Is the Black Belt Dying?

When it comes to producing trophy whitetail racks, this hotbed of activity shows some signs of decline. Here's a look at the situation and its causes.

By Zack Glover

Ask Matt Wright of Tuscaloosa or Montgomery's Jason Grubbs if he thinks the glory days of deer hunting the Black Belt counties in Alabama are long gone. Both are likely to look at you as if your brain needed an adjustment.

Wright and Grubbs do not know each other, but both shot 14-point bucks during Alabama's 2002-03 season, each of which were the hunters' best whitetails to date. Matt's Dallas County buck grossed 165 3/8 inches on the Boone and Crockett Club scoring system, while Jason's Macon County deer amassed 169 4/8 points.

Butch Herren of Trussville is also likely to scoff at the notion of the region's downhill slide. While prowling Lowndes County last season, he shot the largest buck to come out of Alabama - a 22-pointer that grossed 227 6/8 inches. Needless to say, he won't be swapping his hunting area for supposedly greener pastures.

I've been keeping tabs on this state's bruiser whitetails for more years than I'd like to admit. In spite of the impressive animals already mentioned, I'm more inclined to say that the Black Belt's buck boom has lost a little of its luster. The three deer above, as well as a few more that have been featured in this magazine in recent months, are the exceptions rather than the rule.

I'm not the only watcher of all things antlered who feels this way, though I'd love to be proven wrong. Only time will tell, but let's look closer at the evidence.

Matt Wright (l.) downed this 14-point Macon County buck in January of 2003. That's Jason Parsons helping with the deer. Photo courtesy of Matt Wright

PREFACE
Deer hunters from near and far might not realize it from looking over the latest Boone and Crockett Club (B&C) record books, which list only five Alabama whitetails with more than 200 inches of antler, but the Heart of Dixie has actually produced at least 43 bucks with racks that big. That figure does not count any taken since 1999.

In order to qualify for Records of North American Whitetail Deer, B&C's state-by-state registry of bodacious bucks, a deer must net 160 points as a typical or at least 185 as a non-typical. For the club's all-time record book, the minimums are 170 and 195, respectively. If a deer makes the grade, the hunter must then mail the official score sheet and fee to Montana before it is listed. Unfortunately, not everyone does that.

The same doesn't hold true for Alabama's own record book, which is privately published. Not only are the minimums lower, but the scores are tallied without deductions. Also, forking over the entry fee at the time the deer is measured is a lot easier than mailing it off with a score sheet.

Without launching into a debate over the fairness of deductions - the side-to-side differences on a buck's typical frame - I can say with authority that most Alabamians will be sure to list their trophies with Alabama Whitetail Records, whether or not the animals make the appropriate B&C minimum. The result is that far more deer are recognized locally than by Boone and Crockett.

More simply put, if you really want to know what's hitting the dirt in this state, you'd do well to consult the homegrown registry. The figures I'm about to throw at you all come from the latest (fourth) edition of that book.

BIG-BUCK BELT
Believe it or not, folks from all over the world have at least heard of Alabama's famed Black Belt and the bucks that call it home. I've been asked about it in Canada, Africa and Finland, as well as by friends in numerous other states.

So named because of the nutrient-rich soil that spans our state's midsection, the dozen counties - plus portions of two or three others - were once our agricultural epicenter. The abundance of nutritious food grown there nurtured some awesome whitetails.

From the 1950s to the mid-1990s, the Black Belt routinely yielded incredible bucks. These came from Pickens, Sumter, Greene, Perry, Hale, Marengo, Dallas, Wilcox, Lowndes, Macon, Bullock and Montgomery counties.

Comprising less than 4 percent of the state's landmass, this thin, crescent-shaped strip coughed up 52 percent of the bucks listed in the first edition of Alabama Whitetail Records, which was published back in 1989. Today, among the 20 or so deer harvested yearly that surpass the 150-inch mark, relatively few are taken from Black Belt counties.

Throughout the 1980s, when the yield of record book bucks from the fertile crescent reached its peak, there were just as many magazine stories about the Black Belt's super bucks as there were tales about monster deer from anywhere else on the planet. In fact, in that decade alone 98 whitetails taping more than 150 inches of antler came from the area.

That was before soybeans and other row crops practically disappeared from the rural landscape. That was before the area's deer population began exceeding the carrying capacity of the land too.

Nowadays, stories about Bama's Black Belt are far more rare. Many believe the region's heyday, which led to the price of hunting leases jumping from less than a dollar to almost $20 an acre, are gone. There are still lots of land, lots of deer and great soil, so the potential for growing monster bucks is still there. But, as stated, it is only "potential."

In this new millennium, Alabama's biggest bucks are coming from areas where the deer aren't so plentiful. It is still true that no other region produces as many wall-hanging bucks wearing between 140 and 150 inches of antler as the Black Belt. But when you are talking honest-to-goodness world-class deer, the luster is tarnished.

Until the Black Belt's agricultural practices change and either man or Mother Nature thins the herd, very few of its bucks can reach their full potential.

David Nelson, a state wildlife biologist and antler measurer from Forkland, said about six years ago that the Black Belt was in trouble. In his dual capacities, David got to see more trophy deer, speak with more landowners and look at more hunting statistics than any one person in west Alabama.

"In a lot of Black Belt counties, if the deer populations climb any higher, we're going to continu

e to lose quality," he said. "Food sources are becoming more diluted as pine plantations mature, shading out a lot of good deer food. We'll still see some good quality deer, but that's more a testament to really good management.

"Numbers are hurting us," he continued. "I see more quality in the counties north of here, where the population isn't as dense."

Among the best of those newcomers are Jackson and Madison counties, which have overtaken Greene County in the state's overall rankings. Tuscaloosa, which last year produced a 185 1/8-inch main-frame 8-pointer for Joel Dorroh, and Lamar, which seems to produce at least one monster specimen each season. Last year, Lamar gave up a 26-pointer to Steve Pinkerton of Sulligent that taped out at 226 4/8 inches!

Chris Cook works alongside David Nelson in the DWFF's Demopolis office. Only now, Chris has the responsibility of monitoring the deer harvest - not only in their district, but also across the entire state.

Now serving as the state's deer studies project leader, Chris believes that David's prediction has come to pass.

"Deer densities are way too high in the Black Belt," he affirmed. "It'll never be as good as it used to be. The best are going to be 140-class deer at age 5 1/2."

Chris said the trend can be reversed if the land is farmed like it used to be and the current deer population is reduced. But chances of the former happening are slim, leaving things up to hunters.

"If the property is managed correctly, you see some nice deer," he said. "And most of the people are taking the right approach and shooting does, creating a more appropriate level for the habitat.

"We're giving them the opportunity through the doe season, and we're trying to educate folks," Chris continued. "Alabamians are swamped with the right information these days."

Yet by most estimates, the number of deer is not falling. This could be the bitterest pill for landowners and leaseholders to swallow, especially those folks who remember the 1970s so vividly. It is the memory of large herds running single file through vast hardwood bottoms that makes it difficult to believe that we have more deer today then we did once upon a time.

The thing is that the biologists making the hard-to-swallow claim aren't necessarily referring to actual deer numbers. They're talking about the land's carrying capacity, and the land has changed dramatically. Not only has farming plummeted, but a mostly pine forest isn't in the same league regarding forage production as hardwoods are.

So, there may actually be fewer deer than in historic times, but there is also far less quantity and quality of habitat to support them.

THINNING THE HERD
In some cases, clubs and landowners need to re-evaluate their self-imposed restrictions on does. Several target only big mature does because they have an aversion to shooting fawns and yearlings - sometimes out of fear that the little ones are button bucks.

The result is that more young mouths are left to eat the available food. The problem isn't helped by the people who refuse to shoot does in January because the animals might be pregnant, or others who don't shoot them in October and November because they're still nursing.

"We've done too good a job convincing people not to shoot button bucks," Chris admitted. "This has hurt the doe harvest. My philosophy is if deer numbers are way too high for the habitat, I tell people not to worry about the size of the does. They just need to take out deer, as long as they're not taking out a huge percentage of buck fawns.

"You have got to take some bad with the good," he added. "It's not a mortal sin to kill a button buck. It's not the end of the world."

Managing does, or actually hungry mouths, is just one part of the management scheme in the Black Belt. If a club or landowner wants to also manage for trophy bucks, more restraint is needed in the buck department.

Though not voiced by state wildlife managers, the fact is an antler point restriction can be the worst way to manage for trophy bucks. It's simply not a proper indicator of age, and if you want to see how big a mature buck can grow on your property, it has got to live to see its fifth or sixth birthday.

Just because it's an 8-pointer and legal to shoot by your club's standards doesn't mean that it's a mature deer. If you take it, you might have culled a superior 1 1/2- or 2 1/2-year-old. If you're happy with that, fine. But don't complain about the size of your bucks afterward. You just removed the cream of the breeding crop!

Antler spread - like "outside the ears" - is more reliable than counting points, but Cook said that main-beam length and mass are far better indicators of a buck's age.

"Actually, the best way to determine if a buck is mature is to get away from judging its antlers altogether," Chris explained. "You have to look at the whole deer."

RECAPTURING CAMELOT
While the Black Belt obviously is not the Shangri La it once was for trophy deer hunters, I hold out hope that the people who hunt there can do much to reclaim the glory days.

When the food supply is inadequate, a deer manager has the option of either eliminating some diners or offering more grub. One operator of a commercial hunting lodge in west Alabama, mindful of those long-ago herds, still shudders at the thought of "slaughtering" does. Instead, he spends thousands of dollars planting summer and wintertime food plots. It's a labor of love.

Unfortunately, all he's probably accomplishing is drawing even more deer from neighboring tracts - and spending a lot of money in the process.

To make this work, one must eliminate some deer while concurrently supplementing the existing food. This double-barreled approach, along with a sensible restriction on bucks, could do wonders for restoring the herd to a manageable level. That in turn would mean more and bigger bucks.

The occurrence of too many deer and too few groceries continues to affect antler development in Black Belt counties. This explains why locations where the reverse is true are the ones producing the most record book deer.

It is hard to say if the Black Belt deer fortunes can be resurrected on a broad scale. But it's certain that informed hunters and sound management can make a huge difference on individual tracts. Just don't expect it to happen overnight!



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