An Alabama group’s plan to improve a local deer herd’s genetic structure is seen as an innovative project by some, but has also drawn harsh criticism from wildlife biologists.
The Big Buck Project has announced plans, starting this fall, to release captive trophy class deer into the wild in Marengo County, Ala., in an effort to produce genetically-superior bucks in the region.
The program is being led by Walter Tutt, owner of Tutt Land Company in Linden, Ala., and Hale Smith, one of Tutt’s sales associates and land managers. Smith said the plan was formalized this summer after seeing the results of a five-year study Tutt oversaw with deer inside a 1,300-acre enclosure as well as 26 years of work by a client on free-range land in the area.
“We were trying to think of ways to make it [the local deer herd] better and maybe find out just what kind of quality deer herd we can have,” Smith told the Mobile (Ala.) Press-Register and al.com.
Smith also said the introduction of genetically-superior bucks in the enclosure that bred with does native to the county resulted in “very high quality offspring even though the breeder buck was mating with deer already [in the enclosure].”
He said his group was also inspired by years of experimenting by Marengo County resident Roy Jordan on 3,000 acres of free-range land.
“He has been working over the past 26 years, including introducing breeder deer to his property,” Smith said. “Both he and his neighbors on adjoining properties have seen significant increase in their quality of deer.”
But the Quality Deer Management Association, through a release on Sept. 26, announced it is trying to convince the project’s organizers to reconsider.
“Releasing captive-bred, farm-raised deer carries significant risks for wild deer, and that’s why QDMA opposes this project, and why it’s illegal in nearly every state,” wildlife biologist Brian Murphy, the chief executive officer for QDMA, said in the release. “I was shocked to learn that Alabama does not have a law that prevents what is being proposed in Marengo County.
“Across the nation, wildlife and agricultural agencies have stringent requirements to keep captive deer behind fences because of their potential risks to wild deer. Captive deer have the potential to carry diseases or parasites not present in wild populations, some of them deadly.”
In the FAQ section of the project’s website, bigbuckproject.org, it reads: “According to the Alabama Game and Fish department, it is perfectly legal to purchase a deer from a state licensed deer breeding facility and release it on private property.”
Smith said the bucks would be purchased from licensed Alabama game breeders as required by law. Landowner approval is also required before the release of any deer.
“To my knowledge, no one in the Division of Wildlife and Freshwater Fisheries spoke with the project’s organizers before it was announced, nor have we been asked to be involved in any manner,” said Gary Moody, the chief of wildlife for the Alabama Division of Wildlife and Freshwater Fisheries.
Moody also told the Press-Register, “We will work with them as positively as possible. We’re not closing any doors.”
On the project’s website, a map is shown with Marengo County divided and 10 “zones,” and visitors to the site are encouraged to vote for which zones where they would like to see deer released.
Smith said organizers are working to recruit additional partners for the project. The website says, “Land Owner Partners will have one deer released on the designated property of their choice (with land owner permission).” It also says the names of Land Owner Partners and their release points with not be made public.
The released deer will primarily be young bucks because they will likely cost less to purchase and “the younger the deer, the more breeding it will do,” Smith said.
“Right now, we plan to start with breeder bucks,” he added. “Moving forward, we plan to release yearlings, both bucks and does, as well as some bred does – depending on what the customer wants to do.”
Costs will vary depending on the age and genetics of the deer. The project’s website said average price of does and bucks range between $2,000 and $20,000. Recently, according to the site, a breeding doe sold for $90,000 during a public auction in Huntsville, Ala.
Each released deer will carry highly-visible tags in each ear, and land owners are encouraged to let the tagged deer grow.
“… We believe the landowners who want these breeder bucks understand the importance of letting them get to an older age class,” Smith told the Press-Register. “We’re not going to be releasing any 200-inch bucks out there, but they will have the genetic potential to pass on those traits.
“I think this is the first program of its kind, and it’s a revolutionary approach to enhancing genetics in a wild herd. It’s never been done on such a wide scale. We know there are going to be positive impacts, but we don’t know to what level that will be 10 to 15 years down the road.”
Others aren’t so quick to jump on the bandwagon.
Moody said previous studies have shown that expectations may exceed results.
“Those studies show that the genetic diversity of deer populations everywhere is more varied that in any other species,” he said. “The crux of what they found is that you’re fooling yourself if you think that adding a deer or two is going to change that genetic diversity.
“If it was as simple as putting a few breeder bucks out in the wild, trust me when I say that every state would have already done it.”
“Introducing a small number of breeder bucks into a free-ranging whitetail population is highly unlikely to affect genetics at the population level,” Dr. Steve Ditchkoff, a professor of wildlife science at Auburn University, said in the QDMA release. “Not only is survival of captive-raised deer often very low when they are released into the wild, basic science suggests that the genetic impact of a few animals would be quickly diluted.”
“This is like trying to change the salinity of the ocean by adding a gallon of fresh water,” Murphy said. “If Marengo County isn’t producing the quality of deer that hunters expect, it’s not because of ‘bad genetics’ but rather poor deer herd and habitat management.”
Murphy said the QDMA is hopeful the project can be shot down before it advances.
“If this project proceeds, it would set a dangerous precedent, blurring the line between captive and wild animals and opening a can of worms in Alabama that could quickly lead to similar efforts in other counties,” he said. “At the very least, we sincerely hope the Alabama legislature acts quickly to close this loophole and make it illegal to release captive-bred deer into the wild. If not, sooner or later, there will be negative, if not catastrophic, consequences, and Alabama hunters, landowners and residents will be the ultimate losers.”
To detractors of the project, Smith said research has shown it can provide positive results.
“Through many years of research here in our county, on both free-range land and high-fence enclosures, we’ve had a lot of proof the project will enhance the quality of the herd,” he said. “That will not only be a good thing for our hunters but also provide a positive economic impact for our county and our area.”