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Understanding The Role of Harvest Data Collection

Hunting Regulations Icon Alabama Hunting & Fishing

The 2016-17 hunting season will see several changes to the state’s hunting season structure and will likely generate a response from nearly every deer and turkey hunter. A major change to the 2016-17 season will be the new approach taken by the Division of Wildlife and Freshwater Fisheries (WFF) to collect deer and turkey harvest data. Alabama’s hunters will join ranks with the other 47 states that require the submission of hunter harvest data to better manage the state’s deer and turkey populations.

Since 1963, Alabama’s annual deer harvest for licensed deer hunters has historically been estimated utilizing a volunteer mail survey sent to a random selection of 10,000 licensed hunters across the State. Not until recent years, did the collection of harvest data begin to include county level identifiers to further define localized harvest numbers. While survey data implicated a substantial increase in the doe harvest across Alabama following the lengthened either-sex seasons, the methodology in place was ineffective at monitoring the impact the liberalized either-sex season had on the deer harvests at anything other than the statewide level.

For several years, hunters and WFF biologists in many parts of Alabama, especially many northern counties, have expressed concern over a perceived decline in deer numbers and a drop off in harvests in the areas they hunt and work. The need for a long, liberal either-sex season became difficult for WFF staff to defend for much of the state, due to a lack of sound harvest data. As a result, 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. The reduced daily bag limit was an effort to decrease the antlerless harvests in areas where a reduction was needed, while still offering hunters, with the need or desire, ample opportunity to take antlerless deer.

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, which occurred prior to the 2014-15 season. While the reduced daily bag limit should have had an impact on the doe harvest across the state, it remained impossible to gauge the true results due to the ineffective data collection tools that were in place.

For the 2016-17 hunting season, the liberal either-sex season era has come full circle for much of north-central Alabama. Continued concerns over perceived deer population declines prompted WFF biologists in north Alabama to recommend a 20-day either-sex gun deer season in the region (i.e. Zone C) in an effort to allow deer populations to rebound to more desirable levels. Many of the last areas to have either-sex seasons during gun deer season will once again have a much shorter either-sex season than the rest of Alabama.

Beginning with the 2016-17 season, hunters will now be able to enjoy an extended season. In all three zones, hunters will have an additional 10 days of archery and gun deer season. Hunters in Zones A and C will be allowed to bowhunt from October 15th through February 10th and will be able to gun hunt for deer from November 19th through February 10th. Hunters in Zone B will now be able to start bowhunting on October 15th instead of October 25th, but will be restricted to harvesting only antlered bucks until October 24th. They also will be allowed to gun hunt from opening day (November 19th) through February 10th without the December 1st through 10th closing they have had the last two seasons.

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Conception Date Investigations

Since 1995, WFF staff members have collected data on the reproductive health of deer in many parts of Alabama. Most sampled sites revealed the majority of deer breeding occurred during the traditional hunting season framework (i.e., October 15-January 31), while some sites indicated average conception dates at the very end of January and early February. However, even after collecting 15 years of data, many areas of the state remained poorly sampled as of late 2009.

WFF staff ramped up collection efforts in the spring of 2010 and attained an exceptional amount of data, filling in many of the conception date data gaps in Alabama. These additional data made it very clear there were large areas of the state that had peak deer breeding dates extending beyond January 31. The one area where the late dates were most consistent from site to site was Zone B, which includes most of Alabama south of Highway 80 and Interstate 85. Data collected from 1995-2015 depicted the average conception date in the February season zone was January 28th, with 44% of the deer in the sample having conception dates after January 31st. For comparison, deer collected in Zones A and C during that period had an average conception date of January 9th, with 14% of the deer breeding after January 31st.

Such strong data made it easy to delineate Zones A and B for the 2014-15 deer season. The difficult decision was what to do with the outliers in Zones A and C. Many sites sampled by WFF biologists in Zones A and C had average conception dates at the very end of January and into early February, just like the majority of sites sampled in Zone B. Some of the late breeding could be explained by poor deer management decisions and practices (e.g., unbalanced adult sex ratios, poor buck age structure, etc.), but that could not explain all of the late breeding sites. To understand the reasons behind late breeding in many areas, all it takes is a look back at historic deer relocation records for those areas.

Restocking Efforts

By 1920, Alabama’s deer population had reached a historic low with estimates placed at only 2,000 animals. Most of these deer were found along the Alabama and Tombigbee Rivers in southwest Alabama, with a few remnant populations located in other areas. To facilitate the re-establishment of deer herds throughout Alabama, a restocking program was initiated. This marked the beginning of the extremely successful restoration of the Alabama’s deer population.

The first documented restocking effort in Alabama occurred in 1925. This first release was a joint project with the Department of Game and Fish, the U.S. Forest Service, and citizens of several northern Alabama counties. One hundred five deer were purchased from Michigan and released on the Bankhead National Forest in Lawrence and Winston Counties. Other releases occurred in several counties from 1934 to 1944, utilizing deer from various locations in Alabama, as well as sources from outside the State.

Alabama’s deer population increased to an estimated 18,000 animals by 1940, but the recovery of Alabama’s deer herd was just beginning. In 1945, the Department of Game and Fish began a much larger statewide restocking program, primarily using deer from the agency’s wildlife sanctuaries located in Clarke County. Deer from private lands in Clarke, Marengo, Pickens, and Sumter Counties were also utilized for restocking. By 1970, approximately 3,000 deer from various Alabama sources were relocated and released in fifty-two of Alabama’s sixty-seven counties. About one-half of these deer (1,552) came from Clarke County. An additional 410 deer from other states, including Arkansas, Georgia, Michigan, North Carolina, Ohio, Texas, and Wisconsin, were released in thirteen counties.

In comparing the maps depicting the re-stocking locations/sources and the average conception dates for collection sites, the explanation for the late breeding is clear. Areas restocked with Alabama sources, primarily the Clarke County sources, have breeding dates that almost always mirror dates currently found in Clarke County. Other areas that were not restocked and were allowed to repopulate from remnant deer populations tend to have conception dates in late December and early January. This muddying of the rut date waters is most prevalent in that part of Alabama east of Interstate 65 and north of Interstate 85.

The diverse collection of average conception dates caused by the restocking history makes it almost impossible to delineate smaller February zones outside of the current Zone B. By allowing hunting until February 10th, while still allowing gun hunting in early December in all three zones, WFF should be able to address the desires of hunters to hunt the rut in most regions of Alabama.

GameCheck

With such major changes in either-sex seasons and season dates, impacts on the deer resources across the state are sure to occur. Fortunately for Alabama’s deer hunters and WFF, Alabama will implement mandatory reporting of all deer harvests for the 2016-17 hunting season using GameCheck. GameCheck will allow WFF biologists and administrators to track and monitor when and where deer are being harvested across the state, which will allow decision makers to better determine the effects of the shorter either-sex deer season and additional days of hunting on harvest across the state.

GameCheck was first proposed by WFF in 2013-14, but was eventually made voluntary prior to opening day. As expected, a voluntary reporting system had limited participation in a state where deer hunters have never been required to report their harvests. Hunters have averaged reporting only about 17,000 deer per year since 2013-14. While the data collected thus far are interesting, especially when you examine some of the counties reporting the highest harvests (e.g., Jackson, Madison, Lauderdale, and Limestone), it is not sufficient to monitor the impacts of changes to season lengths and timing. In retrospect, if GameCheck had been mandatory from the beginning in 2013-14, documenting the effects of a shorter either-sex season in north Alabama and a longer deer season across the state would have been straight forward. Without these data, WFF is forced to take what we have and move forward in managing for healthy, sustainable deer populations and satisfied hunters.

Critics of GameCheck will surely find fault with the system and some deer hunters will be reluctant to participate. Hopefully, the naysayers will eventually understand the new system was established to improve WFF’s ability to make wise deer management decisions based on the best available data, which in turn, will benefit everyone who enjoys Alabama’s white-tailed deer resource.

Moving Forward

Too often in the past, WFF has been forced to make management decisions using reams of anecdotal data and minimal sound biological data. Sometimes these decisions appear to work out (e.g., three buck season limit), while others may not have been the best decisions for the long haul (e.g., statewide, liberal either-sex seasons).

WFF has been making huge strides in gaining a better understanding of how the state’s deer populations function through increased data collection (i.e., conception date data) and cooperative research projects funded primarily through Pittman-Robertson funds (i.e., Auburn University’s fawn recruitment and adult deer movements/survival studies). 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. GameCheck will address these shortcomings.

Responsible deer management cannot be construed as a popularity contest. Continuing to do things the same way because that’s the way they have always been done typically leads nowhere. Moving forward and making progress often means getting out of a comfort zone and looking at new or different ways of addressing an issue. To accomplish its goals, WFF’s deer management program must be based on the best available information and made in the best interest of Alabama’s deer population, Alabama’s other wildlife and their habitats, and all citizens for today and tomorrow. Balancing the science and biology of deer management with the values of citizens will continue to be the greatest challenge for Alabama’s deer management program.

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Mandatory Game Check

Legal hunting hours for deer are 30 minutes before sunrise until 30 minutes after sunset