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New Opportunities for Deer Hunters
The 2020-21 deer hunting season will bring big changes for hunters in a few parts of Alabama with the creation of two new deer zones: Zones D and E. Deer seasons will open and close two weeks earlier in these new zones than they do in Deer Zones A, B, and C. This shift will allow hunters in Zones D and E to gun hunt before and during the peak of the rut, which was not possible with the previous season structure.
Data collected by WFF biologists over the last 25 years indicate the majority of deer in Alabama (80%) breed between mid-December and mid-February, but the peak of breeding can vary considerably among the Deer Zones, counties within Deer Zones, and even within a single county. This was a major point of contention for years among deer hunters in much of Alabama, particularly those in the southern counties. Many felt deer in their areas were not breeding until after Alabama’s hunting season closed on January 31st. Some were convinced the rut did not even get started until after season closed. These hunters wanted deer season to go well into February so they could hunt deer during the “entire” rut like everyone else.
WFF’s conception date data made it very clear that there were large areas of the state with substantial deer breeding activity that went beyond January 31st. These data made delineating the original Deer Zones A and B prior to the 2015-16 hunting season relatively simple. Areas south of US Highway 80 and Interstate 85 had an average conception date of January 28th, with 44% of the deer in the sample having conception dates after January 31st, so it was placed into Zone B. Deer in other parts of the state had an average conception date of January 9th, with only 14% of the deer breeding after January 31st. This became Zone A.
Even in the newly created Zone A, some areas had average conception dates that were similar to those seen in Zone B. The later breeding was not nearly as widespread in Zone A, but some hunters in Zone A felt the hunters in Zone B were given an unfair advantage. They wanted to hunt “all of the rut” like the Zone B hunters even when data did not fully support their argument. This was enough to prompt the expansion of the February 10th closing date for deer season to the entire state for the 2016-17 hunting season.
In addition to the later breeding observed in most of south Alabama and some isolated areas of north Alabama, WFF’s data also identified a few deer populations where conception dates were significantly earlier than those in other areas. Hunters familiar with the deer populations on Black Warrior WMA and Choccolocco WMA already knew the rut was much earlier on those WMAs than it was in basically any other part of Alabama. Average conception dates on those areas were November 30th (Black Warrior) and December 4th (Choccolocco), with some deer bred as early as November 1st. WFF actually began offering special early gun deer hunts in the first couple of weeks in November on those WMAs starting with the 2015-16 hunting season to allow hunters a chance to hunt these areas as the rut was beginning instead of only at the tail end of the breeding activity in late November and early December.
These early WMA hunts generated questions among hunters and WFF staff in those areas about whether the early breeding was widespread enough in some areas to warrant an earlier opening date for deer season. Hunters in a few other locations in Alabama where early breeding had been documented, primarily those areas along the Alabama-Georgia state line, had similar questions.
WFF staff identified properties to sample in the counties surrounding documented early rutting activity to answer two main questions: 1) How widespread was the early breeding activity in the areas in question? and 2) Were the boundaries of the areas large enough and well-defined enough to consider establishing a new deer zone?
After sampling numerous sites WFF biologists realized the early breeding did extend well outside the original sample sites and the boundaries of three areas appeared to be well-defined and large enough to at least propose opening and closing deer season earlier in those areas to take advantage of the early rutting activity. These areas included parts of Cullman, Franklin, Lawrence, and Winston Counties in and around William B. Bankhead National Forest and Black Warrior WMA, parts of Calhoun and Cleburne Counties in and around the Shoal Creek District of Talladega National Forest and Choccolocco WMA, and parts of Barbour and Russell Counties along the Alabama-Georgia state line.
While the areas had very similar rut dates, the difference in deer density among the three areas made it necessary to create two new zones: Zone D, which includes the areas identified in Cullman, Franklin, Lawrence, and Winston Counties, and Zone E, which includes the areas identified in Barbour, Calhoun, Cleburne, and Russell Counties. Opening and closing dates for both new zones will be the same, but Zone D will have the same either-sex season dates as Zone C. Zone E will have either-sex season throughout deer season, just like what is currently offered in Zones A and B, but the starting and ending dates of the season will be earlier.
There are always concerns about potential negative effects on the deer population following such changes, but WFF will monitor buck and doe harvests in the new zones to make sure any issues are addressed. Slight increases in buck harvest within these zones are expected, but most of the bucks taken will probably just be killed earlier in the season than they would have been without the shift. Substantial spikes in the annual deer harvests in Zones D & E are not likely but will be addressed if needed. Having four complete seasons of Game Check deer harvest data to serve as a baseline makes tracking these changes possible.
While offering better hunting opportunities is the primary reason for creating Zones D and E, the season shift in Zones D & E also has the potential to address a concern raised by many hunters and WFF staff in those areas since deer season was extended until February 10th in Zones A and C. Hunters have reported observing and accidentally killing more adult bucks without antlers in the late season than they did when season ended on January 31st. Deer in most of Alabama do not drop their antlers until March and April so this is not an issue in most of the state but casting antlers in late January and early February is fairly common in areas with early ruts (November and December breeding). Most of the accidental harvest of cast antlered bucks were by hunters who thought they were shooting a doe. Many of these accidental harvests are bucks that had been passed by hunters throughout the deer season in hopes that they would survive to the next season and have larger antlers. Ending the deer season earlier in the new zones should help reduce these accidental harvests of bucks that have shed their antlers. WFF staff will continue to gather feedback from hunters in Zones D and E, in addition to Zones A and C, to see if this issue is significant and if it needs to be addressed in other ways.
The last several hunting seasons have brought many changes deer hunters in Alabama have longed for but probably never thought they would see. Mandatory reporting of deer harvests, hunting into February, and hunting with bait have all been met with mixed results, but each have benefited Alabama’s deer hunters to some degree. The addition of Deer Zones D and E will not impact as many of Alabama’s deer hunters as these previous statewide changes, but will hopefully create the positive effects deer hunters in these areas have long anticipated. Please be sure to record all deer harvests via Game Check to assist the Division’s biologists in making better informed decisions regarding Alabama’s deer herd.