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Board Takes Cautious Approach to February Season

By DAVID RAINER

By an overwhelming margin, people who participated in public testimony at last weekend’s Alabama Conservation Advisory Board meeting in Vestavia expressed opposition to the extension of deer season into February.
 
It was also obvious the Advisory Board and N. Gunter Guy Jr., Commissioner of the Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources (DCNR), plan to proceed with caution concerning any extension of deer season.
 
A bill has been introduced in the Alabama Senate that would both extend deer season into February and allow baiting for white-tailed deer.
 
Guy said he has been in contact with the bill’s sponsors and asked that no action be taken on the legislation until a thorough study can be conducted.
 
“It’s my job to do what’s best for the hunters and the public, but also for the natural resource,” Guy said. “In looking at those issues, I’ve committed to study and get the appropriate data and get sound science and input from our leaders in biology, our professors and other people knowledgeable about those issues. We haven’t done that in a while. It needs to be updated, and that’s what I’ve made a commitment to do. But until we do that, I am not committed to taking a position on that. So I am against any legislation that would extend deer season or legalize baiting. It doesn’t mean I’m for it. It doesn’t mean I’m against it. It means I want to look at. I want to study it. And whatever we do, it will be based on information that we can rely on – information we feel comfortable with.
 
“I have committed to put together a committee or committees to address those issues. We will have people both inside the Department of Conservation and outside the Department of Conservation that will be involved in these issues. Hopefully, we’ll have the kind of information that people on this Advisory Board and people in the Legislature can use to make good decisions.”
 
Board Chairman Dan Moultrie read a letter from Steve Ditchkoff, wildlife professor at Auburn University, which outlined some of the ramifications of a deer-season extension.
 
Ditchkoff pointed out that an extended season will cause increased mortality in mature bucks, which will have the domino effect of reducing the breeding efficiency when does first come into estrus. Younger male deer are not efficient breeders and if a doe isn’t bred on its first estrus cycle, it will continue to come into season each 28 to 30 days until the doe is successfully bred. The longer the rut is extended, the higher the mortality for mature bucks because of the “rigors of the breeding season,” as well as hunting mortality should the season be extended.
 
Ditchkoff is of the opinion the three-buck limit instituted three years ago will benefit the deer herd by increasing the number of mature bucks and moving the buck-doe ratio toward the optimal one-to-one proportion.
 
The one speaker in favor of the February deer season was Steve Huffaker of Bay Minette, who recently started a web site (www.extenddeerseason.com) and presented the board with 4,000 e-mails in favor of extending the deer season to Feb. 15.
 
“This is a grassroots campaign that hasn’t spent any money in advertising,” Huffaker said. “We’re surrounded by states that their deer season goes through the rut and in some cases the post-rut. Then consider the State of Texas, which has the largest whitetail herd in the continental United States. All of these states’ resources have not been hurt by hunting the rut or post-rut. Also, where I hunt in Monroe County, farmers in a 10-mile radius have been issued over 500 permits each year to take deer out that damage their crops.
 
“The second point is from an economic standpoint. Hunting is a billion-dollar-plus business in Alabama. Hunters spend thousands of dollars in leases, management of their property and other related items. With the three-buck limit and many clubs practicing QDMA (Quality Deer Management Association) recommendations, they are letting the young bucks walk so they will have the opportunity to harvest a mature buck. Now they are not having the opportunity to harvest a mature buck since they are not getting to hunt the rut. Many clubs are having a hard time filling their memberships and hunting lodges are hurting. Many hunters are quitting the sport or going to other states to hunt the rut. The out-of-state hunters, who contribute a large portion of the DCNR budget, are considering no longer hunting in Alabama and going to hunt other states where they can hunt the rut and have the opportunity to kill a wall-hanger.”
 
Huffaker mentioned the possibility of an additional license to hunt the February season that would raise money for the Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources (DCNR). He also cited an insurance industry report that showed a 25-percent increase in deer-vehicle collisions in recent years.
 
“We just want the same opportunity afforded in other states and give us the opportunity in the south (part of the state) to hunt the rut,” Huffaker said.
 
At the board’s request, Chris Cook of Wildlife and Freshwater Fisheries (WFF) was asked to present a summary of an ongoing study of the reproductive activity of deer in Alabama, which gives an indication of when does were successfully bred.
 
Cook’s report said that wildlife biologists have been collecting data on reproductive health of deer since 1995. More than 1,500 does from 74 sites in 43 counties have been collected and examined. Conception dates ranged from late October until late March across the state. Most of the conception dates (61.8 percent) occurred in January. The majority (77.3 percent) fell within the current hunting season dates, while 22.7 percent occurred Feb. 1 or later.
 
The summary stated: “Despite regional and/or site-specific differences in population structure, the vast majority of deer in Alabama now breed during the currently established deer season dates, or they have the potential to breed at this time if managed properly.”
 
Most of those who voiced opposition to the February season were small-game hunters, who depend on February for the bulk of their activity.
 
Rinard Leonard of Elmore County said that although rabbit season opens in October it’s too hot to hunt more than a couple of hours in the morning.
 
“February is really the small-game hunters’ time to hunt because it’s really cold and you can hunt all day,” Leonard said. “We feed 15-16 dogs all year just to enjoy the month of February, because once deer season comes in November and the gun hunting starts, the private land is leased by mostly deer hunters and they don’t allow us to hunt. But I do applaud the deer-hunting clubs who let us come in in February to bring our rabbit dogs in. If you extend deer season into February, that cuts us out. And I believe the small-game hunters have just as many rights as the big-game hunters.”
 
In other testimony, Randy Yeargan of Bowhunters of Alabama said the group is not opposed to bow-mounted rangefinders as long as the device does not project any visible light or visible beam.
 
“We use rangefinders every day anyway,” Yeargan said. “They’re either in our pocket or hung around our neck. If it makes a bowhunter more effective or makes for a more ethical kill, we’re not opposed to it.”
 
After Yeargan’s testimony, Dr. Warren Strickland, board member from Huntsville, introduced a motion, which passed unanimously, to allow bow-mounted rangefinders as long as the device does not project a visible light.
 
Yeargan also reported a successful season at Oak Mountain State Park even though the mast crop in the park was almost nonexistent. Yeargan said 55 deer were taken off the park with virtually no interaction with the other user groups.
 
Other speakers expressed great concern about the expansion of the feral hog population across the state. The board asked WFF to research extending opportunities to take feral hogs on Wildlife Management Areas.
 
The board also approved a regulation to establish a saltwater fishing registry to comply with federal regulations.

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