Fall is just around the corner, meaning that it's almost deer season and time to plan where to get some venison this year. Of course, there is no question that Alabama has plenty of deer, providing Cotton State hunters' ample opportunities to bring home some meat.
While it is truly difficult to provide a full-fledge outlook for the 2015-2016 deer season, Chris Cook, Alabama Department of Wildlife and Freshwater Fisheries deer studies project leader, can provide some insight into the current state of Alabama's deer herd, along with what hunters might expect to see this fall.
"It hasn't been that long that we went from one buck a day to a three buck season limit," Cook said. "That was just eight or nine years ago. At that time, it was a really big change, but now it's just business as usual; most people don't even think about it any more." Over the past couple of years, Cook says, the DWFF has made some additional changes in the structure of gun season, such as shifting open days for gun hunting from early December to February to help south Alabama hunters take advantage of the rut. Those changes were expanded to more of the state last year.
"Feedback from hunters and deer processors has been mixed," Cook said. "I don't think there's any doubt that there were more deer killed, but whether that's good or bad is up for debate. It's effective in terms of having deer killed, but whether that's going to make everybody happy in the long term is another thing. And at this time, we're not set up to track that the way I'd like to see it tracked."
For the 2015-2016 season, Cook sees no major changes for deer hunters, with similar season dates and boundaries for hunt zones, including the areas with the February dates. Biologists will also continue to collect data on conception dates, particularly in areas north of the boundary to determine if there is a need to tweak those boundaries and season dates. Some of the surveys that look at conception dates have indicated dates not consistent with the rest of the state.
"We have a few areas where the breeding is earlier than the majority of the state," Cook said. "On one site, every deer in the sample was bred before the opening of our gun deer season. Those hunters are missing the rut on the front end. Some of those areas may be so small that it's not practical to make a zone to capture that, but we're trying to find those areas and work from there.
If the data shows the need, we may look at doing a shift in dates the other way in a few areas. But for this year, nothing has changed."
Overall, Cook says, biologists don't to do regional population estimates of deer in Alabama. Based on the harvest from the past several years, however, they expect the deer harvest for this season to be about the same as for last year.
"The harvest has been up and down, but it's about the same numbers for the last several years," Cook said. "Nothing indicates that the harvest should be unusually low or high, or that the populations are swinging drastically one way or another."
Once the season starts, however, many things can affect the harvest, particularly weather. Even with Alabama's long season, if weather is not conducive to deer movement or it is just really poor for hunters, it is going to affect the harvest.
However, good weather conditions paired with a reduction of food sources, such as poor hard-mast production (acorns), the harvest will be higher because hunters will be in the woods with deer moving often to find food.
Considering the number of varying factors, it is truly difficult to predict a deer harvest. At the same time deer populations fluctuate across the state from year to year.
"It depends on what region you're in," Cook said. "In some places the numbers have declined over the past 15 years. Primarily those are areas that had more deer than we would have liked on the landscape. In those areas, deer numbers probably are back down where they need to be."
In other areas, deer populations have increased, some to the point where deer are too populous. In those areas, the DWFF are working to find a balance to provide deer for hunters without damaging the habitat. Of course, in other areas deer numbers have remained stable.
"Overall, one end of the state to the other has good, healthy, huntable deer populations," Cook said. "We just have to wait and see what the weather is going to do and how everything else cooperates. Then we'll see what the harvest is going to be."
One issue the DWFF is facing is the same issue state agencies all over the country are dealing with: declining hunter numbers. The DWFF is looking for ways to recruit and retain hunters, including aging hunters who only participate a few times a years.
Since license fees are the agency's main source of income, hunting and fishing license sales are important to provide services to future generations. The DWFF is making an effort to recruit new hunters, whether those are youth hunters or adults who have never hunted deer before, although they may have hunted other species.
To help encourage young hunter recruitment, Alabama also offers youth seasons.
"We have a youth deer season, a youth turkey season and a youth waterfowl season," Cook said. "On the majority of our WMAs, on the weekend before the regular gun deer season opens, we'll have a youth deer hunt. The Monday through Friday of the week before our regular gun deer season opens, we have a statewide youth deer hunt."
Seasons, however, are just the first step. Many children want to participate in hunting and fishing, but do not have anyone to take them.
"That's the next step that our Hunter Education and outreach programs are working on," Cook said. "They're trying to develop some mentoring programs, not just for kids, but also for adults who don't know where to go to start. Our entire wildlife staff has been discussing this."
Once a child — or an adult who has never hunted before — has been introduced to the outdoors, what happens next? According to Cook, there's a real lack of long-term mentoring going on that will get both adults and youth past the beginning stages of hunting.
Part of the problem lies in the number of competing activities. Youth have school, sports, computers and friends vying for their time, and the same thing is true with adults — work, sports and devices take them away from hunting as a primary outdoor activity.
Another issue the state is facing is data collection. Biologists typically have trouble getting the level of information necessary to make detailed decisions about deer management.
"To get the data we need to make the best, most informed, science-based decisions regarding season dates, bag limits and everything else associated with that, is difficult," Cook said.
"We need a way to get hunters to understand the need to cooperate with these voluntary systems we have in place, and to understand that we're not trying to do anything other than to manage the deer population better than we have managed it in the past; we just want to improve things for hunters."
Cook says the agency gets a lot of calls about fawn recruitment and fawn predation, particularly fawn predation by coyotes. The agency even has some research projects going with some universities, looking at fawn recruitment and adult survival rates.
The state is also participating in an ongoing regional coyote research project to better understand the dynamics of the coyote population and its affect on deer.
"A lot of people will try to draw conclusions before they understand what's involved," said Cook. "They want to place blame on the coyotes and say 'If you trap the coyotes you'll get this response,' and that's not necessarily the case.
We don't know if coyotes are a real or just a perceived issue. We're trying to figure that out. We don't know why some areas have high predation rates, and other areas that seem very similar have much lower predation rates."
Deer numbers are a mystery in many places. In some areas, hunters can take every doe seen with zero noticeable declines in the population, while in other areas a more conservative doe harvest keeps populations in check. Biologists are still trying to determine all the factors at work when it comes to management.
At the same time, there are habitat issues, season lengths and bag limits, which must also be considered in management decisions. To make these decisions the state needs better data collection. All of this adds up to a lot of ongoing evaluation of the deer program in Alabama, as well as of the deer season and deer regulations.
"The best way for us to assess what's going on is through better data," Cook said. "Then we can do better research. We've improved our data collection on some things, and hopefully will continue to do that."
While the agency was working on a long-term deer management plan, it is been put on hold at the present. At this point, the goals of DWFF, with regard to deer hunting, are really pretty simple — the agency wants a healthy deer population, good hunting opportunities and happy hunters.
"We want to keep all the stakeholders satisfied, whether those are the farmers who deal with crop damage or the landowners who lease their land to hunters," said Cook. "Deer hunting is a huge industry in Alabama, with a huge economic impact in the state.
So we need to make sure all the bases are covered. It's a broad, general plan, but we have to address all those things. If you just focus on one of them, you'll neglect some of the others."It's all about achieving a balance, says Cook.
"Right now we're trying to tweak all our management efforts with better data collection and better understanding of hunter attitudes and desires, as well as getting feedback from other stakeholders. We will continue to do that until we get to where we're able to answer a lot of questions with more confidence once we have more data."