by Dave Fisher
Regular readers of these beagle/rabbit hunting publications know that for many years I have been trying to persuade the PA Game Commission to lengthen the cottontail season as it is in almost all the surrounding states. Back in January, I again made my yearly pilgrimage (seven hours driving time) over to the state Capital of Harrisburg to have my five minute say on the matter. I am sorry to say that the PGC did not bend again, but kept the season the same as it has been for the last couple years. As many know, we did win a significant victory a few years ago when the Commission finally extended the season into the middle of February. I am also sorry to say that I am the only person left still fighting for this cause, and I wish more PA hunters would take one day out of their schedule to help get this accomplished. I think it is within our grasp and I know that only a few Commissioners are really opposed to a longer season. The cottontail season will probably end on February 10th next year, 2001. Following is some of what I said at the Commission meeting, plus a story about this that appeared in the Pittsburgh Post Gazette a few weeks later. The newspaper article is interesting because it reiterates a lot of what I have been saying over the years. The PGC's own biologists agree that extending the season to the end of February will have no appreciative effect on the rabbit population. It is also interesting what the biologist from West Virginia said, where the cottontail season has always run to the end of February. Please read on.
[from Game Commission meeting] "I'm here again (my 11th year) to address and request that the late cottontail season be extended to the end of February, as it is in every other state around PA. We certainly know that the number of hunters in Pennsylvania is still declining. Small game hunters are becoming rare animals. If any one knows anything about rabbit hunting, it's that rabbits don't sit out in open hay fields anymore. They are back in the brush where dogs are needed. Think about it for a second ... do you think many hunters are going to keep 2 or 3 dogs all year-round, (another 298 days) with the possibility of hunting only 67 days. And out of these 67 days, how many do you think a person actually gets to go hunting? "Last year The Game Commission dangled a carrot in front of us and opened the early rabbit season with squirrel and grouse. Yes, it's thick and warm then, but it still gave us more hunting time. But just as quickly, with almost no discussion, this was 'taken back' this year. The early rabbit season this year (1999) ... contained only 25 days of cottontail hunting. Because of the way the calendar fell we even lost the day after Christmas (Sunday, 26th), and lost two more days when February 14th was pushed into the next week. "And how about the week directly proceeding doe season? It's simply a wasted week. Deer season is over, and nothing is happening. Yet, we must twiddle our thumbs or follow the wives around shopping, while our dogs sit idly by in the pens. Why not open this up to cottontail hunting? It's open (at this time) in every other state I know of!! "Some will quickly say, 'Well, you can still runs your dogs, you don't really have to hunt and kill rabbits.' I say, 'You've never done much rabbit hunting ... and that's like saying shooing clay targets is the same as pheasant hunting.' It isn't and we all know it. "For my 11th year, I say The Game Commission never takes small game seriously, simply because it doesn't pay the bills. Most licenses are sold to deer hunters. But we need ALL hunters if we are to continue enjoying the sport we all love. I once again ask the Game Commission to seriously consider extending the cottontail season to the end of February, and also opening it during the week before Christmas."
[from local PA newspaper] "Rabbit Hunter Chases a Longer Season by Ben Moyer" Yesterday was the last day of the winter hunting season for cottontail rabbits. For serious rabbit hunters that's unfortunate and ironic. The late season began on the day after Christmas but for the past month, across much of this region, the snow has been deep enough to deter serious Beaglers from the chase. Deep powdery snow makes it difficult for short-legged Beagles to move and the little hounds can tire out quickly. Now, the current warm spell we're enjoying will whittle down that snow cover but the hunting season is over.
There is scattered around the state a dedicated corps of Beagle-running rabbit hunters who would like to see the Game Commission permit rabbit hunting through the end of February. Their cause has been championed for years by Dave Fisher, a Fayette County man who has traveled to Harrisburg for 12 consecutive Januaries to testify at the annual Seasons and Bag Limits Hearing. Each time, Fisher patiently cites research he has studied that justifies a longer season, and he reads off a litany of other states where rabbit hunting is allowed for at least two weeks longer than in Pennsylvania. Fisher did have some success several years ago when the Commission finally relented and ran the season two weeks beyond the late grouse season which typically ends on the last Saturday in January. But he has always contended the season should continue through the whole month of February and he shows no sign of giving up.
Game Commission biologists repeatedly agree with Fisher, responding that there is no biological reason for ending the hunt here when we do. It is the voting commissioners that Fisher can't convince.
West Virginians can hunt rabbits until February 28 (29 this year), in terrain and under conditions that are essentially identical to those found in Pennsylvania. Steve Wilson, a wildlife biologist with the West Virginia Department of Natural Resources explained their logic. "There is absolutely no problem at all with hunting rabbits until the end of February," Wilson said. "It's still early enough in the year that you won't affect reproduction. Habitat is the key to healthy rabbit populations. It has way more impact than hunting. If you have decent habitat you can hunt rabbits through February with no concern for population."
Playing the devil's advocate, I reminded Wilson that several scientific references say that cottontail does can bear their first of five to seven annual litters as early as March, which would mean those does could be pregnant in February. Wilson dismissed that in a hurry. "any litter of rabbits born in your state, and in most of mine, in March is not going to last very long," he drawled.
Fisher's argument makes a lot of sense on purely social grounds, as well. "There just are not that many really serious rabbit hunters out there that this would affect," he said in his most recent plea in Harrisburg. "By giving us another two weeks to hunt you would be providing some high quality recreation to a relatively small number of people, not enough to have any impact on the population of rabbits. Rabbit hunting is slowly becoming a dying tradition. With the cost and commitment of keeping good dogs, you have to be able to hunt a lot to make it worthwhile for people. Our shorter season does not provide enough incentive to keep people involved."
Staying involved in rabbit hunting is what Fisher has devoted himself to over the past decade. He has written several books on the subject and has produced a series of videos, filmed in the field, mostly in Western Pennsylvania. Fisher even wrote what may be the only book devoted entirely to rabbit recipes - "The Rabbit Cookbook." You can order videos, The Rabbit Cookbook or his latest work, "I'd Rather Be Rabbit Hunting" by calling Fisher at (724) 569-2376.
Readers who really want to keep hunting rabbits might heed West Virginian Steve Wilson's final words to me over the telephone. "If your Commission won't let 'em hunt rabbits 'til the end of February, send 'em down here to WV. We'll sell 'em a non-resident hunting license, in a hurry."