For the majority of Pennsylvania's hunters and trappers, their first thoughts of the 2012-13 seasons began this week when licenses went on sale Monday. For Pennsylvania Game Commission teams of land managers, foresters and Food and Cover Corps crews, however, they have been preparing for the fall with projects to improve habitat on the more than 1.4 million acres of State Game Lands.
"Wildlife habitats are changing across the landscape as farming practices evolve and urban/suburban expansion convert former wildlife habitats into various types of developments, from homes to shopping malls," PGC executive director Carl Roe said. "According to Pennsylvania's Wildlife Action Plan, 300 acres of wildlife habitat are being lost every day, primarily to sprawl.
"For this reason, the Game Commission's network of State Game Lands is critical to ensuring that wildlife will always have access to the three habitat components it needs to survive: food, shelter and water. And, through our habitat improvement efforts, we strive to ensure habitat diversity for all wildlife."
This year, two resource islands were planted with a mixture of native seedlings and American chestnut seeds as part of the work being done to remediate the Palmerton Zinc Superfund site on State Game Land 168 in Northampton County. A total of 8,000 trees were planted with 1,825 of them being a variety or blight-resistant American chestnut.
Despite all of this work to improve wildlife habitats, PGC officers continue to see disregard for State Game Lands by individuals who view them as nothing more than rural dumps and courses for motorized vehicles that are illegal to use on State Game Lands.
Here is a summary of habitat projects underway in area PGC regions, as well as efforts to protect State Game Lands or private lands enrolled in the agency's Hunter Access Program.
In the Northeast Region, Carbon/Lackawanna/Luzerne/Monroe Counties land management group supervisor Mikel Beahm said that the Carbon County Food and Cover Corps crew established more than two acres of new herbaceous openings.
"Game Land Maintenance Foreman Tony Colecio really wanted to find a way to improve the habitat on the Broad Mountain west of State Route 93," Beahm said. "One thing we were missing was herbaceous openings.
"We selected a site based on soils and existing vegetation and it really worked out great, and the new opening will be planted with buckwheat to build up the organic matter back into the soil for the first couple years. Already this spring we have seen turkeys strutting and feeding in the field."
Game Lands maintenance supervisor Jay Sporer said that the Food and Cover Corps crew recently has been using the Caterpillar 297 to remove invasive species and create early successional habitat on SGL 236. Within the last month, approximately 30 acres of habitat were improved and there are plans to improve an additional 80 or more acres.
Food and Cover Corps crews plan to plant a combined 10 acres of grains on SGL 236, SGL 299, SGL 310 and SGL 159. There are also plans to plant 10 acres of native warm-season grasses funded by the National Wild Turkey Federation on SGL 236.
In the Southeast Region, Berks and Schuylkill counties LMGS Matt Belding reports that the PGC is working with the Schuylkill County Municipal Authority, which is enrolled in the Hunter Access Program and an adjoining landowner to SGL 326, in preparing a site for a prescribed burn.
"The proposed burn is a forested area of scrub oak, which is a fire dependant community," Belding said. "They currently are cutting 170 acres to prepare for the first burn and are creating 15,343 linear feet of newly-constructed fire breaks.
"They also are upgrading 18,801 linear feet of trails to be used as fire breaks. Once completed, all the work is going to provide excellent habitat for game species like deer, turkey, bear and grouse, and also will create dynamic early successional habitat for non-game species."
Bucks/Lehigh/Montgomery/Northampton counties LMGS Dave Mitchell reports that his Food and Cover Corps crews have been busy working on various habitat projects this year. On SGL 234 in Montgomery County, they removed three hedgerows to make one large 15-acre field along the Schuylkill River.
"It is hoped that this large field will attract geese and provide good goose hunting opportunities on this SGL," Mitchell said. "On SGL 205 in Lehigh County, they planted a 22-acre field in Canada wild rye and Virginia wild rye, which should be a nice block of habitat for grassland nesting birds and provide a good opportunity for hunting stocked pheasants.
"Crews also planted three other fields totaling 17 acres in native warm-season grasses and forbes. On SGL 168 in Northampton County, the crew has planted 15,000 seedlings to provide soft mast for wildlife."
Southeast Region regional forester Dave Henry said a considerable amount of time and monies are being expended to prepare sites for prescribed fire. Also, several SGLs have had work completed which will enable the use of fire to manage the habitat.
"Specifically, a number of pre-burn needs are being addressed on SGL 326 in Blythe Township, Schuylkill County," Henry said. "Presently, a contractor for the agency is conducting a large-scale mowing operation to remove an older scrub oak/pitch pine community on a portion of this SGL.
"In order to safely and properly conduct a prescribed burn, the scrub oak on 170 acres is being mowed. Mowing of this site will prevent a fire from climbing up and burning the numerous pitch pines.
"At the same a time a contractor is constructing 5.66 miles of fire breaks on this SGL. Fire breaks are simply a cleared trail about eight-feet wide to provide a means of containing the prescribed fire."
Landowners interested in developing "backyard habitats" beneficial to wildlife are encouraged to check out the "Landscaping for Wildlife in Pennsylvania," available from the PGC. This 160-page book can be purchased through the "The Outdoor Shop" on the agency's website at www.pgc.state.pa.us  or by calling the toll-free number 1-888-888-3459.