With 1.5 million deer and about 500,000 killed each year, Alabama absolutely is a major deer state. It does have some big deer, but those stats tell the tale: It's about numbers.
Chris Cook, deer studies project leader, said, "Historically we're probably more recognized as a numbers state, but in some areas [the deer management] philosophy has definitely changed. Lots of clubs and landowners are managing for better quality now."
He explained that "most of our state is privately owned, so [deer quality] is really dependent on people who hunt a property and what their philosophy is." Because of that, Alabama is producing some nice bucks along with its ample any-deer opportunity.
Deer Population: Cook's "best guess" is 1.5 million to 1.75 million, which he said "might be on the high end."
Economic Impact of Deer Hunting: $1.5 billion
Cook: "Typically the areas with the highest deer numbers are in the southern third of the state, but you're liable to find areas where there's high deer density anywhere in the state."
The biggest deer "tend to come from the central band across the state and also the northwest quarter. A lot of high-end bucks have been coming from those areas, but you could see a really good deer come from anywhere."
Current Status of the Deer Population: 1-5 scale with 1 being poor and 5 being optimal
Cook pegged Alabama at a 4 this year. "Based primarily on numbers from our mail survey, which is how we generate our estimated deer harvest, the last three years have been a little bit below what historically have been good years," he said. "So coming into this year, I'd say we're probably a 4 in most areas – some bucks made it through [last season so] there's probably a little bit better age structure in the buck population in a lot of areas.
"This season has the potential to be a bit better than average – but I've been saying that for the last two years and it hasn't worked out. There have always been mitigating circumstances, like weather."
Status 5 Years From Now
Cook also said a 4 here. "This is the fifth year that we've implemented a season limit on bucks. In the past it was one per day, but this is the fifth year of a three antlered bucks season limit. Based on our mail survey, hunters are shooting fewer bucks, so more bucks are moving into older age classes. In terms of quality, things should be picking up."
Biggest Factors Over the Next 5 Years
Cook has two concerns: hunter pressure and development. The former has two parts, one of which is hunters pushing to extend the deer season into February in some parts of the state. "That potentially could undo some of the progress we've made in those areas," he said. "It's more pressure on bucks when they're most susceptible."
The other part is that his agency is getting pressure to legalize baiting. "That potentially could have some impact on hunter success as well as management of our deer herd," Cook said.
Although development has slowed a bit in Alabama because of the economy, it's still a concern. "There still are a lot of conflicts with deer in urban-suburban transition areas," he said, "so that of course is something we're going to continue to have to address. We're trying to figure out how to resolve those issues, hopefully through the use of legal hunting."
Any Doom and Gloom?
To the question of whether he can foresee any areas of his state having a large population decline or crash at some point, it's no surprise given Alabama's huge herd that Cook said no.
"In some areas of the state we've seen deer numbers get down to a healthier level, and we have issues that will of course always influence deer populations, like changes in land use and deer habitat, cover types, predation. But in general I don't see any area where a crash or drastic decline is inevitable. On the other hand I could be completely wrong [laughs]."