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HARRISBURG, PA - When the Pennsylvania Game Commission last year opted to move the opening day of the firearms deer season to Saturday, the decision was based in part on the conclusion it would enable more hunters to participate, and it was the best thing to do for the future of Pennsylvania hunting.

Today, about six weeks after that Saturday-opening season closed, Game Commission staff presented the Board of Game Commissioners with findings that indicate the change hit those marks.

While final 2019-20 hunting-license sales figures won’t be available until the license year ends June 30, license sales through the end of December represent an increase compared to the previous year. And hunters ages 18 through 34 were among those who bought licenses at the highest rate in the days leading up to the firearms deer season opener.

“While not everyone was in favor of moving the opening day of deer season to Saturday, most commissioners felt that after talking to the hunters in their districts, there generally was more support than opposition, and the change would enable more hunters – especially youth and young adults – to hunt on opening day,” said Board of Game Commissioners President Tim Layton. “Now this idea seems to be backed up by increased license sales, which is extremely encouraging because, quite frankly, there hasn’t been a lot of positive news to report on that front in recent years.

“It’s evidence that moving the opener to Saturday was the right decision to make,” Layton said.

It remains uncertain when the 2020 firearms deer season will open. The preliminary list of 2020-21 hunting seasons and bag limits includes a Saturday opener that would be followed by a day of Sunday hunting, which would mean the season would start with eight days of uninterrupted hunting. However, it’s not unusual for dates to change between the time the preliminary seasons are introduced and the final seasons are adopted, which this year is likely to happen on April 4. Public opinion often helps to shape decisions on seasons. It’s one of many factors the board considers.

The data on license sales was presented to the commissioners by Dr. Coren Jagnow, the Game Commission’s human dimensions scientist.

Jagnow in her presentation noted that hunting-license sales through December increased by 0.4 percent in 2019 to 849,575. That’s an increase of 3,351 licenses.

While the change might seem small, Jagnow said it’s important to consider license sales have been trending downward for more than three decades. In the previous license year, sales declined by 3.4 percent – a loss of more than 30,000 hunters. And since the peak year for license sales in 1982, license sales increased just 13 times in 36 years.

Jagnow said there’s a strong correlation between the 2019 Saturday opener and increased license sales, providing reason for optimism that further increases could be achieved in coming years.

“It certainly seems a step in the right direction to reverse the long-term trend of hunter loss,” she said.

In recent years, license sales have dropped by an average of 3 percent annually. So if the Saturday opener helped not only to stem losses, but increase license sales, it might have kept afield more than 28,000 hunters who otherwise wouldn’t have hunted.

Young-adult hunters were among those behind the bigger increases in licenses sales. License sales to hunters ages 18 to 34 increased by 0.56 percent overall. And in the seven days leading up to the opening day, resident hunters 18 to 34 bought 20,242 licenses – a more than 7 percent increase for this age group compared to the previous year.

College-aged hunters ages 18 to 21 were responsible for even higher increases, buying 44,911 licenses – a 2.4 percent increase – with 5,311 of those licenses purchased in the seven days leading up to the season – an 18.4 percent increase compared to the previous year.

Creating opportunities for more hunters to hunt more often has been central to the Game Commission’s philosophy for years, said Game Commission Executive Director Bryan Burhans.

The 2019 Saturday opener expanded the firearms deer season to 13 days, three of them Saturdays. The 2019-20 late archery and flintlock deer seasons were extended by more than a week. New October bear seasons for hunters using muzzleloaders and firearms and a longer bear archery season helped to bring about a record bear harvest in 2019. And new elk seasons allowed hunters to experience elk country in a whole new way in September and January.

It’s a track record of which the Game Commission, and all hunters, can be proud, Burhans said.

And in 2020, additional Sunday hunting opportunities, and the prospect for season-long concurrent hunting of antlered and antlerless deer and the return of a three-day Thanksgiving turkey season would fall in line with the same pattern.

“In this day and age, where people lead busy lifestyles and many hunters who drop from the ranks do so because they can’t find the time to hunt, creating opportunity might be the biggest key in keeping hunters active to carry on our traditions and maintain strong wildlife populations,” Burhans said.

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