By Bob Frye
If there's a downside to success, this is what it looks like.
Since the advent of antler restrictions in 2002, Pennsylvania has been producing more big bucks that ever. At the very least, hunters have been shooting more big bucks than ever.
The Pennsylvania Game Commission's official record book shows that hunters have entered more trophy deer in the last 10 years than during any other decade in history.
Don't think the bad guys haven't noticed.
“I think it is valid to say we have experienced an increase in poaching numbers over the last couple of years,” said Rich Palmer, head of the commission's bureau of wildlife protection.
A “fairly significant” number of those deer are being taken illegally at night by poachers using spotlights, he said.
That's not a surprise to Jay Delaney.
A member of the Game Commission board from Luzerne County, he said, with so many hunters using trail cameras these days, more people are aware of the deer out there.
It doesn't take long for word of a big buck to spread, he said. Then, everyone wants to get a glimpse of him.
“If there's a big buck in the neighborhood, the lights are out there every night looking for that guy,” Delaney said.
That had commissioners debating last week whether it might be time to expand the state's prohibition on spotlighting, or “spotting,” as it's commonly called.
Currently, spotlighting is legal far more often than not.
You can't do it during the statewide firearms deer season that runs for two weeks starting the Monday after Thanksgiving or during the extended firearms deer season in “special regulations” counties, including Allegheny, that runs from the day after Christmas through the last Saturday in January.
You can't have a firearm, bow or “other device capable of killing wildlife” in the vehicle when spotlighting, and you can't shine your light on any buildings, farm animals or photoelectric cells.
Otherwise, it's legal year-round from sunrise to 11 p.m.
Lots of people do it, too, and not only hunters. There are many people, especially in rural areas, for whom spotlighting is a longstanding family activity, said commissioner Ron Weaner of Adams County.
Changing the rules in such a way as to put an end to that would be “a really hard decision,” he said.
“There are a lot of really legitimate reasons to allow recreational spotlighting,” Weaner said.
Poaching is a real concern, especially among sportsmen, though, added commissioner Ralph Martone of New Castle.
Delaney agreed and said he might support banning spotlighting during all big-game hunting seasons, which, in parts of the state, begin as early as September and run through the end of January.
Palmer suggested if the board moves to expand the time period when spotlighting is illegal, it move away from thinking in terms of hunters only and take a broader approach based on a “specific date range,” he said.
“You have a lot of people who spotlight but don't hunt, who don't know wildlife management unit boundaries. If you want to expand this, we should look at going with a specific date range,” Palmer said.
Some commissioners aren't ready to act just yet, though.
Commissioner Brian Hoover of Delaware County said before he would support any kind of “drastic change” in spotlighting rules, he'd like to see some statistics.
He would like to know how many deer are being killed using lights at night, whether that's changed significantly over time and, just as importantly, whether changing the rules might address the problem.
He asked, “can we effectively make a difference” by further limiting spotlighting?
No one had an answer at the board's working group meeting this past week in Harrisburg, so the commission plans to debate the issue further before taking any action.
“I think we need more discussion before we lay anything on the table,” Delaney said.