Draw hunts on public land offer inexpensive hunts that are less crowded than open public-land hunts. But how do managers decide on how many hunts and how many hunters to have? (December 2006)
For North Carolina hunters who don't have access to private land and aren't thrilled with the idea of braving the crowds on game lands, there is a third category of hunts that basically provide the best of both worlds -- semi-public access to good land and deer management that's closer to what you'd expect from private lands.
The N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission holds dozens of permit-only hunts on public lands around the state, and other government agencies -- the U.S. Forest Service and U.S. Army, for example -- open up their acres on an annual basis to allow hunters some top-drawer hunts.
Hunters send in applications and a small handling fee, and if they're drawn, they get access to land that's not heavily hunted, land where their chances at a quality hunt are better than on wide-open public land.
The biologists who manage the land -- either for the state or federal government -- come up with a certain number of permits they issue, based on the number of hunters that an area can handle at one time, factored into an equation that includes the number of deer that need to be harvested to keep the herd in a healthy state, plus the quality of the habitat.
Scott Osborne, Scott Bebb and J.D. Bricker are three who have to crunch numbers every year and make sure that everything is in order for the hunts that take place on the lands that are in their charge.
Osborne recently retired as the big-game project leader for the N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission; Bebb is the assistant wildlife biologist at Fort Bragg, and Bricker is the refuge manager on the Pee Dee National Wildlife Refuge.
The commission runs 146 permit-only hunts on 10 different game lands or other pieces of property every fall. Fort Bragg opens up large portions of its 140,000 acres every year for hunters who buy daily permits and hunt in tightly controlled areas. And the Pee Dee National Wildlife Refuge conducts four three-day, permit-only deer hunts, in addition to a couple of one-day hunts for youth and handicapped hunters.
Commission field-staff members sit down every year to look at the game-lands areas where permit-only hunts are scheduled. According to Osborne, they take into account the acreage involved, the number of hunts, and the number of hunters that is most desirable.
"You try to see what kind of harvest you want and what the population can accommodate and the number of hunters you can take," Osborne said. "You don't want to have too many people in the woods to where they're stepping on everybody else's feet.
"The field staff will sit down and discuss the size of the game lands and what number of hunters it can accommodate. You start out on the conservative side, and as you go through several hunts, you get an idea of the participation so you can change or modify the numbers. You sit down and talk about what your objectives are and what you want to accomplish. Do you want to keep the harvest the same or have it go up or down?
"The number of hunters you can have will vary from place to place. Some of your bigger game lands can not only accommodate a greater overall number of hunters, but greater hunter density.
"With some of our deer and turkey hunts, we try to go with quality over quantity. Rather than being concerned with putting enough people in the woods to kill a bunch of animals, we want to provide a quality hunting experience by having a smaller number of hunters."
Osborne said that the main way the state figures out how successful the permit hunts have been is by mailing out survey cards at the end of the season that ask hunters how many days they hunted, the kinds and numbers of game they saw and whether they were successful.
"That way, we can get more specific information on the permit hunts than we can get on our other game-lands hunts," he said. "The ideal situation would have hunters come and check in all their deer, and when you have harvested enough bucks or does, you cut it off. But we can't do that. We don't have the manpower."
"In some cases, landowners have requested that we have only permit hunts on certain game lands," Osborne said. "On the Roanoke River, permit hunts were required by the purchasing agreement we signed. And in other cases, a landowner who sells us a piece of land may want us to hold only permit hunts. They may have adjacent land or some other interest, and we'll try to work with them."
For Bebb and his boss, Don Cockman, taking care of the deer herd at Fort Bragg means setting up parameters for different management areas to give hunters the best chance they can get to take a deer, while keeping the herd at a good level.
"We do track counts and spotlight studies, to keep tabs on the deer herd," Bebb said. "We manage our deer on big management areas, typically 10,000 acres or more, and we try to set a harvest goal on each of the management areas.
"There are some places where we want to take more does than on others, and some places where we don't want to take many does at all. We set a number for how many deer we want taken from an area, and when we get to it, we cut off the hunting in that area."
Hunters who come in to hunt Fort Bragg on a daily basis are allowed to choose their hunting area, as long as it's not being used for training by the military, and as long as the quota for the area hasn't been reached. If Bebb and Cockman determine that hunters have taken all the does they need to from one area, they will issue buck-only permits. If the hunter wants the opportunity to take an antlerless deer, they'll offer him other areas.
"We will change (our numbers) from year to year. The last few years have been fairly steady; we've been decreasing our doe harvest to try and increase the recruitment in the herd," Bebb said. "We try not to put more than one hunter for every 100 acres."
Fort Bragg has had an annual harvest of between 300 and 400 deer for each of the past several years. The buck-doe ratio in the harvest has changed from about 60-40 to 70-30.
"Every deer that's killed has to come in, and we take a look at it, check the weight, antler measurements, get its age," Bebb said. "We try to keep a pretty good take on what's going on."
Bricken runs four big permit-only hunts on the 8,443-acre Pee Dee NWR each fall, in addition to a one-day youth hunt and a hunt for disabled hunters and open archery hu
nting. Permit hunts run Thursdays through Saturdays, with a muzzleloader hunt in early October, a gun hunt in late October and two gun hunts in early November.
"Here at the Pee Dee, our main objective is waterfowl management, but deer hunting is one of our six public-use objectives, and we know we have a good (deer) herd," Bricken said. "We do parasite studies every year -- we take five deer from different areas of the refuge -- and we send off the samples. If the number of parasites is high, then we know our deer population is more concentrated than it ought to be. Basically, it gives us a number for the carrying capacity."
Bricken draws 250 permits for each hunt, and the annual harvest on the refuge runs between 120 and 150 deer.
"We draw 250 names for each hunt, but we rarely have that many hunters on any given day," he said. "We may have 50 people who are drawn who don't pick up their permits, or we have some that can't come on Thursday or Friday -- and some that don't want to come on Saturday when we have the biggest crowd. On any given day, we may not have more than 100 hunters on the refuge.
"We realize with the limited number of days we hunt, we can't possibly hurt the deer population. There aren't enough hunters and not enough time to put that much pressure on 'em. We have to flood our waterfowl impoundments in mid-November, so our deer hunts end then, except for the late archery season.
"We document all the deer killed on the hunts; we check and weigh 'em and examine them all," he said. "We know we have a healthy population.
"We have the hunts as a way of controlling the deer population, and we accommodate hunters who have nowhere else to go. A lot of people hunt here because it's the only place they have to hunt. We're close enough to Charlotte that the area is getting developed, and it's hard to get a good lease. We used to have people who came here and hunted in addition to hunting somewhere else, but it's not that way anymore."
Hunters can take two deer per day on the Pee Dee for each of the three days of the hunt, as long as they stay within state regulations for antlered deer limits. Bricken said that many hunters look to his refuge hunts as a way to kill an extra-big buck -- as witnessed by a handful of really big bucks taken over the past handful of years.