Keeping The Herd Going Strong

Everyone knows that the Natural State's blessed with a great deer herd. But not everyone realizes that the AGFC works constantly to ensure that the health of those deer remains strong.

Photo by Ron Sinfelt

It hadn't quite reached mob-scene level, but the crowd was less than happy. They'd assembled at the invitation of the state's wildlife biologists to discuss deer management in general and deer hunting regulations specifically. Typically, those who were happy about the status quo had stayed home. Most of those who'd come had an axe to grind.

After the introductions, the deer specialist started giving his presentation. Or he tried to, anyway. Members of the grouchy crowd kept interrupting, particularly one obnoxious, red-faced fellow wearing a dirty John Deere cap who seemed particularly intent on being heard. For 30 minutes, he interrupted and/or contradicted everything the young deer biologist had to say. Finally, the wildlife guy got a bellyful of it, and the next time the guy butted in, the biologist took a deep breath and let him have it.

"Sonny, I've been hunting deer since before you were born," the guy in the John Deere cap started saying. "I've got 45 years of experience in the deer woods, and -- "

"No, sir, you don't," the biologist said loudly and forcefully, shutting the heckler up and drowning him out at the same time. "What you have is one year of experience 45 times, and there's a hell of a lot of difference."

That's a fairly common story among wildlife management professionals. Having hung around and worked around wildlife biologists most of my life, I've heard it a dozen times in various forms all over the country. Sometimes it'll be turkeys, sometimes waterfowl, sometimes deer. Every once in a while it'll be something like pheasants or elk. But whatever the species mentioned in the tale, the punch line is always the same, give or take a few years of experience on the part of the guy doing the heckling.

That story is so popular because it rings so true -- I have no doubt that it actually happened somewhere -- and as it demonstrates one of the major problems wildlife managers face today, word got around. Today it's been adopted and adapted by wildlifers all over the country, probably all over the world. And just because it didn't happen personally to the wildlife biologists who are now telling it doesn't make it any less true. The story has achieved the status of urban legend (although in this case the term "urban" is probably inappropriate).

If you've ever been to one of these public wildlife meetings, you know how confrontational they can sometimes be. It seems like the red-faced guy in the John Deere cap is present at every one. Sometimes he's drunk, but usually he's just mad.

To be fair, his anger is sometimes justified. And justified or not, it's almost always understandable. Hunters are passionate about hunting, and because most of us eventually learn enough about the tricks of the hunt to actually start being fairly successful, we get a wrong idea: We start believing that because we're pretty good hunters, we're also pretty good deer biologists. And often we disagree with the ideas and the methods of the professional wildlifers in our neck of the woods.

A veteran biologist friend of mine puts it this way: "Anybody who's ever killed three gray squirrels in the same morning thinks he's a wildlife biologist." But the thing is, we're not. The majority of hunters, whether we specialize in deer, ducks, turkey, or small game, will have more in common with the guy in the John Deere cap than with the professional wildlife biologist. You may have hunted deer 45 years, and you may have enough big deer racks to cover the side of a barn. You may be able to look at a chunk of real estate and accurately pick out the best deer travel ways. But none of that makes you a good deer biologist.

I don't care what your I.Q. level is, how much money a year you make, or how often you go hunting. Here's a basic truth: You don't know as much about deer as your average professional deer biologist does. Whatever your profession -- insurance agent, independent contractor, auto mechanic, farmer, barber, banker -- you wouldn't expect a professional wildlife biologist to know as much about your business as you do. So why is it so many hunters think they know as much about deer management as the professional wildlife biologist?

You don't, I promise you, and neither do I. The wildlife biologist has spent his entire educational path and his entire professional life learning everything he can about the white-tailed deer, and he keeps up with new developments on a daily basis. Doctors and lawyers -- and freelance outdoor writers -- just don't know as much about critter management as the professional wildlifer. That's all there is to it. Sorry if it offends you.

Fortunately, we don't have to know as much about wildlife management as the professionals do in order to manage our lands wisely for deer and other wildlife. Almost every state wildlife agency has a program or series of programs through which individual landowners or land managers can use the expertise and knowledge of professional wildlife biologists to improve wildlife habitat on private land. Here are a few of the programs available in Arkansas:

DEER MANAGEMENT ASSISTANCE PROGRAM (DMAP)

This is the flagship of the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission's three levels of private land deer management programs, and the one that provides the most potential for selective improvement of an area's deer herd.

A DMAP brochure distributed by the AGFC lists the following primary benefits of the program: professional review and advice regarding the status of your resident deer population; an assessment of the quality and limitations of your deer habitat; recommendations regarding improvements to the habitat; development of deer management objectives and strategies to meet these objectives; management information for a variety of species on the property; and annual reports and recommendations.

The AGFC prefers to work with landowners or land managers who can enroll at least 1,000 acres in the DMAP program. But the agency occasionally works with managers of smaller tracts, particularly if the tract joins land controlled by other DMAP participants.

"This is a technical assistance program, and it's designed to help landowners and hunting clubs improve the health of their resident deer herd," explained Ted Zawislak, a private-lands biologist for the AGFC in the eastern Ozarks. "Since it's a voluntary program, the landowners or clubs are under no obligation to accept or implement the advice we provide them with."

It's a simple, straightforward process. The landowners or club members provide the labor and legwork

to collect biological data on the deer harvested on the DMAP-enrolled land, and AGFC biologists compile the data and use it to make management and harvest recommendations to help the landowners reach whatever objectives they're trying to reach.

The landowners or club members weigh each deer harvested on the property, record antler size and any notable or unusual characteristics, and pull a jawbone from each deer using a boomerang-shaped extractor. After each hunt, each member or guest fills out an observation form that lists how many deer and other types of wildlife were seen during the hunt. After the season, Zawislak and his fellow private-lands biologists (there are twelve of them around the state) collect all the data from the DMAP participants in their regions, age the deer jawbones and analyze the data for each parcel of land.

Two identical sets of data might result in two different management plans, since recommendations are based on both the biological data and on the landowner's management objectives. If the landowner wants big bucks and has a dense deer herd, the management plan might include reducing the number of does on the property and instituting a rigid antler spread and/or point-restriction rules. If the landowner has that same dense deer herd and wants to reduce it to lessen damage on crops or orchards, the management plan might call for heavy doe harvest and no special restrictions on bucks (other than the statewide three-point rule, of course).

"The DMAP program isn't a quick-fix to deer management objectives," Zawislak said. "The first year of participation is mostly used taking baseline data to establish a starting point, After a couple years of collecting data and evaluating it, we can start making management recommendations based on the biological trend data that begins to emerge."

DMAP is administered through the AGFC's private lands biologists (see sidebar for contact information.)

DOE PERMIT PROGRAM

This program provides a mechanism through which landowners and hunting clubs can legally reduce the number of does on their property to make room for more bucks and better herd health. A minimum of 1,000 acres is required for enrollment in the Doe Permit Program. Doe tags are made available to the clubs at reasonable cost, the number of tags being based on an assessment of the property by the private lands biologist. This program, however, does not provide the level of technical assistance available through DMAP.

"These bonus doe tags don't count against the regular season deer limit," explained Ted Zawislak. "It's a mechanism for reducing the deer herd on a piece of property, to improve overall herd health." The Doe Permit Program is also administered through the AGFC's private lands biologists.

CHECK SHEET PROGRAM

Although it provides no mechanism for helping landowners or club members manage a deer herd, this popular AGFC program (more than 3,000 enrolled to date) does provide a convenient way for landowners and/or hunting clubs to check their harvested deer and therefore stay legal. Since many Arkansas hunting camps are in remote locations and a trip to the nearest established check station can be an ordeal, this program provides a valuable service to hunters and at the same time increases compliance with check laws, thereby improving the accuracy of the annual harvest reports.

Enrollment requirements are straightforward and simple: The camp must own or lease at least 200 acres; the camp must have at least six hunting members; and wildlife officers have the authority to refuse to allow camps to participate in the program if violations occur.

The check sheet program is available for both deer and turkey seasons, and the annual enrollment period is May 1 through Aug. 31. To sign up, contact the AGFC's Little Rock office at (501) 223-6430.

ACRES FOR WILDLIFE

This, the grandfather of all the other landowner assistance programs, started more than 40 years ago as an outreach program of the University of Arkansas Cooperative Extension Service and the AGFC. It is under review at this time for updating and revision, in an effort to make the program more helpful to landowners and land managers in the 21st century.

There is no minimum acreage requirement for Acres for Wildlife enrollment, and participants can receive several free services on request, including: a wildlife habitat evaluation and plan; Acres for Wildlife cooperator signs; food plot seed; and bumper stickers and shoulder patches. Landowners must re-enroll each year. In order to receive seed packets, the enrollment form must be received by Feb. 1.

Enrollment forms are available from any AGFC or Cooperative Extension Service office. Many AGFC wildlife officers are involved in the Acres for Wildlife program, and applications forms can often be obtained from them. Mail completed forms to Arkansas Acres for Wildlife, P.O. Box 391, Little Rock, AR 72203.

CONSERVATION RESERVE PROGRAM (CRP)

Fully explaining the CRP would fill every page of this magazine. There's something to fit just about every landowner in this massive cost-share program. Established in 1985 under the Reagan administration, CRP is a multiyear set-aside program that, while designed mostly to remove highly erodable land from crop production, also provides significant benefits to deer and other wildlife. Approved practices are cost-shared by the federal government at a rate of 50 to 75 percent, depending on what's being done, usually on a ten-year renewable contract.

The program is often thought of as primarily relevant to the Western states, but it's also available to Arkansas landowners. Approved conservation practices available for cost-sharing in the Natural State include: establishment of permanent introduced grasses and legumes; tree planting; permanent wildlife habitat; field windbreak establishment; water diversions; erosion control structures; grass waterways; shallow-water areas for wildlife.

The Conservation Reserve Program is administered through the Natural Resources Conservation Service. Contact your county or area NRCS office for more information and enrollment forms.

WILDLIFE HABITAT IMPROVEMENT PROGRAM (WHIP)

Also administered by the NRCS, WHIP is basically a refinement of the CRP incentives to increase the benefits to wildlife. As with approved CRP land treatments, approved WHIP activities are also cost-shared to the tune of 50 to 75 percent. Examples of approved land treatments under WHIP are prescribed burning, the creation of fire lanes, establishing food plots, certain forms of land clearing, establishing small watering holes, strip disking, fescue eradication and livestock exclusion fencing.

PRIVATE-LAND BIOLOGISTS AROUND THE STATE
District R1--North DeltaLynn Pair--Office: 877-972-5438. Fax: 870-972-5834
D

istrict R2--Central Delta

David Covington or Garrick Dugger--Office: 877-734-4581. Fax: 870-734-4585
District R3--South DeltaRuth Ann Chapman--Office: 877-367-3559. Fax: 870-357-6503
District R4--East Gulf Costal PlainStephen Fowler or Charles Self--Office: 877-836-4612. Fax: 870-835-6508
District R5--West Gulf Costal PlainElly Talley--Office: 877-777-5580. Fax: 870-836-6508
District R6--Ouachita MountainsBob Scott--Office: 877-525-8606. Fax: 479-525-2265
District R7--Arkansas River ValleyBrian Infeld--Office: 877-478-1043. Fax: 479-478-1054
District R8--Western OzarksMatthew Irvin--Office: 877-967-7577. Fax: 479-967-5103
District R9--Eastern OzarksTed Zawislak--Office: 877-297-4331. Fax: 870-297-8994
District R10--Central River ValleyMike Widner--Office: 877-470-3650. Fax: 501-470-3399

FOREST STEWARDSHIP PROGRAM

Administered by the USDA Forest Service, this program requires a minimum of 10 forested acres for enrollment. Participants will receive a written forest management plan co-authored by a forester and a wildlife biologist, based on four priorities ranked by the landowner -- timber, wildlife, recreation and "other". As with the AGFC programs listed earlier, this is a voluntary program, and there is no contract involved. The Forest Service provides technical assistance and advice. The landowner decides what to do with that information.

Contact the Forest Service office nearest you for more details: Ozark/St. Francis National Forest, 605 West Main, Russellville, AR 72801; (479) 968-2354. (District offices in Hector, Jasper, Ozark, Paris, Clarksville, Marianna and Mountain View.) Ouachita National Forest, P.O. Box 1270, Federal Building, Hot Springs, AR 71901; (501) 321-5202. (District offices in Glenwood, Booneville, Danville, Jessieville, Mena, Oden, Waldron, Perryville and Mt. Ida.)

It's obvious that there is no lack of management assistance programs for landowners and hunting clubs who want to improve the conditions on their land. We haven't even touched on the numerous provisions of the Farm Bill (also available through the NRCS). If you're interested in improving wildlife habitat and deer hunting on your land, all it takes to get started is a phone call.

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