The white-tailed deer is the most popular game animal in Alabama. Approximately 200,000 licensed hunters averaged 20 days pursuing deer during Alabama’s hunting season. Deer hunters spend many more days each year managing habitat and improving their understanding of deer hunting, biology, and management. All of this interest in white-tailed deer and deer hunting drives the $1.4 billion economic engine that hunting provides annually in Alabama.
The white-tailed deer’s importance to the people and economy of Alabama dictates that statewide management decisions affecting the deer population be based on sound scientific principles and data, as well as the interests of various user groups. Sometimes the data and some of the user groups disagree on how the deer herd should be managed. In some cases, what the data indicates is contrary to what some desire. Finding a balance between what is best for the resource based on sound management principals and scientific data and what is desired by the users is a constant struggle for decision makers.
The primary strategy for managing deer on a statewide basis is through regulated hunting. The effects of hunting on the population are determined by the length of the deer season and the bag limits. Season length, timing, and bag limits affect the number and sex of deer harvested and also may impact the age of deer taken (i.e., older bucks). Since the impact of hunting season ultimately determines the health of Alabama’s deer herd, it is imperative that the process for setting seasons and bag limits not be taken lightly. The process involves gathering information from two primary sources: Alabama Division of Wildlife and Freshwater Fisheries (WFF) wildlife biologists and enforcement officers and the public. Each year WFF field staff makes recommendations on season dates and bag limits for all game animals in Alabama. Their recommendations are made based on data collected through various methods, their observations from the field, and information gained from discussions with hunters and land managers.
The public also has an opportunity to provide direct input on hunting season dates, lengths, bag limits, and most other hunting related issues. In addition to sharing comments with WFF staff, the public can provide information directly to members of the Conservation Advisory Board (CAB) and address them in person at any of three public meetings. The CAB uses the public input and the recommendations submitted by the WFF staff to make their recommendations for the upcoming hunting seasons.
The public input component of this process allows for statewide or even regional “hot” issues to receive much publicity. Some topics, such as antlered buck harvest, supplemental feeding during hunting season, and lack of deer hunting opportunities during the perceived rut, have generated so much discussion and debate in recent years that more information has been sought to help in the decision making process. In 2003 and 2007, ADCNR’s Commissioner formed committees to examine the current antlered buck harvest regulations and any alternatives that may have been more appropriate. The 2007 committee’s recommendation was a primary reason for the implementation of a three-antlered buck season limit prior to the 2007–08 hunting season.
In 2011, current DCNR Commissioner N. Gunter Guy formed similar committees to examine the pros and cons of two current deer issues: supplemental feeding and extending deer season. Members of the committees included wildlife biologists, conservation enforcement officers, and representatives from user groups with an interest in these issues. Each committee was tasked with producing a document to be used primarily as an educational/informational tool for decision makers, hunters, or any persons seeking more information on these topics. It is still unclear what part these committees’ reports will have on the future of these issues, but information provided in their reports surely will be considered. Copies of both reports are available at www.outdooralabama.com.
There never appears to be a lack of public input to the CAB on most wildlife and hunting related issues, particularly on deer-related items. Not having certain types of deer-related data, or the perception that the data does not exist, sometimes makes it difficult for some deer hunters to agree with WFF’s season and bag limit recommendations. Since it is WFF’s responsibility to manage Alabama’s deer population for the good of the resource and the people of Alabama, it is imperative decisions affecting deer be made using sound science and the best available data. In order to do this, WFF has taken steps to improve the quality and quantity of deer-related data collected in the future.
What We Have
Age-specific data has been collected from hunter killed deer on most state-operated wildlife management areas (WMA) for decades. Biologists collect ages, body weights, lactation information, and antler sizes from deer brought to check stations during the gun deer hunts on WMAs. These data are used to make management decisions on the WMAs, including season lengths and bag limits. The data also give biologists an idea of potential deer quality on similarly managed properties in the area.
Age-specific data also are collected from properties enrolled in Alabama’s Deer Management Assistance Program (DMP). This program has been available to hunting clubs and landowners since 1985 and gives DMP Cooperators the opportunity to have WFF wildlife biologists assist them with deer management decisions on their properties. Cooperators are required to collect deer harvest data (i.e., age, sex, weight, antler size, lactation information) from all deer taken from the property. The data are reviewed by a wildlife biologist, who then makes property specific deer harvest recommendations. Biologists also can provide cooperators with advice and recommendations for habitat management on their property. The DMP data are site-specific, but they give biologists a starting point when assessing deer quality and condition in nearby areas when no other data are available.
WFF biologists have been collecting data on conception dates and reproductive health of deer populations throughout the state since 1995. Does typically are collected in the spring and summer to determine pregnancy status, number of fawns in utero, date of conception, and date of parturition. These data provide information on herd health and rut dates at the collection sites. They also give biologists a way to predict rut dates for other regions of the state. Collections typically are made for three to five consecutive years at each site. Data from only one year often do not provide an accurate picture of rut dates for the property since dates can vary slightly from year to year. Annual variations in conception dates on a site become apparent when data are collected in multiple consecutive years. These collections take many man-hours of effort, which limits the number of sites that can be sampled each year.
Since pregnancy rates, conception dates, fawn production, and other reproductive health indices all are influenced by deer physical condition and deer management practices on a property, deer harvest data and hunter observation data now are collected when possible on sites used for spring/summer deer collections. Many sites used for collections in the past did not collect deer harvest or hunter observation data, which left unanswered questions about the conception date data collected from these sites. Unbalanced adult sex ratios and younger buck age structures influence both the timing and duration of the rut. Deer in poor physical condition also typically have fewer fawns in utero and lower pregnancy rates. Having deer harvest data and hunter observation data from collection sites allow biologists to determine if there are mitigating circumstances causing earlier, later, shorter, or longer rut periods on a property.
Other data available to WFF staff include data collected through the Department’s website, www.outdooralabama.com. Hunters have been able to submit deer harvest data through the website since the 2005–06 hunting season. Hunters can submit a wide array of data for all deer they kill in Alabama. Data that can be submitted include name of hunter, date of harvest, county of harvest, WMA or private land, weapon used, e-mail address, and deer condition data, which include sex, age, weight, lactation status, and antler size. Hunters can submit as little or as much data from each deer as they choose. Hunters can view annual county or statewide summaries of all data submitted through the website. The summaries show the number of deer killed for each sex and age class, as well as the average weights, antler size, and lactation rates for each age class. The size of the internet data set is small at this time, but it should continue to grow as more users discover the site and its features.
A new feature added to the internet deer data collection site during the 2011–12 hunting season allows hunters to separate the data they submit from all other data submitted to the website using their e-mail address. They can still view the county and state summaries, but this new feature also allows them to view a summary for only the data they submit. This allows hunters to submit and review data submitted for just the hunting club or property they hunt, allowing them to compare their deer herd’s condition to deer in other areas in the same county or state.
What We Need
While WFF biologists and their cooperators have been busy collecting deer-related data, there are still much data yet to be collected. Efforts to improve the amount and types of deer-related data currently collected in Alabama are ongoing. In many instances, current methods will be tweaked or broadened in scope, while other situations dictate new methods and approaches be implemented in order to collect the necessary data.
One type of data that has not been collected in the past is county or region specific harvest rates. In the past, the only harvest numbers collected were statewide harvest estimates taken from the statistically valid annual hunter mail survey. The total annual statewide deer harvest may have little bearing on decisions related to bag limits and season lengths on a local or regional level. Having statistically valid estimates of county or region level harvest rates give decision makers better tools for making these types of decisions. In an effort to estimate more localized deer harvest levels, the 2012 hunter mail survey asked hunters to indicate the counties in which they harvested deer and the number of deer killed in each county. Researchers realize there may be an issue with sample size for some counties in Alabama, so it may be necessary to look at several adjoining counties as a region to have statistically valid harvest estimates. Other methods to gather this type data may need to be pursued in the future if the revised mail survey does not produce valid samples for some areas of the state.
Efforts to improve collection of age-specific harvest data also are being explored. Data collection on WMAs will continue and may be expanded on many areas. Collecting more and better data from these sites will be relatively simple and is the first step to increasing the statewide sample size.
Efforts to increase participation and, ultimately, the amount of data collected from DMP cooperators will continue as well. At its peak in the late 1990’s, the DMP had over 2,100 cooperators and annually collected age-specific data from nearly 50,000 hunter harvested deer. The number of cooperators has declined significantly, due primarily to the liberalization of the either-sex season. Only approximately 100 cooperators remain enrolled in the program and data from less than 5,000 deer are collected annually.
WFF staff agrees the DMP needs to be revised if an increase in participation is desired. The biggest change is the elimination of fees associated with the DMP. Cooperators will no longer have to pay to have their data analyzed by a WFF biologist. Other changes, such as annual or semi-annual DMP cooperator only seminars and meetings have been discussed to improve communications and interactions among cooperators and WFF staff. These cooperator only seminars and meetings have been discussed as a way to give more back to the cooperator for agreeing to participate in the DMP and to recruit new cooperators. Increased participation in the DMP eventually will lead to a larger, more robust age-specific data set. These data will improve WFF’s ability to evaluate herd health across the state, as well as assess the impacts of changes in season lengths and dates on hunter success. Please visit www.outdooralabama.com/hunting to obtain information on enrolling in the DMP.
Data on conception dates and overall reproductive health of Alabama’s deer herd will continue to be collected across the state. WFF biologists collect data from approximately 30–35 sites each year and continue to expand sampling into areas of the state where data have not been collected. In the near future, a detailed map showing conception dates as determined by these collection efforts will be made available to Alabama’s deer hunters. Eventually, samples will be collected from multiple sites in all 67 counties. This likely will take many more years to complete due to the time required to collect these data.
WFF will continue to pursue improved understanding of deer management practices on the timing and duration of the rut in Alabama. Increased efforts to collect conception date, reproductive health, deer harvest, and hunter observation data from properties under various deer management regimes will allow WFF biologists to determine when deer should rut when managed properly. These sites will include WMAs, DMP properties, and other properties willing to work as cooperators with WFF. Conception dates on some sites in Alabama indicate February breeding is rare in herds managed for a balanced adult sex ratio (i.e., one adult doe for each adult buck) and a buck population with an older age structure (i.e., buck harvest limited to 4.5+ year old bucks). While this management approach may not be for all deer hunters, data collected from these sites may provide answers as to why the rut is later in some areas of Alabama.
Recent research, including a study conducted by Auburn University at Fort Rucker, indicates coyotes can have a significant impact on fawn recruitment on some properties. Research conducted in Alabama during the late 1980’s found very little apparent impact from coyote predation on fawn recruitment and deer population levels. The findings from Fort Rucker prompted WFF to request researchers with Auburn University and the Alabama Cooperative Fish and Wildlife Research Unit to conduct similar research on up to fifteen sites across Alabama. The cooperative research project will attempt to determine fawn survival and recruitment rates at these sites, as well as the level of influence coyote populations and habitat quality/type have on fawn survival and recruitment rates. This type of information has not previously been available to WFF biologists and will be extremely beneficial when making deer management recommendations for hunting clubs and landowners. More importantly, these data will be extremely important when making hunting season and bag limit recommendations for Alabama.
The future of deer management in Alabama is difficult to predict. The increased efforts to improve data collection and understanding of the state’s deer herd are promising. Using the data to develop a transparent science-based framework for making recommendations regarding deer seasons and bag limits in Alabama is WFF’s objective. Recommendations based on these data always will be meshed with public input in order to reach the best compromise for managing Alabama’s white-tailed deer, ensuring a healthy, well-managed herd for the future.
Regulations in red are new this year.
Purple text indicates an important note.