Gun club event reflects small game hunting decline in Pennsylvania

Ruffed Grouse in tree.

CALIFORNIA, Pa. — Small game hunting can be a big challenge.

Some small game species have become scarce and so have hunters who like chasing after them.

Numbers from the California Hill Gun Club’s 23 annual “Small Game Hunting Classic” held in mid-January offered a pretty clear reflection of the state of small game hunting in Pennsylvania.

About 150 hunters used to take part in the event in which cash prizes are awarded to teams that returned with the most rabbits and grouse, but this year’s classic drew only 73 hunters.

“It’s been trickling down for the last few years,” said J.R. Anderson a club officer who runs the classic. His wife cooks the food that the teams enjoy when they return to the club with their quarry.

Reports from the Pennsylvania Game Commission and wildlife conservation officers confirm that fewer people hunt for small game.

Game-take surveys show that the number of hunters who pursue rabbits has fallen from about 350,000 in the early 1990s to about 75,000 in 2014 and the number of grouse hunters had dwindled from about 240,000 to 50,925 in that time frame.

“Participation in small game hunting has declined over the past couple decades,” said WCO Shawn Barron, whose district includes southern Fayette County and part of Somerset County.

Anderson says the club has had less quarry, especially grouse, to tell tales about over bowls of hot chili in the clubhouse.

Twenty-two hunters in 11 two-man teams harvested just 11 grouse and only one team harvested its legal limit of four birds — two per person. The runner up team turned in two grouse.

The nine remaining teams harvested a total of five birds.

“Greene County used to be polluted with grouse, but they’re harder to find now,” Anderson said. “Most are taken from the mountains (in Fayette County) now.”

He said he works for a company that cuts trees from power lines and he used to see many more grouse while working than he does now.

Most of the hunters who took part in this year’s classic are the same ones who have been doing for a long time and enjoy hunting with their dogs., he said. Most are middle-aged and some hunted with kids, but no young adults participated.

“Same guys year after year. No 20-year-olds like there use to be,” Anderson said.

The club might add squirrels to the quarry list and allow individual hunters to participate to get more people to sign up for next year’s classic.

The grouse population has significantly decreased due to West Nile Virus and insufficient habitat, Barron said.

“West Nile Virus is affecting grouse significantly,” Barron said. “Seventy to 80 percent of the infected succumb.”

He said more timber cutting is needed to create the type of habitat that supports grouse.

Good populations of rabbits can be found on private property with habitat that rabbits prefer, but populations and habitat are spotty in state game lands, Barron said.

He said habitat effects rabbit populations more than predators.

“Predation is a factor, but habitat is key. Predation takes a certain number of animals, but if the habitat is there animals will survive regardless of predation,” Barron said.

The number of trappers who pursue predators such as coyotes, foxes and bobcats has declined over the last few years because fur market prices are down, he said.

However, night hunting for predators is becoming more popular, he said.

WCO Chris Bergman said there are not as many rabbits as there were in the 1970s and 80s, but there are a lot of rabbits in Washington and Fayette counties. He said landowners tell him that hunters from the Pittsburgh area regularly chase rabbits on their land with their beagles.

Private property enrolled in the commission public access program, farms and closed mining property have good rabbit habitat, he said, adding that he sees signs of rabbits in game lands.

Grouse are far less numerous than rabbits, he said.

“For grouse, you pretty much have to go up on the mountain. When I was a kid in Westmoreland County, grouse were common, but they are rare in the flat lands now,” Bergman said.

He said dedicated trappers who enjoy trapping and endeavor to control the predator population continue to trap despite low fur prices.

Larger predators take some small game species, but Bergman said furbearers such as raccoons, skunks and opossums kill young and unborn small game animals in their nests. Few trappers target those species because their pelts are worth only a dollar or two.

He said he attended a fur market a couple weeks ago and found raccoon pelts selling for an average of $3.

“Who wants to go through all that work for $3?” he said.

However the relationship between predator and prey is opposite of what some people might think.

“The prey population determines the number of predators,” Bergman said.

Trapping predators also helps control the spread of rabies and other diseases, he said.

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