HARRISBURG - It wasn't exactly pork-barrel legislation.
But at a time when lawmakers are wrestling over whether to privatize state liquor stores after 80 years of discussion, a bill to change the definition of wild animals in Pennsylvania zipped through the Senate in 21/2 weeks - like, some might say, a greased pig.
The bill, sponsored by Senate President Joe Scarnati (R., Jefferson), would establish that captive feral swine - those used in hunting preserves - are not wild animals and therefore do not fall under the auspices of the Pennsylvania Game Commission.
Tuesday's 32-18 vote came as the commission was poised to take a final vote next month to eradicate feral swine, also known as wild boars or wild hogs, from the state. The ban was crafted to protect fauna and flora endangered by the destructive nonnative animals, which sometimes exceed 1,200 pounds.
"The goal is to eradicate what has become problematic for the state," said Joe Neville, a spokesman for the nine-member commission, which gave unanimous preliminary approval to a ban on the boars at its January meeting.
Scarnati used his clout to protect two private hunting preserves in his district, which covers hundreds of square miles in the state's remote northern tier. He argued that jobs were at stake.
"Obviously, a ban would have a negative impact on those two preserves in Tioga County and others statewide," said Casey Long, Scarnati's director of policy and legislative affairs. "We think the [Game Commission's] regulatory solution was heavy-handed, and we saw some middle ground, which doesn't include a ban in the state."
If it becomes law before the April 14-15 meeting of the Game Commission, the Scarnati bill would make the commission's action moot. Opponents say it would also increase the threat the hogs pose to wildlife, plants, and crops in order to protect a few businesses.
And it would create a situation where no state agency would be fully responsible for the hogs, which are imported from other states or overseas specifically for hunting.
"It basically means that the animals will be unregulated," said Sarah Speed, Pennsylvania director of the Humane Society of the United States, which opposes the bill.
In Pennsylvania, feral hogs are hunted for sport in at least 26 fenced-in game preserves, some of which charge hunters upward of $900 for trophy boars and exotic African game.
These businesses are called captive or "canned hunts" by critics such as Sen. Daylin Leach (D., Montgomery), who said he voted against the bill because he opposes shooting animals that cannot escape.
Other states, most recently New Mexico, are spending millions to curb what some describe as the scourge of wild hogs. They have dispatched midnight posses with night-vision goggles to round up rampaging hogs.
Those escapees from hunting preserves now roam free in three-quarters of the United States and are responsible for more than $1 billion in property damage annually, according to federal estimates.
To date, Long said, there have been few reports of escaped hogs in Pennsylvania, but the Game Commission has received complaints from farmers in some western and northern parts of the state who blame wild hogs for destroyed crops and, in one case, calves that turned up dead.
The state Department of Agriculture says it conducts some oversight of hogs, inspecting incoming herds for disease, and ensures that male hogs are castrated so that if they escape, they cannot reproduce.
The House version of Scarnati's bill has been referred to the Game and Fisheries Committee. The legislature is off for three weeks for Easter and Passover, so the earliest the bill could be considered is April 8.
In the meantime, Neville said, operators of the hog-hunting operations planned to meet Thursday with Game Commission officials. The commission's vote on its feral-hog ban is still on the agenda of next month's meeting.
For state agencies like the commission, however, the legislature giveth and the legislature taketh away.
"We derive our authority by statute, so the legislature gives us authority and can take it away," Neville said. "We didn't do the [feral hog] ban lightly. We did it to protect wildlife, which is our mission."