Changes implemented for the 2014-15 hunting season are a continuation of those from last year. These changes are based on the continual efforts of the wildlife staff and public comments.
The 2014-15 hunting season will bring changes for Alabama’s deer hunters. These include changes to address concerns about declining deer numbers in many areas of the state and the timing of the hunting season in a portion of the state as well. These changes should improve deer hunter satisfaction and the deer management efforts of the Division of Wildlife and Freshwater Fisheries (WFF).
Antlerless Deer Hunting
The daily bag limit for antlerless deer during the gun season was reduced to one antlerless deer per day for a portion of north Alabama prior to the 2013-14 hunting season. Much of the justification for reducing the bag limit was based on declining deer harvests and observations by both hunters and WFF staff in the region. WFF staff believed reducing the daily antlerless deer bag limit would be beneficial to the region’s deer population, but would still provide ample deer hunting and harvest opportunities for the overwhelming majority of hunters, landowners, and deer managers in the region.
Following the 2013-14 bag limit reduction in northern Alabama, similar concerns over declining deer harvests and sightings were expressed by hunters and WFF staff in other areas of Alabama. These concerns prompted discussions for an expansion of the reduced daily antlerless deer bag limit to the remainder of the state. For the 2014-15 season, the daily bag limit during the unantlered deer gun, muzzleloader, bow and arrow, spear, and special youth (under 16) seasons will be one unantlered deer per day in addition to one antlered buck per day. It is anticipated the reduced daily antlerless deer limit will improve hunter satisfaction in areas where deer observations have declined due to the increased hunting pressure and harvest rates the two antlerless deer per day bag limit provided.
Enrolling in the Deer Management Assistance Program (DMAP) will allow hunting clubs to address situations where additional antlerless harvest opportunities are needed. DMAP cooperators can acquire a permit to harvest antlerless deer throughout the deer season with an increased daily bag limit if the WFF Wildlife Biologist working with the Cooperator determines this is needed based on deer harvest data collected by the cooperator. DMAP is a free program with minimal requirements for participation.
Reproductive Health Data and Season Shifts
Hunters in Baldwin, Escambia, Mobile, and Washington Counties, as well as hunters in portions of Butler, Choctaw, Clarke, Conecuh, Monroe, and Wilcox Counties, enjoyed the opportunity to hunt deer during the first 10 days of February during the 2013-14 hunting season. These hunters did not have more total days to deer hunt than hunters in the other parts of Alabama since the gun deer season was closed from December 2-11 in this zone. These ten days of hunting were moved to early February in response to the desires of many hunters in the area, as well as data collected over the years by WFF wildlife biologists. Since 1995, WFF staff members have collected data on the reproductive health of deer in many parts of Alabama. Most sites sampled showed the majority of deer breeding occurred during the traditional hunting season framework (i.e., October 15-January 31), but some sites did show average conception dates at the very end of January and early February. Even after collecting 15 years of data, many areas of the state remained poorly sampled as late as 2009.
Increased data collection efforts by WFF staff beginning in spring 2010 did a very good job of filling in many of the conception date data gaps in Alabama. The increased data made it very clear most sites in some portions of the state had rut dates that extended beyond January 31. The one area where the late dates were most consistent from site to site was southwestern Alabama. Data collected from 1995-2012 showed the average conception date in the February season zone was January 31, with 49% of the deer in the sample having conception dates after January 31. For comparison, deer collected in the remainder of the state during that period had an average conception date of January 15, with 24% of the deer breeding after January 31.
WFF’s Wildlife Section staff continues to expand its reproductive health data collection efforts into areas where no sampling has occurred and areas where data indicates significantly earlier or later conception dates. Two such areas where significantly increased sampling efforts were warranted beginning in 2013 were the area surrounding the February season zone and the area along the Chattahoochee River in southeastern Alabama with unusually early conception dates. Thirty-eight sites were targeted for sampling south of U.S. Highway 80 and 14 sites were sampled along the Chattahoochee River in Barbour, Henry, Lee, and Russell Counties. This increased effort greatly improved WFF’s understanding of when deer are breeding in this part of Alabama.
Using data from 2013, as well as data collected during previous years, it was clear conception dates in most of the area south of U.S. Highway 80 were very similar to conception dates in the “February” zone opened up for hunting during the 2013-14 season. The collection sites and their data were grouped into three regions: south (proposed Zone B) and north (proposed Zone A) of U.S. Highway 80/Alabama River/Interstate 85 and the Chattahoochee River Valley region in Lee, Russell, Barbour, Henry, and Houston Counties. Anyone can view the data at www.outdooralabama.com.
After reviewing the updated data for the regions, WFF personnel felt an expansion of the February deer zone for the 2014-15 season was warranted. The area designated as Zone B in the 2014-15 Hunting and Fishing Digest, includes portions of Barbour, Dallas, Hale, Henry, Houston, Lee, Macon, Marengo, Montgomery, Perry, Russell, and Sumter Counties, as well as all of Baldwin, Bullock, Butler, Choctaw, Clarke, Coffee, Conecuh, Covington, Crenshaw, Dale, Escambia, Geneva, Lowndes, Mobile, Monroe, Pike, Washington, and Wilcox Counties. Archery season will open on October 25 and close on February 10 in this region. Gun season will open November 22-30, close December 1-10 and reopen on December 11 through February 10. Hunters in south Alabama will now be able to hunt a larger portion of the breeding segment of the rut.
Another area of the state where biologists intensified their data collection efforts in 2013 is along the Chattahoochee River valley region from Lee County to Houston County. Most of this area lies within the “south of Highway 80” zone where sampling was increased. What makes this area unique is its distinctly earlier rut. Deer along the Chattahoochee River in east central and southeastern Alabama tend to breed in early to mid-December, rather than mid- January to early February like deer in the majority of the area south of U.S. Highway 80. Shifting hunting days in this area from early in the season to February would not be justified based on conception date data, nor would it be well-received by hunters in the region. The increased sampling in 2013 answered some questions about conception dates in southeast Alabama, but the picture is still not completely clear. Continued sampling hopefully will determine where the early breeding (early to mid-December) ends and the later breeding (mid-January to early February) begins.
As other areas with distinctly different average conception dates are identified across the state, additional management zones, such as the February season zone, may be justified and/or needed. Several criteria will determine whether these areas warrant a different season structure, including the size of the area (i.e., is it large enough to be considered a separate zone) and factors effecting conception dates (e.g., deer stocking source, management activities, etc.), and where management zone lines are drawn.
The voluntary use of the Game Check program will continue during the 2014-15 deer and turkey seasons. Game Check allows all deer and turkey hunters, both licensed and exempt, to report all deer (i.e., bucks and does) and turkeys harvested in Alabama. All deer and turkey hunters are still required to have an Antlered Deer and Turkey Harvest Record in their possession while hunting and will still be required to fill out the harvest record prior to moving antlered deer and turkeys. Following completion of the harvest record, hunters are asked to report all deer harvests through Game Check using the Outdoor Alabama app for iPhone and Droid smartphones, ADCNR’s website (www.outdooralabama.com), or telephone (1-800-888-7690).
Over 19,500 deer were reported through Game Check during the 2013-14 season. 10,585 bucks and 8,919 does were reported, with all 67 counties represented. Anyone can view a complete listing of county by county harvest reports. Game Check can be viewed at www.outdooralabama.com.
Data collection is an extremely important part of any deer management program and should be the primary item affecting deer management decisions. Data collection allows managers to monitor trends in the deer population’s physical condition, deer population numbers, deer harvest numbers, hunter success rates, and many other measures of a deer management program and effectiveness. Not collecting the right types or amounts of deer-related data often adds many unnecessary challenges to an already difficult task. This is true for deer on a small private property or across an entire state.
WFF biologists and administrators examine the agency’s data collection efforts each and every year to assess the effectiveness and efficacy of the deer management program. One area where data collection efforts have been lacking is an understanding of how the state’s deer harvest is distributed across the state and throughout the season. While the number of deer currently reported through Game Check is only a small percentage of the total statewide harvest (<10%), these data will provide valuable trend data in years to come. In the future, a larger percentage of the annual harvest will be captured through Game Check as more people become comfortable with the new system and see the value of the data gathered through the system. Knowing when and where people are killing deer, as well as when and where people are not killing deer, will be indispensable when evaluating the effects of the timing and length of the various types of deer seasons (e.g., archery, muzzleloader, either-sex, etc.) on the deer harvest on a county and regional basis, rather than a statewide basis only.
Managing Alabama’s deer population and its deer hunters is a unique and challenging process. WFF strives to be proactive in its management strategies and to keep the best interests of the deer populations and deer hunters at the forefront of the decision making process. As data collection efforts improve and WFF gain a clearer understanding of the desires of the state’s deer hunters and the status of its deer herd, changes to the length and timing of Alabama’s deer season, bag limits, and other aspects of deer hunting in Alabama are likely in upcoming years.
Regulations in red are new this year.
Purple text indicates an important note.