Traditional Hunting under Assault

Article excerpt

Two of Ray Malsch's most cherished heirlooms tie him to a past that no longer exists.

One is a double-barreled, 12-gauge shotgun, a utilitarian brute of a weapon, weighing maybe a dozen pounds. A homemade stock sits behind matching hammers on pitted barrels that can't handle modern high-pressure ammunition.

The other is a black-and-white photograph of his grandfather holding that gun. Hazy around the edges, like a memory shrouded in mist, it shows him standing next to his own father. Both serious- looking men are dressed in small-game hunter's clothing, shells tucked into loops on their vests. Three beagles stand at their feet in front of a pile of rabbits.

"If the stories I heard are true, they'd ride the incline down from Mt. Washington with their guns and dogs and catch the street car and ride it all the way to Zelieonople, where my dad's uncle had a farm," said Malsch, of Bethel Park. "They'd shoot what they called woods rabbits.

"Can you imagine anyone trying that today? You'd have every SWAT team in the area coming down on you."

Malsch knows that feeling, in a sense. He worries that his own traditions are being assaulted.

Now 62, Malsch has been hunting since age 10. He's a grouse man, primarily -- he has two bird dogs, and his backyard holds the graves of others -- but he hunts pheasants and rabbits and deer and groundhogs, too.

In years past, he was able to find them all in abundance. That's not always the case now.

"I just don't think there's a heck of a lot to look forward to at times," Malsch said. "We went out (recently) to hunt grouse and we had a good time being out and working the dogs, but as far as having any expectation of coming home with a lot of game, it just wasn't there.

"Times have changed. And not necessarily for the better."

He is right in at least one sense. The world that Malsch grew up in -- and other baby boomers who make up 44 percent of America's hunters -- is fast disappearing.

Shrinking cropland

Forces larger than seasons and bag limits and regulation changes appear to blame.

There was a time, for example, a few decades ago, when rabbits were among the popular small game species. Hunters killed almost 2.7 million of them in the Keystone State in 1981. In 2006 they took just 409,000. That's a drop of nearly 85 percent. The harvests of other species -- such as pheasants, bobwhite quail and doves -- have fallen just as precipitously.

The reason, at least in part, is that the farmland habitat they need to survive has been steadily disappearing. According to the National Agricultural Statistical Service and Pennsylvania Agricultural Census, Pennsylvania had 7.9 million acres of land in agriculture -- crop and/or pasture land -- in the early 1950s. By 2002, it had 5.6 million acres.

"That's a drop of almost 29 percent in the last 50 years," said Mike Pruss, private lands section chief for the Pennsylvania Game Commission. "So people who say nothing has changed habitat-wise haven't been paying attention."

Today's farms -- 40 percent larger than they were 50 years ago, at 133 acres to 96 -- offer less escape cover in the form of fencerows and hedgerows. They feature less waste grain to feed wildlife, too. Maybe most importantly, they're used differently.

In the 1950s, almost four in 10 acres were planted in small grains such as wheat, barley, rye and oats that provided prime nesting cover for pheasants. By 2002, fewer than one in 10 farmland acres were planted in those crops, Pruss said.

Likewise, in the 1950s, 2.3 million acres of Pennsylvania farmland were planted in hay; in 2002, 1.6 million acres. The percentage of that hay that is alfalfa climbed from about 20 percent to 42 percent.

That's significant because alfalfa is cut every 30 to 35 days, and sometimes sooner if it's intended for silage, Pruss said. …