Pennsylvania Game Commission under new management

Like other regions of Pennsylvania, the southwest counties have distinct habitat issues, wildlife management concerns, business interests and social dynamics. The new executive director of the state Game Commission knows all about it.

Following the retirement last week of Carl Roe, after eight years as the agency's executive director, Washington County native Matt Hough was tapped as the new leader of the nearly $100 million agency charged with non-aquatic wildlife management.

A former wildlife conservation officer in Westmoreland and Washington counties and director of the agency's southwest region office, Hough graduated from Trinity High School in 1975 and earned a bachelor's degree in wildlife management from West Virginia University in 1980. He's served the Game Commission for 35 years.

The decision by the agency's board of commissioners to install Hough was considered to be a conservative choice, and by Hough's admission a temporary one. Since 2010 he's worked in Harrisburg as Roe's deputy. Citing family responsibilities, Hough plans to retire, he said, "sooner rather than later" but will manage the agency while the commissioners continue a nationwide search for an executive director that began shortly after Roe announced his retirement plans in July 2013.

"I'm honored they voted unanimously to put me in while they continue their search," he said. "I'm going to retire. In my opinion, unless you're going to be in the position for at least a three-year period, you're not going to be effective initiating any changes. I'll stay until they find someone, but I'm not planning on staying another three years."

Hough enters the caretaker position at the head of an agency that is at least temporarily secure financially, though steeped in controversy. Hough said he plans to maintain consistency within the agency, and maintaining the cash flow will be his top priority.

"Finances are always important. Being an independent agency and not getting any general fund money, we're basically like a business," he said. "We have to make money to spend money. Carl did an excellent job in finances. I want, for the next several years, to stay on that direction."

The Game Commission is funded by license fees (which have not increased since 1999), industrial leases on state game lands and a federal excise tax on the sale of guns and ammunition. During Roe's tenure, the treasury swelled with windfall revenues from a spike in national firearms sales and tapping Marcellus Shale gas reserves on state game lands, usually reached through off-property well heads.

"I think it's a mistake, however, to see that as steady revenue," said Hough. "About nine years ago this agency was in such financial trouble we couldn't fill vacant positions. If we didn't have those two windfalls we'd been in dire financial trouble."

Hough said the Game Commission recently received its federal Pittman-Robertson allocation for the first nine months of 2014 -- $20 million. It comes with a lot of strings attached including a requirement that to cash the check, the agency has to raise 25 percent of that amount.

Roe made extensive use of sometimes-complicated land swap arrangements with government and non-governmental groups designed to expand the 1.5 million-acre state game lands system. Hough said he plans to follow his predecessor's lead.

In one of the nation's biggest hunting states, deer management remains controversial with some hunters wanting more deer, some landowners wanting fewer deer and some people wanting wildlife to manage itself.

"If you look at the history of the agency, the deer situation is a recurring theme," said Hough. "You can't base deer management on trying to satisfy everyone, because you can't do it. I think we need to be one team. You can have disagreements, but the path we're on is working and we should continue generally in that direction."

Hough said he'll continue to support the agency's hunter-trapper education programs and youth archery activities to draw more young people outdoors.

A small but growing portion of Game Commission revenues are directed to habitat for and management of non-game species. Hough said that trend will continue during his tenure.

"We're seeing more and more people who think mixed use of the game lands and other areas is the way of the future," he said.

Perhaps the best thing Hough has going for him as executive director, he said, is the dedication of Game Commission personnel.

"One thing people need to realize -- and there are exceptions -- but I think 99.8 percent of the agency are all working on the right things for the right reasons," Hough said. "It's amazing to me how dedicated our employees are. They're tremendous. It really does make it all a whole lot easier."

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