From the Brink of Extinction to One of the Nation’s Largest
By Ben Norman
With the Christmas holidays rapidly approaching, folks will soon be turning their attention to thoughts of Santa Claus, gift giving, holiday meals, and good old family get-togethers. And, for the thousands of hunters across the state, this month means it’s time for that special "holiday deer hunt" with family and friends.
|Alabama Dept. of Natural Resources employees bait and set the trigger on a trap used by the department to catch deer for restocking in areas with no deer population
This holiday season, camouflage clad hunters - young and old - from Mobile to Huntsville will be heading to the outdoors in pursuit of whitetail deer. And, from the Southern Coastal Plain to the mountains of north Alabama, excellent deer hunting can be found in every county in the state.
Considered a deer hunter’s paradise, Alabama’s bountiful deer population provides sportsmen excellent hunting opportunities. Each year, the hunting industry pumps millions of dollars into the state’s economy. Mike Thomas, employee of the Goshen Farmers Co-op in Pike County, says, "When I went to work with the Co-op in 1972, sales of feed, seed, and fertilizer to deer hunters was zero. Today these items along with hunting gear account for a large part of our annual sales. Today’s Co-op employees are knowledgeable about deer nutrition and can assist hunters with their planting and feeding requirements."
Alabama’s deer herd now stands at about 1.6 million, or 32 deer per square mile. In 2005-06, 204,700 hunters bagged over 441,000 deer. These numbers are a far cry from the conditions that existed in the state around the turn of the century.
During the colonial era, deer provided hunters with food, clothing and tools. Antlers were used to fashion knife handles, needles, and other utensils. Hides were used to make "buckskin" clothing, bridle reins, moccasins, and to pay land taxes. Deer tallow was often the only source of soap and candles. Market hunting began to take its toll on the deer population as thousands of hides and carcasses were shipped from the southeast to the more populated Atlantic settlements.
Farmers and early conservationists, however, realized the country’s dwindling deer herd would soon become extinct if something was not done. As early as 1646, Rhode Island established a closed deer season. Several other states followed suit and enacted laws to protect deer and other game. These laws, though, weren’t accepted by the public and there was little enforcement.
Deer populations declined to their lowest levels in the early 1900s. The Alabama Legislature realized that an agency must be created to protect the state’s fish and wildlife. Thus, in 1907, the Department of Game and Fish was organized. The agency passed regulations setting seasons, bag limits, and restricted deer hunting to bucks only. The new game laws met with little public acceptance and by 1922, only eleven counties in the state reported having a deer herd.
Several large landowners in west Alabama began extensive protection and management practices to increase the deer herd on their own land. By 1922, areas of Sumter, Washington, and Marengo Counties again supported a huntable population.
With deer virtually nonexistent in north Alabama, interest grew for a restocking program. The first known restocking attempt in Alabama occurred in 1925 when the Department of Game and Fish and the U.S. Forest Service purchased 105 deer from Michigan and released them in what is now the William B. Bankhead National Forest. The success of this restocking effort led to the release of 52 deer from the Pisgah National Forest in North Carolina into the Ted Joy Game Preserve in Jefferson County.
The Choccolocco and Oakmulgee sections of the Talladega National Forest received a number of deer from the Pisgah National Forest between 1938 and 1941. Word of the successful restockings in the national forests and other areas soon had sportsmen demanding other areas be restocked.
A statewide restocking program was soon ahead for Alabama. The passage of the Pitman-Robertson Act provided for a tax on firearms and other equipment earmarked for states to organize game restoration programs. Other factors including improved land use practices, increased interest in deer hunting, public acceptance of game laws and more efficient law enforcement also contributed to an increase in the deer population.
In 1945, with funds from the Pittman-Robertson Act and public support now in their favor, the Game and Fish Division of the Department of Conservation (previously known as the Department of Game and Fish) embarked on a deer trapping and restocking program. Landowners from all over Alabama allowed deer to be restocked on their property, and sportsmen raised money to assist with restocking expenses.
Most of the deer for Alabama’s restocking program came from three instate sources: Shady Grove Plantation in Marengo County, Sumter Farms in Sumter County, and the state-owned Fred T. Stimpson Sanctuary in Clark County. Deer were also received from Texas, Wisconsin, Michigan, and North Carolina.
By the 1950s the Game and Fish Division had the trapping and transporting of deer down to a science. Large stationary traps with doors on both ends were used in the early stages of the restocking program. The traps were set late in the evening and any deer trapped were removed early the next morning and transported to their new home the same day. Speedy releases from the traps minimized stress on the animals and mortality during capture was negligible.
Stockings continued at a brisk pace through the late 50s and 60s. Areas where deer had been restocked were closed to deer hunting for five years. This protected the well-established seed crop, and by 1965 populations were growing at a rapid rate and continued into the early 1970s. The herd population began to level off in the 1980s to slightly less than today’s population.
The trapping and restocking program initiated by the Alabama Game and Fish Division, landowners, and sportsmen of Alabama is now history. They began with a state that had almost depleted its deer herd and within two decades increased the herd to one of the largest in the nation.
Alabama is now considered a deer hunter’s mecca, with sportsmen coming from all over the nation. Today, it’s easy to take the state’s excellent deer herd and hunting opportunities for granted, but a word of caution is in order. In some areas of the state, the herd has reached or exceeded the carrying capacity of the land. We must continue to practice solid wildlife management by harvesting antlerless deer when necessary. Overpopulation can result in a large die-off caused by starvation and disease.
Along with overpopulation comes crop depredation. Deer can do considerable damage to crops, flowers and gardens. Anyone experiencing crop damage from deer can contact their local conservation officer, who after making a site visit, may issue a permit to control problem deer.
The Game and Fish Division, landowners, and sportsmen of a generation ago had the foresight to save Alabama’s deer herd. Now it’s up to today’s hunters to do their part so the traditional "holiday hunt" can be continued for generations to come.
Ben Norman is a freelance writer from Highland Home, AL.