Backcountry Hunters and Anglers Improves Waterways and Public Lands
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Backcountry Hunters and Anglers Improves Waterways and Public Lands

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Volunteers across the state work with agencies to improve habitat for wildlife and aquatic animals and provide advice on upcoming legislation, including Sunday hunting bills.

The Pennsylvania Chapter of Backcountry Hunters & Anglers (BHA) has about 1,000 volunteers who are active in various parts of the state. The local chapter is celebrating 10 years of service to Penn’s Woods.

“We work to preserve the legacy of enjoying the outdoors through conservation projects, mentoring and influencing policy decisions about hunting and fishing,” Adam Eckley, president, said in a telephone interview. “We organize some of our own events, we support other events through other organizations and agencies, but either way, if someone wants to get outside, we’ll help them do it.”

Eckley, 45, lives in Columbia County near Bloomsburg, but the group has directors in different parts of the state who lead the effort. “Our mission is to be a voice for public lands, water and wildlife,” he said.

Legislative action

BHA is involved in policy decisions regarding wildlife and conservation to preserve the heritage of outdoor enjoyment. Currently, the state Senate and House are considering bills to create more opportunities for Sunday hunting and to ensure that the Game Commission board member has a background in agriculture. Farmers report high levels of crop damage from animals such as deer.

“Backcountry Hunters and Anglers supports Sunday hunting. But what we want in this particular legislation is a clean bill that repeals the Sunday hunting ban. We don’t want additional amendments and we especially don’t want seats on the board of game commissioners to be reserved for any special interest groups,” Eckley said.

“We fully support farmers and the ag industry and we think they are a valuable stakeholder, and we value their opinion and what they bring to the table. But when we introduce legislation like this that gives a seat to a special interest, we open the door to anyone who can ask for that special seat,” he said. “It opens the door to any industry or anti-hunting movement, and we would like to see our game commissioners focus on the science of wildlife management and stay focused on that mission.”

Currently, board members are selected based on their regional email addresses and their involvement in outdoor activities.

Eckley said there could be an advisory board to the board of commissioners for different groups to present their concerns to the Game Commission. “We look forward to working with the agriculture industry to solve this problem together,” he said of the crop damage.

He believes there could be more cooperation between farmers and hunters to solve the problem of too many deer in areas where crops are grown. “We would be very happy to help the farming community solve this problem,” he said.

The Game Commission oversees 480 species of wildlife, and Eckley said the new regulations, along with the new board position, focus on just a few species that cause significant crop losses.

Working in wildlife habitats

Volunteers at BHA work with agencies like the Pennsylvania Game Commission to complete cleanup projects on properties, including state hunting lands, and other recent work, including streambank restoration projects. “Earlier this year, we removed several hundred tires from state hunting lands,” he said. About 600 abandoned tires were removed from 224 state hunting lands in northeastern Pennsylvania.

They also work with the Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission, where they take public boat access areas to remove trash. “In 2022, our department took 37 boat access areas across the state and we removed over 1,300 gallons of trash,” he said. “It’s a great way for kids to get outdoors, it’s kind of like a treasure hunt, you never know what you’ll find.”

BHA also worked with the Westmoreland County Fish and Boat Commission in southwestern Pennsylvania to construct several fish habitats on Lake Donegal.

Backcountry also collaborated on another project in the Allegheny National Forest in partnership with the Western Pennsylvania Conservancy where habitat improvements were made to wild trout streams.

“They’ve cut down some trees, cleared some brush and done all sorts of other things,” he said of the northwestern part of the state.

Luke Bobnar, watershed project manager, Upper Allegheny and Lake Erie with the Western Pennsylvania Conservancy, said they worked with Samantha Lutz of the BHA to organize volunteers for several projects. “We were not only cutting trees into streams and pulling brush, but we were also ripping out some trees,” Bobnar said. They used a two-ton manual winch to knock down the trees, leaving the root ball either in the stream or on the shoreline.

“The BHA members were excited, hardworking and safe. You couldn’t ask for better volunteers who are excited to give back,” Bobnar said.

The division is comprised of three regions: western, central and eastern parts of the state, whose task is to coordinate work with local volunteers.

Getting people outside

In addition to habitat work, BHA members focus on R3 (Recruitment, Retention and Reactivation) activities to encourage people to spend time outdoors through activities such as mentoring and special events.

“We had a successful fly-fishing introductory event that we’ve been running for the past four years,” Eckley said. Backcountry Volunteers partnered with the Pennsylvania Department of Conservation and Natural Resources through the Armed Forces Initiative to create more conservationists in the military community. The fly-fishing introductory program was held in June at the Susquehannock State Forest.

Some other BHA members help organize mentored hunts, including those at Middle Creek Wildlife Management Area.

“We cover virtually every corner of Pennsylvania,” he said of the events and projects.

The group wants to raise awareness of the value of the outdoors to encourage people to get outside and keep them outdoors to achieve their goals.

“Whether they want to learn to fish or hunt or whatever. A lot has changed over the last few decades because we’ve seen a big change in who’s out in the outdoors, who our hunters are,” Eckley said. “Historically, it’s been more rural, typical Pennsylvania. Our membership base comes from all over the state, and we’re generally consistent with our population centers. Our strongest membership base is in the metropolitan areas of Philadelphia and Pittsburgh, Erie, State College, not in the rural areas that people typically associate with the outdoor culture.”

Wildlife habitat has improved in several parts of the state. “I’ve seen some places in Pennsylvania where there used to be sage grouse that are now considered to have been virtually eliminated from the landscape. And through habitat improvement programs, I’ve seen sage grouse in some of those areas in the last year or two where they haven’t been for a long time. A lot of the habitat improvement projects, from my personal perspective, that I’ve seen, are working in a lot of areas,” he said of his travels around the state.

The organization focuses on hunting and fishing, but Eckley said they appeal to others as well. “Anyone who is conservation-minded and understands hunting, especially as a tool for modern wildlife management, anyone who wants to be outdoors, who wants to enjoy these wild places, who understands the value and importance, and especially understands the value of the North American model of conservation and wildlife management, is very important. For those who understand that, we are a very good fit for all of them,” he said. Individual memberships cost $35, and more details can be found online at backcountryhunters.org/pennsylvania.

Brian Whipkey is a nature columnist for the USA TODAY Network in Pennsylvania. Contact him at [email protected] and sign up for our weekly Go Outdoors PA newsletter on the home page of this site under your login name. Follow him on Facebook @whipkeyoutdoors.