Photo By Ron Sinfelt
Fall is in the air, and it's time to head to the woods to look for some venison. Hunters across the Cotton State are gearing up for the most anticipated season of the year. Of course, to be truly successful, hunters need to have an understanding of what is happening with Alabama's deer herd.
"There are some parts of the state where we've gotten a lot of questions and concerns from hunters and landowners about what is perceived as declining deer numbers," said Chris Cook, Deer Studies Project leader for the Alabama Division of Wildlife and Freshwater Fisheries. "That's primarily up in north-central Alabama, and that was really the justification for shortening the either-sex gun season in that part of the state this past year."
Biologists are continuing to monitor the deer population in north-central Alabama. Unfortunately, they didn't have a way to monitor the deer harvest prior to this year, but they can look at the population going forward in regard to harvests.
"We want to be sure that we have that area defined the way it needs to be defined," Cook said. "As we're able to get more data, we'll be able to see how the current season structure and bag limits are affecting the number of deer that are in the area."
In other parts of the state, deer numbers appear to be stable, with very few complaints about not enough deer. There are still areas where there are too many deer, but those complaints have reduced over the past decade or so. In fact, in a lot of places deer numbers needed to come down to reduce damage to habitat and conflicts with farmers and other user groups. Today, deer numbers are more in line with what the habitats can support.
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The quality of deer in the state has changed over time as well, with hunters across the state taking really good deer, due to a number of factors.
"I don't think that can be attributed to just one thing," Cook said. "I think it's a combination of things. But I don't think anyone can discount the effect that the three-buck limit has had on the quality of bucks in some parts of the state."
About a decade ago, state regulations changed from one antlered buck a day with no season limit to three antlered bucks per season limit. And one of those bucks has to have four points on one side.
"In some areas this worked because even though hunters were following state rules, they still were killing more bucks than they should to have a good chance of quality deer down the road."
However, in most parts of the state, hunters weren't killing three bucks in a year. In those areas, the rule didn't have as much impact, but it may have made hunters think harder about which bucks to shoot.
Another factor may be the aging of the hunting population, because as hunters get older, it is a natural transition to be a little more selective on bucks.
One issue that does have biologists concerned about in the state is Chronic Wasting Disease.
"That's the 800-pound gorilla that's not in the room yet," Cook said. "But he's outside looking in the window. That's one of those things that we're always concerned about. We're doing surveillance and collecting samples each year, primarily from hunter-harvested deer, but also from road-killed deer and any other deer that may be suspect."
Since the early 1970s, Alabama has had a regulation banning the importation of all members of the deer family. Hunters who take a deer or elk in another state can only bring back meat that has been completely deboned.
"You also can bring back mounts, hides and skullcaps that have been completely cleaned of any brain or spinal cord tissues," Cook said. "We're doing all of those things to reduce the chances of CWD getting here in the back of a truck."
The state of Alabama also has a CWD Response Plan in place, should CWD appear in the state.
Dr. James Kroll and Pat Hogan discuss the impact of wind on deer behavior.
(Via North American Whitetail)
Another disease that biologists monitor is hemorrhagic disease. HD is prevalent throughout the Southeast and is not generally an issue. The main areas where significant mortality from HD outbreaks happens are in captive deer breeding facilities with northern lineages in their populations, as Southern deer have some natural resistance to mortality events associated with the disease.
Biologists are also watching what happens with coyote populations in Alabama. In fact, every state in the Southeast is monitoring coyote populations and their effects on deer populations through research.
"A lot of research dollars have been spent on studying coyotes and other predators and their effects on deer populations in the Southeast," Cook said.
"That's something we have questions about, but you're not going to get rid of coyotes; they're here," Cook said. "As more research comes out, it's clear that we can't make them a non-factor in deer management decisions, so we have to learn to adjust our management strategies through bag limits and season lengths to compensate for them."
Of course, the information provided by research projects about coyotes varies with the project. Some have shown significant impact on fawn recruitment on certain properties, while others show a lot less impact. There are many factors that figure into whether coyotes are going to have an impact on the deer population."
If the deer herd and habitat is managed well, then a healthy deer population can withstand any negative effects from predation from coyotes, bobcats or other predators. Unfortunately, many times the habitat isn't that good, providing situations where coyotes can have an impact on deer populations.
"I guess you can say they have an easier time of finding fawns if good quality fawn-rearing habitat is kind of sparse or in isolated pockets," said Cook. "In that case, an effective predator, like a coyote or a bobcat, will be pretty good at keying in on fawns when they hit the ground."
However, overall the deer herd in Alabama is doing pretty well, providing excellent hunting opportunities. Of course, there are areas where the herd is overpopulated, as well as areas where there are fewer deer than desired. But biologists with Alabama Division of Wildlife and Freshwater Fisheries are continuously monitoring the many factors that can affect deer, especially harvests, disease and coyotes.
MAINTAINING HUNTER SATISFACTION
The other side of the deer hunting picture is the declining population of hunters.
"We have a declining number of licensed hunters," said Chris Cook. "We're looking for ways to recruit new hunters while also retaining the hunters that we have. That's a huge concern because of how we're funded. We get our base funding from the sale of hunting and fishing licenses, and that's matched with federal money."
The hardest part of managing deer populations for hunting is the people. It's often very difficult to provide for a high level of hunter satisfaction.
"You talk to hunters that hunt one particular county and they'll tell you how great a year they had," Cook said. "Then you talk to another group 10 miles down the road and they'll be singing the blues about how bad it was. Then you go back and look at what they did 10 years ago and it's basically the same as what they did this year. But in their minds this year was the worst year they've ever had."
It's all a matter of perception, according to Cook.
"That's one of the challenges of wildlife management," he said. "We're never going to be able to make everyone happy so we try to manage wildlife to where they're healthy and productive populations, and try to keep the majority of hunters happy. For the most part hunters in Alabama seem to be satisfied with what they have."