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GameCheck MDWFP app helps monitor harvest trends

By Adam B. Butler and William T. McKinley

There is an adage that goes something like, “you can’t know where you’re going if don’t know where you’ve been.” Wildlife management is no different. It is essential to have accurate tallies of the number of animals removed from the game population each year to ensure that population’s sustainability.

For many years, the only means by which Mississippi Department of Wildlife, Fisheries, and Parks (MDWFP) could assess the numbers of wild turkeys taken each spring was through after-the-fact surveys and calculations. It went like this: After the season, a few thousand hunting license holders were randomly selected from MDWFP’s database. These individuals were then questioned about their hunting experiences. For instance, they might be asked how many times they went hunting and how many turkeys they harvested. Their responses were then extrapolated out to the entirety of individuals who were known to have purchased a hunting license that year. This estimate painted the picture of total turkey harvest across the state.

This process came with shortcomings. First, as an after-the-fact survey, the numbers often were not available until several months after the season’s end. Secondly, the results of the survey told nothing about the timing of when harvest occurred during the season (in other words, decisions on whether to add or take away days could not be guided by reliable information). Finally, and arguably most importantly, while the survey’s results represented a statistically defensible estimate of harvest for the entire state, the data it provided could not be used to assess the conditions where they matter most — right out hunters’ back doors within each county. This deficiency meant population trends in specific locales could be hidden in the data by counterbalancing trends elsewhere. And so, without the ability to be everywhere at once, decision-makers at the state level were ill-equipped to recognize turkey population ups and downs that were blatantly obvious to hunters in the field.

Fortunately, the 2019 spring season marked a new beginning for wild turkey management in Mississippi. Thanks to proactive actions by the Commission on Wildlife, Fisheries, and Parks, the legal steps to create a harvest reporting system were put in place. MDWFP developed Game Check, a channel through which hunters could provide the critical harvest data needed to manage the state’s turkey flock effectively. For the first time in its history, MDWFP became directly able to collect information that can be used to evaluate its management actions on behalf of the state’s sportsmen and women.

Game Check was developed with ease of use in mind, and part of its built-in flexibility was a variety of avenues for reporting. Hunters can report through a mobile phone app, website, or by calling the MDWFP at 1-800-BE-SMART. Of these options, hunters have overwhelmingly utilized the mobile app in the system’s first two years; three-quarters of all reports have been via the app. Less than one minute has been required, on average, for hunters to report their bird using the app.

Game Check’s value in guiding turkey management will only increase with time as the dataset grows and more patterns are revealed. Nevertheless, interesting insights have already been noted. For instance, when excluding Delta counties that hold little turkey habitat, Mississippi turkey hunters have reported an average of about one gobbler harvested per three and a half square miles of land throughout most of the state. Most of the reported turkeys come from private land, but a little more than one in ten have been from public land. An average of about 10% of Game Check users reached the three-bird seasonal bag limit in each of the first two seasons. When inspecting the timing of harvest as it occurs throughout the season, the opening day accounted for the single largest sum of gobblers reported on any given day of the season in both 2019 and 2020. Furthermore, most harvests occurred early in the hunting season both years. Game Check data showed 50% of harvest happens before March 30.

Data received from Game Check has been a huge step forward for wild turkey management in Mississippi. For the first time ever, MDWFP has an effective means to monitor harvest trends over time down to the county level. Having access to this information is the first step in addressing hunter concerns with population numbers or regulations. The insight acquired through Game Check will serve as a check-up on the turkey flock for each Mississippi county. Generations from now, future MDWFP officials, along with the turkey hunters they serve, will look back on harvest reporting data for a sense of where our conservation efforts for this noble bird have led.

Deer Harvest

MDWFP gains statewide deer harvest estimates annually from an early summer phone survey of licensed hunters, the same survey from which wild turkey harvest estimates have traditionally been acquired. These harvest estimates do not include game harvested by license-exempt hunters, such as those under 16 and over 65. There is currently no valid method to determine the number of license-exempt hunters in Mississippi nor to estimate their harvest.

The statewide deer harvest has declined sharply over the past two decades, with the steepest decline happening in the last few years. Total deer harvest has declined about 125,000 deer, or about 40%, since 2010. We must assume that the decrease in harvest directly correlates to a reduction in the total number of deer on the landscape.

The decline is not likely occurring uniformly across all counties in the state. How does MDWFP determine what counties or regions have declining harvests? Currently, we do not know. MDWFP needs county-level deer harvest data. From this data, trends would show increasing and decreasing harvest in counties and regions of the state. MDWFP could begin addressing the regions with declining harvests, without impacting regions where the deer herd is stable.

The discovery of Chronic Wasting Disease (CWD) in 2018 has the potential to negatively affect Mississippi’s deer herd more than any other factor in recent history. Studies from other states show that reducing deer density through a variety of methods has the greatest impact on keeping prevalence low and slowing the spread of the disease. In other states, managing CWD includes liberalizing deer harvest in each county where the disease is found. Success is determined through monitoring total harvest and disease prevalence in each county. It is critical in CWD management that MDWFP has reliable county-level harvest estimates.

Game Check data is voluntary for deer harvest. Mississippi is the only state that does not require mandatory tagging and/or reporting for harvesting big game. To report a deer, hunters can go online or use the MDWFP App on their smartphone (http://www.mdwfp.com/wildlife-hunting/game-check/deer-game-check). If using the app, the hunter selects the county harvested, private or public land, buck or doe, weapon type, and a description of the antlers on bucks. The entire process takes less than one minute.

With our state facing new challenges to our natural resources, mandatory harvest reporting is critical for managing our deer herd. Concerned hunters have always been the greatest asset to Mississippi’s wildlife. We ask for your support in this conservation issue by reporting your deer harvest. For more information on harvest reporting, visit the Game Check homepage at www.mdwfp.com/gamecheck.

Adam B. Butler is the Turkey Program Coordinator for MDWFP. William T. McKinley is the Deer Program Coordinator.