Chuck Sykes Looks Back on His First Year as Director of Wildlife and Fisheries
Shifting from woods and streams where he produced a popular television show seen by millions to a government job in Montgomery hasn’t been an easy transition for Chuck Sykes.
He admitted he still wonders at times why he accepted the position, but is slowly adjusting to his new surroundings.
It’s been almost a year since he became director of an important division of the Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources and the change has been quite an eye opener for him.
"I had no desire to take the job because I knew very little about it and, frankly, I didn’t want to know anything about it at first," said Sykes, who is director of the Alabama Wildlife and Freshwater Fisheries Division of the Department of Conservation and Natural Resources.
No one had to tell him about the importance of the position because he already knew; when he assumed command, it was with the same enthusiasm he had always shown when responsibility came his way.
An Auburn University-trained biologist who spent more than a decade as a wildlife and land management consultant as well as a television producer, Sykes was familiar with the private sector, but wasn’t sure what it would be like in a coat and tie behind a desk most of the day.
He knew it would be a memorable change in his lifestyle so he decided to officially take the job on Dec. 28, 2012. It’s the most important day of his life - his birthday.
"I asked to start before the first of the year because I felt I could remember the anniversary," laughed Sykes, 42. "I knew it could either be a really good day or a bad one."
Growing up in Choctaw County, Sykes spent as much time as he could hunting and fishing. When he wasn’t in school, he’d be in the woods searching for deer and turkeys. If not there, he’d be next to a pond or creek, casting a line looking for the biggest fish he could find.
Little did he know, one day, he’d parlay his skills into a profession that earned him a national reputation.
"People in Alabama are very passionate about their college football and their hunting," he said. "But owning a rifle and killing a deer won’t make you a wildlife biologist."
|Chuck Sykes, Roger Pangle, then AFC’s COO and now CEO, and Casey Shoopman while filming in South Dakota for an episode of “The Management Advantage.”|
That came in the classroom as much as in the woods and much of Sykes’ life has been spent trying to educate people about the outdoors whether involving hunting, fishing or land management.
In 1999, he launched a full-service natural resource consulting company. Two years later, he created "The Management Advantage," a television program that lasted for 11 years.
The show, a popular feature on "The Outdoor Channel," centered on educating the public about how to improve their properties for both game and non-game species instead of solely focusing on harvesting.
When the opportunity arose for him to become director of the state Wildlife and Freshwater Fisheries Division, it afforded him a chance to concentrate on his home state "and do some positive things for hunters in Alabama."
"The Management Advantage" has changed direction, too. It’s now available through the Internet and Sykes says not only is it "still viable," it’s attracting more interest than ever.
His business interests presented some initial concerns, but Sykes took care of that by accompanying his attorney to the Alabama Ethics Commission to work out any potential conflicts of interest.
"As long as I do not use my public position for personal gain, there is no conflict," he said. "There’s really no way to separate one from the other because people would constantly ask me about ‘The Management Advantage’ whenever they’d see me."
|Chuck Sykes with a 200-pound feral hog he harvested in Choctaw County.|
He quickly learned he had a lot to learn as director of a state organization that includes about 300 employees. In his private ventures, he and a few assistants pretty much handled operations.
"What I’m doing now has consumed just about all my waking moments," he said. "I didn’t have a clue about state operations, but it was nice to know I had the full support of the commissioner who hired me."
He referred to Alabama Conservation Department Commissioner Gunter Guy Jr. who is very pleased with Sykes’ management skills during his first year.
"Chuck has done an outstanding job for the department," said Guy, noting Sykes’ "expertise in wildlife management" couldn’t have come at a better time because it coincided with "major issues affecting hunters around the state."
Guy specifically mentioned the extended deer season now under way as well as the new Game Check program, one of the most dramatic hunting changes in Alabama in recent memory.
The new regulation requires hunters to report each deer and turkey harvest within 72 hours. Sykes believes compliance shouldn’t be a problem and details from the field will help "better manage our wildlife resources."
The reporting period initially had been 24 hours, but the Alabama Conservation Advisory Board and the Legislature agreed to lengthen that amount of time.
Sykes is still encouraging hunters to send in their reports quicker than three days "so we can get the most accurate data possible to make season and bag limit recommendations."
Guy said Sykes’ leadership skills have been "invaluable" to the department. The commissioner has been an occasional hunting partner with his new department head.
Fred Harders, who served as interim director of the Wildlife and Freshwater Fisheries Division and is now Sykes’ top assistant, echoed Guy’s sentiments.
"His technical expertise of dealing with wildlife has been very helpful, especially with these changes," Harders said. "Our hunters are going to have to get used to them and we’re doing our best to educate them about what they mean."
To do that, Sykes has prepared a four-page "explanation" about "misconceptions" involving the Game Check requirement now being implemented.
The first, and perhaps most important misunderstanding, he said, is the feeling by some hunters that the state instituted the Game Check program as a way to increase revenue for the department.
Sykes said that’s not true and pointed out that revenue from fines imposed by judges as a result of game and fish violations during the past 3 years accounted for less than 2.2 percent of the conservation department’s total budget during that time.
"The primary reason for implementing the Game Check system is to collect harvest information in Alabama so we can better manage deer and turkeys for the sustainable benefit of all Alabamians," he explained.
Sykes isn’t sure how many deer are roaming through Alabama, but estimates it’s in the "hundreds of thousands." Many states already have similar harvest checking systems in place.
Supervising a department with an annual budget of about $40 million is quite a departure from his days as a land management expert dealing with one property owner.
"When I was involved with that, I could handle it easily because I only dealt with one person, one piece of property and one set of problems," he said. "Now, I’m looking at the whole state as well as everything from rabbits to quail, deer and turkeys."
Those who have known Sykes for years never had any doubts he’d do a good job when he took over the department.
Tim Wood, general manager of Central Alabama Farmers Cooperatives in Selma, Demopolis and Faunsdale, has accompanied Sykes on many hunting trips.
"Chuck’s a phenomenal turkey hunter and knows just about everything there is to it," Wood said. "I think he can talk to a turkey better than Dr. Dolittle."
That’s high praise, indeed, from someone who knows that Sykes’ abilities will enhance the bottom line for cooperatives supplying hunters with all their needs.
"As far as the Game Check system is concerned, it’s important because we don’t have any hard information about what’s being killed in the state," Wood added. "This will give us a much better understanding."
Sykes certainly agreed with that assessment because "it’s critical we find out what inventories we have in this state. It’s hard to manage if you don’t know what we have."
When he assumed his new position, Sykes immediately initiated an open-door policy because "I want input from everybody since I’ve never claimed to know it all."
As his first year heads toward a conclusion, Sykes’ experiences could make for interesting reading if he ever decides to write a book.
"I’ve been involved in everything from budgets to seasons to bag limits," he said. "I’m also on a bunch of boards and go to a lot of meetings. That’s why I like to go out in the field to speak with our employees who spend their days there."
Sykes and his wife Susan live in Wetumpka. Susan enjoys the outdoors as much as her husband and helps with the family farm in Choctaw County whenever she has the chance.
Give him a choice of what game to hunt and he’ll quickly respond with "turkeys." He has three of them mounted and proudly displayed at his Montgomery office.
His pride and joy is not there, however. It’s "The Drummer," a name he gave to the turkey he hunted for 7 years before finally bagging him.
"It’s in a case at home," Sykes said. "I put him in it because of the respect I had for him during all those years I hunted him."
As for deer, Sykes says he’d much rather hunt them with a bow and arrow instead of a rifle because "it takes a lot more skill."
He may not have a lot of time in the near future to hunt deer or turkeys due to his new responsibilities, but, the first chance he gets, he’ll be back in the woods again - a place that has become like a second home to him.
Alvin Benn is a freelance writer from Selma.