A 5-Year Reflection on Deer Harvest
Game Check became mandatory for Alabama hunters during the 2016-17 hunting season. Game Check requires reporting of all deer and turkey harvests. Required reporting of deer harvests by hunters was a needed piece of the deer management process the Division of Wildlife and Freshwater Fisheries (WFF) had wanted and needed for many years. After four years, the data collected through Game Check were providing answers to many questions about Alabama’s deer harvest that had been difficult or near impossible to answer prior to the 2016-17 hunting season. Trends in where, when, and how many deer were being harvested in each county and the different regions of Alabama were starting to take shape. Then 2020 happened.
Game Check data from Alabama’s 2020-21 deer season will require a reset on interpreting what data from the first four years of mandatory reporting had shown. The reported deer harvest for the 2020-21 hunting season (195,122) was an increase of 107% from the reported deer harvest in 2019-20 (94,401). Hunting license sales during the 2020-21 deer season were nearly identical to 2019-20 deer season license sales so the significant increase in harvest cannot be explained away by simply having more hunters in the field. Safer at home orders, mandated social distancing, and disposable face masks also had very little to do with the increase. It was the result of a tweak to one of Alabama’s hunting regulations.
Following the first four years of Game Check, it was obvious compliance with mandatory reporting of deer harvests was low. In order to improve compliance with Game Check among deer hunters and track origins of deer in possession by persons who did not kill the deer themselves, the “Game Check Regulation” (220-2-.146) was revised. It now requires anyone in possession of a deer or turkey, whether they harvested the animal or not, to have proof (i.e., Game Check confirmation number) that the animal was reported in Game Check. This change seems to have achieved the desired result of significantly improving compliance with Game Check and as a result, collecting more complete harvest data to help guide WFF’s deer management decisions.
So, what have the data collected in the first five years shown? Based on the huge increase in reports for 2020-21, compliance for the first four years was significantly lower than some believed. Reported deer harvests in all counties increased by at least 58% over the 2019-20 reports, with Mobile County leading the way with a 220% increase over the 2019-20 reported harvests. Seven other counties had increases greater than 150%. Such large increases five years into mandatory reporting easily illustrates the need for the regulation revision, as many hunters were either willingly noncompliant, had no idea there was such a thing as Game Check, or both. Hopefully, the trend in better compliance continues moving forward and provide more accurate data.
Hunters have reported more bucks than does in Game Check each year since the reporting requirement was implemented. Bucks have made up 55-60% of the reported harvest submitted through Game Check over the last five years, but data from our hunter phone surveys depicts bucks only make up 40-45% in that harvest estimate. What this likely shows is many hunters do not fully understand that ALL harvested deer must be reported in Game Check. Some seem to think only antlered bucks must be reported and does are “optional”. If this is the case, it is an educational shortfall that needs to and can be addressed by WFF. We need everyone to report ALL deer harvests.
The need for county level harvest rates was one of the driving forces behind implementing Game Check. Several counties (Dallas, Jackson, Tuscaloosa, Baldwin, Pickens, Russell, Barbour, and Bullock) have been in the top ten for total reported harvest since Game Check started. Since county size varies considerably across Alabama, a more comparable way to make county level deer harvest comparisons is to use harvest per square mile of total land area, forest area, deer habitat, etc. rather than simply total number of deer killed. Since the length of the antlered buck season and season bag limit for antlered bucks is the same for all counties, comparing buck harvest rate per square mile rather than doe or total harvest per square mile likely presents a more accurate comparison of density since either-sex (i.e., doe) season length is not the same for all counties. While this approach is not without flaws, it does offer a viable option to evaluate population trend indices not previously available.
The 2020-21 buck harvest numbers provide a perfect example of why only using total number of bucks killed may not give a true picture of what is happening with the deer population. For example, the five counties with the highest buck harvest in 2020-21 were Jackson, Tuscaloosa, Clarke, Baldwin, and Dallas Counties, but none of those counties were in the top five for bucks harvested per square mile of total land area. Only one, Jackson, was even in the top ten for bucks killed per square mile. It appears the higher buck harvests reported in those counties have more to do with the size of the county than the size of the deer population. Baldwin County is the largest county in Alabama and had the fourth highest number of bucks reported in 2020-21 (1,570), but it ranked 56th out of 67 counties in the number of bucks killed per square mile of land area. Russell County had the highest reported buck harvest rate (3.4 bucks/sq. mile), with Lauderdale, Bullock, Bibb, and Henry Counties also reporting over 3.0 bucks killed per square mile. Is this ranking a true measure of deer density or more a measure of hunter compliance in those counties? Most likely it is a combination of both things and should become clearer as more Game Check data are collected, compliance improves, and a more accurate estimate of square miles of deer habitat in each county are developed.
What about doe harvest? Concerns about declining or increasing deer populations typically center around the length of either-sex gun deer seasons (i.e., too liberal or too conservative) since adjusting doe harvest is the usual route to address either concern. Outside of opening week, Game Check depicts doe harvests are relatively uniform across the entire season in all zones. Hunters seem to shoot does when the opportunities arise. If either-sex seasons are deemed excessive or inadequate in some areas, Game Check will allow WFF to monitor the impacts of the adjusted seasons or bag limits on the doe harvests. Once again, this is something that was impossible to track at the current scale using the previous harvest estimate methods (i.e., hunter mail and phone surveys).
Game Check is still relatively new and trends in harvest are just beginning to take shape across Alabama. As more data are gathered and trends become clearer, WFF will be better equipped to make the necessary changes in season dates, season lengths, and bag limits to ensure the best for the state’s deer population and deer hunters. Hopefully, as Game Check compliance improves, hunters will recognize not only do their letters, phone calls, and e-mails of concerns figure into WFF’s deer management process, but their deer harvest data do too. Hunters who do not contribute these data through Game Check have much less solid footing to stand on when complaining than those hunters active in the entire deer management process.