On Oct. 24, the Pennsylvania Game Commission's Board of Commissioners voted 5 to 2 to give preliminary approval to allow crossbow use anywhere in the Keystone State during any archery deer or archery bear season. Since the eight-member board first agreed to take up the proposal over four months ago, pro- and anti-crossbow camps emerged to urge commissioners to vote in their collective interest. Now, with a 90-day comment period before the PGC's second and final ruling in late January, both sides have sprung into action.
Todd Bromley doesn't want to jinx anything, but admits he likes his chances of heading to the woods with a crossbow during the 2009-2010 archery deer season. The 42-year-old hunter and family man works as the unofficial president of the recently-formed Pennsylvania Crossbow Federation (PCF), a group strongly in support of the proposal.
"It's by no way a done deal, because people are still writing, but typically anything that passes the October meeting passes the January meeting," Bromley said.
Bromley didn't mean to be the frontman for the umbrella chapter of the American Crossbow Federation, but after creating the Web site and helping form the organization, he now finds himself "running everything."
Since its launch in August 2008, the PCF has grown close to 400 members. It argues that allowing crossbows during archery season will help to increase overall number of hunters in the state, specifically among junior and senior hunters who may not be strong enough to pull a traditional bow.
Offering new hunting techniques, the group feels, may help slow the trend of declining hunting licenses not just across his state, but across the country. Eleven U.S. states currently allow some degree of crossbow hunting during their archery season: Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Indiana, Kentucky, Louisiana, Maryland, Ohio South Carolina and Tennessee. But only Tennessee with 730,495 comes close to selling the same amount of licenses as Pennsylvania 14 percent off the Keystone State's total.
S. Wesley Waldron, the president of the United Bowhunters of Pennsylvania (UBP), stands on the other side of the split-rail fence. Founded in 1985, the UBP is considered one of the largest bowhunting organizations in the country with its 3,800 members.
"New license buyers, due to crossbow legalization, are nearly non-existent, and increased participation by women and youth due to crossbows is insignificant in every state from which we have seen data," Waldron said in a letter to ESPNOutdoors.com, offering a rebuttal to the pro-crossbow position.
Waldron hasn't had much time to dwell on October's preliminary approval since the anti-crossbow organization's efforts increased "exponentially" after the ruling.
"The UBP board of directors, UBP legislative director and myself have been deluged with calls for interviews and statements." Waldron wrote. "This on top of trying to mount a defense against this proposal that our membership expects, demands and deserves."
The UBP and fellow bowhunters fear permitting crossbows into the archery season will cause a reduction of future buck and antlerless allocations across the state. A larger harvest, potentially caused by additional crossbow hunters, could jeopardize the length of the current six-week season.
Bromley and the PCF disagree.
"All I can fall back on is the few states that have legalized it (crossbow use) haven't shortened the season by even one day," Bromley said.
Separating the two feuding parties in the crossbow war is the Pennsylvania Game Commission. The PGC will ultimately decide the matter, but only if the Pennsylvania General Assembly passes House Bill 2653 before the PGC's January meeting — a highly unlikely scenario.
Jerry Feaser, the press secretary for the PGC, explained the relationship between the General Assembly and the commission: "The General Assembly can make changes to Title 34 (the state's game and wildlife code). The Pennsylvania Game Commission cannot," Feaser said. This legislation "would say 'Game Commission, if you're not going to allow the use of crossbows in archery deer and bear seasons, we're going to change the definitions in Title 34 and do it for you.'"
The crossbow legislation would be treated like any other bill passed in the state's house, approved in the senate and signed by the governor. But a change in Title 34 would force the PGC to enact regulations under Title 58 to stay consistent with the new law.
Unsure whether sufficient support existed in the General Assembly, Feaser said because of the legislation and the effort of groups like the PCF, the state commission agreed to put the crossbow issue on the docket for their October meeting.
Behind the trigger
In 2000, the crossbow was first legalized as a hunting device in the Keystone State. Subsequent rulings created additional — and more liberal — regulations written by the commission in following years.
Presently, Pennsylvania allows crossbow use for hunters with permanent disabilities or temporary handicaps that would prevent them from drawing a bow. Deer hunters may also employ the weaponry during the two-week firearm season. And in three specific wildlife management units — suburban areas around the Pittsburgh and Philadelphia metro areas — the commission allows crossbows during deer season to help manage local populations.
The proposed crossbow regulation would allow crossbows used across all deer and bear archery seasons, but would bar them from October's muzzleloader and late flintlock muzzleloader season, when they're currently permitted.
"Similar crossbow issues have occurred at least four times in the last 10 years, and quite frankly, all of them have been driven by request from members of Pennslyvania's House of Representatives supported by crossbow representatives and dealers," the UBP's Walrdon wrote.
None of the three parties disagree with Waldron's statement. In fact, the PCF came to existence following a push by manufacturers, dealers and sporting goods stores representing crossbow hunters.
However, the UBP's argument was that "this is being pushed by manufacturers — that hunters don't want them, and so there's no need to even pursue the idea," Bromley said. "So I kind of formed this (the PCF) to say 'No, there are a lot of hunters who are interested in the legalization of crossbows, but they're just not united like the UBP.'"
Bromley, a 30-year deer hunter who favors his trusty compound bow, regardless of the proposal's passage, said he felt compelled to take the reins from the crossbow manufacturers and dealers to lead the movement from a hunter's point of view.
Working at a kidney dialysis center by day, Bromley organized efforts by night, sending 15 members to testify at the PGC board meetings. Only after his group became involved with the matter did he see a "complete turnabout by the board" and the item placed on the October agenda.
Crux of the issue
Despite whether or not commercial interests or hopeful crossbow hunters spurred the commission into action, the focus on, and interpretation of, biological data by the PGC seems most likely to decide the proposal's final outcome.
Waldron contended in his letter that the PGC "gave their recent tentative approval to the crossbow proposal without any data being supplied from the PGC Bureau of Wildlife Management."
The UBP president also wrote no projections were given as to overall hunter participation, nor were yearly projections provided regarding possible antlered and antlerless deer harvest numbers. Finally, the commission offered insufficient oversight measures for any potential crossbow participation and deer harvest.
"For all intents and purposes, the crossbow decision was made without the benefit of science and biology," Waldron scribed. "Additionally, even if one were to consider the sociology, the number of bowhunters who oppose general crossbow use during the archery season vastly outnumber those who do."
While a poll by the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette and the PGC press secretary's own collection of e-mails and letters (1400 opposed, compared to 57 in favor of the proposal prior to the October vote) looks to verify the second part of Waldron's statement, though Feaser would strongly disagree with his data argument.
"We've looked at our own data," Feaser said. "There is no data at this time to support the statements that the inclusion of a crossbow in the archery deer and bear seasons would have a biological impact."
The PGC's final ruling on the crossbow issue will come down in late January.
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