Deer season ends today; do the problems end also?

Published 12:00 am Monday, February 2, 2004

There is no doubt that the deer sightings this season has been considerably low in many parts of West Alabama. If both the hunters of West Alabama and the biologist and state representatives agree upon nothing else, they agree upon that. But the real question is why and what does this mean for the future of deer hunting in West Alabama?

Hunters throughout this area like Ronnie Willingham of Willingham Sports all say the same thing and they’re the one’s who should know because they are the one’s out there everyday.

When they opened that statewide doe season it really put a dent in the population.

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Nobody really knows what the state wants. The biologist, I’ve never talked with one that actually told me what their long-term goal is. I don’t think the public really knows what the long term goal is,” Willingham said.

But what they do know is that whatever we are doing, particularly in this part of the state, is not working.

“I’ve heard this one-to-one ratio and so many different stories, but I really don’t know who knows, what knows and how. I don’t even know if they know,” Willingham said.

“But it’s apparent that we have done the Big Buck Program now for ten years, over ten years, and it’s not working. If we were growing trees, then we would be broke right now. Because we are cutting down trees faster than we are growing them”.

But when we look at what it is the state biologists are telling us we see a totally different side of the story. According to Chris Cook, Wildlife Biologist and deer studies project leader for the Division of Wildlife and Freshwater Fisheries, the decrease in deer sightings this season could be better understood if hunters were to become better educated on what is really going on.

In his 2003 Biology and Management of White-tailed Deer in Alabama guide book, Cook explains it all when it comes to deer population and what deer management is all about.

“Sex ratio among fawns in a deer herd is typically 1:1. Due to higher natural mortality among bucks, however, the overall population is generally slightly skewed to favor female deer.

Poor growth rates among younger deer and poor reproductive success for does generally are associated with increased competition for food and cover. These negative impacts are typically the result of too many does, rather than too many bucks.

In herds with doe-heavy sex ratios, bucks have to do very little searching for breeding opportunities. This means hunters have less opportunity to encounter a buck out searching for a receptive doe. Having too many does in a herd also appears to contribute to the suppression of many natural buck behaviors, such as rubbing and scraping, Bucks simply do not have to expend the energy on such behaviors in order to ensure breeding opportunities.”

But is this the case in West Alabama?

Are there too many does?

According to the hunters there isn’t enough of either does or bucks and the real problem might just stem from another source.

“A lot of the problem is with these paper companies who lease most of the hunting land in these parts. They will take the land away from you if you don’t kill an x number of does each season,” Willingham said. “It looks like they pretty much want to eradicate the deer. You only have 500 acres and they want you to kill 35 does off of it. And the guy who has been leasing the land for 15 years says man we haven’t even seen 35 does all year.”

But according to Cook things are as they should be on those lands. “I would say that what the Gulf States biologist recommends on those lands they manage are by no means outrageous.”

How did we get to a point where deer hunting became a job and terms like “quotas” are being used?

Cook’s book might help explain it better. “Numbers of white-tailed deer in Alabama were extremely low at the turn of the century. During the period after World War II through the 1960s, deer were restocked in many locations throughout the state.

Most of the deer used in this restocking effort came from southwest Alabama, along the Tombigbee River and its associated swamps. For reasons yet to be fully explained, these deer have a relatively late breeding period when compared to those in other southeastern states which were restocked with deer from Midwestern and Northwestern sources.”

The effects of this restocking program resulted in an abundance of deer throughout the state of Alabama and throughout the years many areas, like Marengo County, profited from it.

In turn, hunters migrated to the land of milk and honey and shot at everything in sight. But this is no new news to the hunters of West Alabama. Louis Gibbs, owner of Buck Wild Hunting products in Demopolis, knows all about the great migration.

“This area has received so much, if you want to call it “positive attention,” as far as deer and deer numbers go,” Gibbs said. “Whether it is through magazine articles or whatever. I mean I travel the country and people say, oh Demopolis, man ya’ll have got the deer. And with all the positive attention that this area has gotten over the years, what you get is a in-flux of hunters.”

To then make matters worse for hunters of West Alabama the state decided eight or nine years ago to become more liberal with their hunting regulations and restrictions, which gave too many hunters, too many privileges.

“We use to be able to brag on our deer hunting in West Alabama, now we have nothing left to brag about,” Willingham said.

So what can we do to change it?

Again, we turn to Cook’s Biology and Management of White-tailed Deer in Alabama for a better understanding.

In the absence of sufficient predator populations, the work of maintaining deer populations at appropriate levels has shifted to the modern hunter. The most effective way to regulate deer populations is through hunting.

Each time a hunter harvest a deer, a management decision is made. Without a doubt, hunters are the front line of deer management. Deer biologist and managers have little impact on overall herd management in comparison to the collective impact of deer hunters.

When a particular animal is harvested or passed up, the effects of that decision shape the overall structure and health of a particular deer herd. Therefore, it is important that hunters fully understand the importance of their role in managing Alabama’s deer herd.”

According to Gary Moody, Chief of Wildlife for the Alabama Division of Wildlife and Fisheries, the state wants the decision of to ultimately rest in the hands of the hunter.

“We offer a blank canvas for hunters because not every area is the same.

Things vary from place to place across the state,” Moody said.

But it looks like the hunters in these parts would prefer if the state would step in, evaluate the situation and see if this area needs to have less liberal regulations.

‘The state needs to get more involved. Their going to have to wake up and do something about this situation,” Willingham said.

More From Cook’s Book

When mature bucks became scarce and hunters’ appetites for deer hunting increased, the brunt of the harvest pressure fell on the younger age class buck primary yearlings and 2-1/2 year old animals.

Age structure and adult sex ratios are more natural in properly managed deer herds and include more-older age class bucks in the population. Poorly managed herds, where hunting mortality selects heavily against antlered bucks, often are heavily skewed to favor female deer.

Age, size and strength determine dominance among males. Mature dominant bucks subordinate younger bucks and do most of the breeding. In herds where age structure among buck is poor, 1-1/2 and 2-1/2 year age class animals comprise the majority of antlered bucks and do most of the breeding. In such herds, a natural dominance hierarchy among males does not exist and many natural behaviors and social-biological relationships break down.

Hemorrhagic disease is the most prevalent infectious disease found in Alabama deer. Hemorrhagic disease (HD) is caused by one of two viruses-epizootic hemorrhagic disease (EHD) or bluetongue (BT) virus. Symptoms of HD include internal hemorrhaging, sloughing hooves and lesions in the mouth and on the tongue.

Chronic wasting disease also has the potential to infect free-ranging wildlife and is a real threat to local deer populations once introduced. So far, there is no evidence of this disease in the state of Alabama.

Although deer do fall prey to bobcats and coyotes, neither of these predators has been identified as a limiting factor on deer populations in Alabama. Deer make up a small portion of the annual diet of coyotes and bobcats in Alabama.

Perhaps the most common cause of disappointment in a deer management program is the unrealistic expectation of the size and/or number of deer to be produced and killed. Hunting magazines and videos bombard deer hunters with images of huge whitetail bucks harvested from the Midwestern U. S., the western Canadian provinces and Texas. Hunters see these huge deer and have visions of regularly producing similar sized bucks scoring 150 or more Boone and Crocket points on their property in Alabama. Several deer of this quality are killed in Alabama each year, but hunters should not expect to kill deer of this size in large quantities, on a regular basis, or in all parts of Alabama.

Things Could Be Worse

In the state of Kentucky the law states that a hunter can only harvest one buck per season.

In the state of Georgia the law states that a hunter can harvest two bucks a year and there is an antler restriction that co-insides with that law.

Other Interesting Deer Facts

According to Gary Moody- In a recent survey, Alabama ranked fifth in the nation in retail sales for hunting related equipment.

The average deer weight of a 1.5-year old buck in the Black Belt Prairies is 101 pounds with an average of 2.7 points.

The average deer weight of a 2.5-year old buck in the Black Prairies is 139 pounds with an average of 6.3 points.

The average deer weight of a 3.5-year old buck or older in the Black Belt Prairies is 162 pounds with an average of 7.4 points.

Deer Hunting Has Become a Business.

A $700 million business according to Moody