the situation and perhaps the most important is that a significant portion of the traditional sporting community and at least a portion of important policy makers in the Pennsylvania Game Commission does not want these interest groups to be paying stakeholders.  This is not only true in Pennsylvania, it is true throughout the rest of the country as well. The problem is only going to get worse as  traditional sources of funding for conservation agencies continues to shrink and they desperately try to maintain sufficient funding without including input or monies from other user groups.  This in turn leads to situations like last year where a blatant attempt was made to exclude everyone not engaged in legal hunting and trapping from State Game Lands for a significant portion of the year.

At this point it seems that the threat of closure is more a strategical move announced to coincide with the seasonal upsurge of interest in Middle Creek due to the spring migration.and hopefully motivate the vast numbers of visitors to contact their state legislators about approving a license increase for the PGC.

Originally published at Pennsylvania Wildlife Photographer by Willard Hill.



Woody Meristem said...

Well, here we go again. Militant hunters need to understand,if they're capable of doing so, that all wildlife belongs to all the citizens of the Commonwealth, not to the PGC or to hunters. As a friend of mine has said, the purchase of a hunting license allows the hunter to attempt to take an animal or bird, that belongs to everyone, for the hunter's personal use.

Without realizing it, militant hunters are going to do themselves in, hunting is allowed because the majority of voters don't object to hunting enough to bring it to an end. As society becomes more urbanized and a smaller and smaller percentage of the population hunts, the day may come when hunting is so restricted that it effectively comes to an end.

Wildlife funding, control of the deer population and control of nuisance wildlife can all be accomplished by means other than sport hunting - and probably more effectively. As you wrote, birdwatchers, photographers and other non-consumptive users of wildlife and State Game Lands could, and should, contribute to wildlife programs either through general tax revenues, a sales tax surcharge, an excise tax or user fee. The PGC has traditionally resisted any such proposal, seemingly because it didn't want to deal with another constituency that might be at odds on some issues with the hunting community.

Interestingly, most other states can deal with getting funds from disparate sources and the different user groups. It's time for the PGC to come into the 21st Century -- including admitting that all the citizens have contributed to the acquisition of many, many acres of Game Lands.

Linda G. said...

Very good article; well researched and documented.

eileeninmd said...

Hello, I have visited Middle Creek for the last 4 or 5 years as a birder. I would be happy to pay a fee to enter the area if it meant it would stay open to the public.

I must say I have noticed over the years a decline in the ducks in various areas, could they be over hunted. The number of Harlequin Ducks the past 5 years at Barnegat NJ have been on the decline since my visits the last 5 years or more. Just like over fishing and crabbing in the bay, good things come to an end. Thank you for sharing this info and post.

Willard said...

I really appreciate the comments. Woody's comment is right on the mark and like Eileen, I have that I have been seeing fewer ducks during the last few years. I thought this was because the lake was mostly ice-covered in 2015, but most of the water was open this year and I still saw few ducks and most of those were at long range. It makes me think about the resident Canada Geese situation. Just a short time ago they were considered a severe pest and they could hardly shoot enough of them, but now they are concerned at Middle Creek about this and have really cut back on the shooting of these birds. I predict that it will be the same with the snow geese, which many now refer to as "snow carp", but one day when the big flocks are gone, the same people will remember the days when they were plentiful as the "good old days" and there will be a lot of money and effort expended to try to get them back in large numbers.