When analyzing the state of the Alabama deer herd, Chuck Sykes, Director of the Wildlife and Freshwater Fisheries Division of the Department of Conservation and Natural Resources, uses a personal anecdote to explain the situation.
Sykes has hunted the same land in Choctaw County for the past 40 years. In his early hunting days, Sykes says he was simply thrilled to see a deer. Multiple trips were needed to even spot a buck, much less kill one. As time rolled by, deer numbers exploded.
“If I didn’t see 50 on a trip, I was upset,” said Sykes. “Both of those were unhealthy populations.”
In recent years, the explosion of deer numbers has receded, and Sykes says an average hunt allows him to see a healthy number of deer.
“Now if I go sit all day, I see 10 to 12,” Sykes said. “That’s what the habitat can support. It’s a good thing. It’s not a negative in my mind.”
For the most part, Alabama hunters across the state can anticipate the same situation as they enter the woods in October. Deer numbers, while faced with variables that could impact the population in the short and long term, remain relatively stable and adjust from year to year to habitat conditions.
Concerns about the population continue in portions of north Alabama. Perceived lower numbers of deer in Zone C, which encompasses a dozen counties, resulted in reduced season lengths for does a few years ago although recent changes suggest the population concerns are not quite as widespread as originally thought.
Across south Alabama, deer numbers fluctuate locally but are stable overall. In a few localized areas in all portions of the state, high deer populations are problematic.
“Rarely do you ever hear a hunter say there are too many deer,” Sykes said, “but occasionally it’s a problem that we have to address.”
State officials continue to monitor various factors that impact the deer herd and tweak seasons and regulations as necessary. So far, diseases like EHD and blue tongue, similar viruses transmitted by biting flies, have created some problems, especially in north Alabama, but in general have not greatly impacted overall deer numbers.
Of much more concern is the potential for chronic wasting disease entering the state. While the devastating disease has not reached Alabama, neighboring states have “popped hot” in recent years, causing state biologists to evaluate the state’s response plan to CWD.
Predators, mainly coyotes, remain an ever-present issue and impact deer numbers on varying levels. However, both Sykes and Chris Cook, Deer Studies Project leader and Technical Assistance Unit coordinator, suggest that sound habitat management practices, which include predator control, minimize the impact of negative variables.
“It’s hard to make a one-size-fits-all statement about Alabama deer,” Sykes said. “It depends on where you are. Some places have deer running out their ears; some don’t. Some people are having the best hunting they’ve ever had; some are not seeing that many deer. So much of it depends on local conditions and on habitat management.”
NORTH ALABAMA CONCERNS
As many as five years ago, word filtered in from the field that deer populations in north Alabama were waning. The Conservation Advisory Board to the DCNR approved changes to seasons, reducing days for antlerless deer in north Alabama’s Zone C.
While season lengths and dates remain largely unchanged in each of the three zones across the state, large chunks of Zone C reverted to Zone A, which means more doe days for hunters in the areas re-zoned.
“We fine-tuned the map a little bit,” Sykes said. “We’re still seeing some areas that are experiencing a decline, but it’s not quite as widespread as was once thought.”
Jeremy Ferguson, Technical Assistance coordinator, has helped gather data needed to make the changes.
“On site visits, in talking with farmers, with the people in our deer depredation and deer management programs, even with processors, we’ve been able to pinpoint certain areas where the population is better than we might have previously thought,” said Ferguson.
All or portions of Limestone, Lauderdale, Madison, DeKalb, Cherokee, Etowah and Walker counties were taken out of Zone C because deer where being seen in a number of places, so they re-visited the changes.
CWD: AN UPDATE
The good news is that chronic wasting disease, which has devastated deer populations across the country, has yet to reach Alabama. However, the absence of CWD does not minimize the concern of state game managers. Last year, Mississippi became one of the latest states to report a deer with CWD.
“When Mississippi ‘popped hot,’ it kind of pushed us into overdrive,” Sykes said.
The Alabama CWD Strategic Surveillance and Response Plan for Alabama can be downloaded from the Outdoor Alabama website.
“It’s a dynamic document based on the latest scientific information that we get,” Sykes said. “It’s not a plan that was cooked up behind closed doors in Montgomery. That’s what I want people to understand. We are pulling from some of the best minds in the nation to prevent CWD from coming to Alabama. Heaven forbid that it does, but we have the best plan in place to react to it instantaneously if we find it.”
Sykes reiterates that CWD poses an imminent threat and that all Alabama hunters who travel out of state must be educated about the potentially devastating effects of the disease. Unfortunately, he adds that misinformation about CWD is all too common.
“We don’t want people to be scared to death (of CWD), but we want them to have the right information,” Sykes said. “They need to educate themselves about the potential impacts. Everything a hunter needs to know about handling a harvested deer and bringing it back into the state is found in that document.”
DEER ADAPT OR DIE
According to Sykes, deer adapt or die, meaning animals constantly evolve while many hunters do not. This results in a reduced harvest.
“Yet when you go look at their food plots, you can’t pitch a quarter without hitting a deer track,” Sykes said. “Maybe they are not seeing any deer, but something is mowing the grass down.”
Hunting the same way that they have done for the past 25 years and hunting the same food plot in the same stand regardless of whether the wind is blowing out of the north, south, east, or west will create some difficulties.
For hunters to succeed and deer populations to thrive, both Sykes and Cook emphasize the need to practice proper habitat management techniques. Fawn mortality is much less of an issue when property owners create an environment conducive to nurturing deer.
“Yes, we still have an issue with predators, mainly coyotes, but those problems can be minimized with good land practices,” Cook said. “Providing escape routes and nearby feeding areas give fawns a better chance at survival.”
To a great extent Sykes and Cook must rely on landowners to help manage the deer herd. While Alabama boasts many public lands opportunities, about 97 percent of properties are privately owned.
“We can do a lot of things to help, but the property owners have a major impact on the deer here,” Sykes said. “To a great degree, it’s up to landowners, habitat-wise, predation-wise, and also laying off the trigger finger if they think something is wrong with their property. Just because parts of the state have a two-doe-a-day bag limit doesn’t mean you have to kill every two that walk by.”
Alabama deer hunters can expect to experience much the same success in 2018-19 as in previous years. Game managers will continue to monitor and make adjustments to those things under their control while keeping a wary eye on outside factors, such as CWD. With help from private landowners, Alabama’s deer populations should remain stable for the foreseeable future.
Regulation Changes Were Few
Few changes, including the failure to enact new baiting regulations, await Alabama deer hunters as the season opens in October.
A measure to re-configure Zone C in north Alabama is among the most noteworthy changes. State officials removed entire counties from the area and returned them to Zone A, which allows more hunting days for antlerless deer. For the last two years, wildlife managers had addressed perceived dwindling deer numbers by reducing hunting days for does across Zone C.
Bow season opens on the traditional October 15 starting date with the general gun season opening on November 17.
Perhaps the biggest potential change never came to fruition. Baiting has long divided Alabama hunters, and the state came closer than ever during the last legislative session to allowing baiting. A bill passed the Alabama House, and a similar measure was debated but never came up for vote in the Senate.
The bill that passed the House would have allowed unlimited baiting restrictions for both deer and feral hogs. The regulation, however, remains the same as in past years. Hunters may bait areas but must hunt at least 100 yards away and out of the line of sight of the food.
The bill will likely re-surface in the 2019 legislative session.