With the season in full swing, it’s time to really test the Game Check program!
When the Conservation Advisory Board agreed in April that Game Check should become mandatory for the 2016-2017 hunting season, the challenge fell on the Department of Wildlife and Freshwater Fisheries to begin a massive educational program to inform hunters of the upcoming changes. Everyone knows that change comes hard most times, and this was to be no exception. We had an uphill battle ahead of us due to hunters’ fear of the unknown and misinformation spreading like wildfire.
As with most things in life, timing is everything and, in my opinion, the time was right to pursue mandatory Game Check. The three prior years of voluntary Game Check had provided the department an opportunity to listen to the concerns of the hunting public and adequately address them. It also allowed many of the government-overreach types to see the program was simply a harvest data gathering program as had been discussed from the start.
Our first step in the education process was to provide as many media outlets as we could with the true facts about Game Check. Why we needed it, what hunters were required to do and how the data would be used were the main talking points. We developed a series of radio and magazine advertisements that would go out statewide as well. The most daunting task was to begin setting up public meetings throughout the state. The meetings would provide hunters an opportunity to ask questions and express any concerns, and in return we would have a venue to present the truth. Finally, we produced an instructional video that could be viewed 24 hours a day seven days a week at the Outdoor Alabama website for those who couldn’t attend one of the seminars.
When it was all said and done, my staff and I had organized and conducted more than 50 public meetings in 36 counties throughout the state. These meetings began the second week of June and concluded the week of Thanksgiving. The average attendance at each of the meetings was approximately 50. For the most part, these were hunters who legitimately wanted to understand the Game Check program. As with any crowd, though, there were always a couple who simply wanted to complain. Because of this, I conducted the vast majority (44) of the seminars. I didn’t feel as though my staff should have to deal with "those idiots in Montgomery" statements.
Typical seminars consisted of a PowerPoint presentation that usually lasted 20-30 minutes followed by a question and answer session. Most lasted an hour or more. If I could get people to watch and listen to the presentation, I could diffuse about 90 percent of the hostility in the room because I was presenting the true facts of the program. Most of the negativity I received early on was from two types of people – misinformed being the largest portion and a few who would never be happy with anything. You know the ones I’m talking about. If I told them we would place a buck behind every tree in the state, they would just complain that there weren’t enough trees!
I’ll have to apologize to the first few seminar participants because the presentations became stronger each week, building on the questions of the previous meetings. By the time I led the 10th meeting, I had just about heard all of the excuses and complaints and had tailored the PowerPoint to answer most of the questions. When August rolled around, most of the complaints had stopped and attendees simply wanted to learn about the program and how to comply with the new regulation the quickest and easiest. I guess word had spread that the Game Check system was not nearly as bad as it had been portrayed on social media and around hunting camps. I could sense we were making a good bit of progress with most hunters. The attitude of all the attendees had completely changed by the November meetings. Even the hunters who didn’t want to Game Check their harvests understood the truth about the program and were going to comply.
Now that we are almost a month into the season (I’m writing this on Nov. 14, 2016), I am pleased to see that many people are participating. I ran a comparison of the first three weeks of the season last year (voluntary) and this year (mandatory), and the results were pretty impressive. During the time period of Oct. 15, 2015, to Nov. 14, 2015, 1,059 deer were reported into the voluntary Game Check system. Even with the severe drought and unseasonably warm weather, 5,841 deer were reported into the mandatory Game Check system during that same time period this year. Under normal conditions, I bet at least twice that many would have been reported. I know personally, I had harvested three deer with my bow last year as compared to only one this year.
I participated in the voluntary Game Check program for the past three years. But, this year was different. I harvested a doe in Choctaw County on Oct. 29. The shot was good and she only made it about 25 yards. I immediately took out my cellphone, opened the Outdoor Alabama app, and within two minutes of the shot had successfully recorded my harvest into the system. I didn’t have to fumble through my backpack and find my harvest record either. Instead of being the director at a seminar explaining to hunters the benefits of Game Check and the simplicity of using the app to report a harvest, I was the hunter. I was able to experience Game Check from the user’s perspective and, I’m happy to report, I was right!! It was simple. It was easy. And, most importantly, the department received valuable harvest information that over time can be used to make wise management decisions.
Thanks to all of the hunters who trusted what we had to say and have participated in Game Check. By working together, we can make Alabama’s natural resources the best they can be.
Chuck Sykes is director of the Alabama Division of Wildlife and Freshwater Fisheries.