Who is better equipped to determine the protection status of wildlife species, biologists or politicians?
Lawmakers from the state House and Senate are considering a proposal that would force the Game and Fish and Boat commissions to get approval from legislative committees before designating an animal "endangered."
To protect species being considered for "endangered" status, the wildlife agencies sometimes withhold the animals' specific locations and other details from the public. Once an animal has been declared "endangered," restrictions are placed on residential and commercial activities that could impact its habitat.
Sponsors of the Endangered Species Coordination Act say such secrecy and restrictions impact jobs and hurt business. The lawmakers argue the economic impacts should be considered by legislators before an animal is declared "endangered."
The proposal was introduced by Rep. Jeff Pyle, R-Armstrong, and Sen. Joe Scarnati, R-Jefferson. Both House and Senate versions call for the wildlife commissions, the state Department of Conservation and Natural Resources and state Department of Agriculture to create a public database of endangered species and environmentally sensitive areas that would enable businesses to pinpoint their exact locations and plan their projects around them. The agencies would be prohibited from adding species to the "endangered" or "threatened" lists if their populations are healthy outside of Pennsylvania, or if they are already on the federal Endangered Species Act, and "endangered" designations would be subject to appeal. The state would be required to reconfirm species' endangered status every two years, or remove them from the list. DCNR would manage the database.
The Game and Fish and Boat commissions predictably oppose the proposal, arguing it would strip their authority, and that wildlife recommendations by professional biologists should trump political interests.
Currently, the state charter puts wildlife oversight under the sole jurisdiction of commissions that were structured to resist, as much as possible, the push and pull of political considerations.
More agency oversight
In another legislative effort to put wildlife agencies under further legislative review, Rep. Doyle Heffley, R-Carbon, has introduced House Bill 798, which would shorten the term of Fish and Boat Commission board members from eight to four years. Rep. Heffley said the members lack accountability. The bill is supported by Rep. Marcia Hahn, R-Northampton, of the legislative Game and Fisheries Committee.
Lake Wilhelm fishing
Too narrow for the tacking of sailboats and without a swimming beach, Mercer County's Lake Wilhelm used to be the domain of anglers. But at an Aug. 24 meeting in Sandy Lake, Pa., Goddard State Park manager Bill Wasser outlined a long list of problems plaguing the 1,860-acre lake and goals to restore its once-thriving fishery.
The arrival a decade ago of invasive Eurasian milfoil displaced the previous weed growth. Gizzard shad, which arrived in the lake in 2004, now challenge bass fingerlings and panfish for forage, overfeed game species, and move nutrients higher into the water column, exacerbating the weed problem. High phosphorus and other farm runoff have been detected, and oxygen-deficient dead zones may exist in the lake.
Hundreds of thousands of walleye fingerlings have been stocked to eat the shad, and Wasser said a study of the lake's chemical composition is underway. Waterways organizations and other groups will be recruited to help to raise funds to place monitors on tributaries. Wasser said public education is vital in preventing the further introduction of invasive species.
"Clean your hulls, and don't dump your minnie buckets," he said.