Government overreach is the buzzword of today. Is it true?
Dec. 30, 2016, marked the last day with Wildlife and Freshwater Fisheries for Kevin Dodd, law enforcement chief, who retired after 32 years of service. He took over the chief’s position two months before I started my job. He was labeled "Mr. Delicate" due to his skill of defusing potentially volatile situations both with his staff and with the general public. He has also been able to offer sound advice to me on handling situations in my position. With this being said, when I offered Mr. Delicate the opportunity to express his parting thoughts in my column this month, I was pleased to see he didn’t squander the opportunity with a shot across the bow. He made a direct hit!!
The recent political climate has popularized naysayers and negativity about all things government including the Wildlife and Freshwater Fisheries Division. Our office frequently fields complaints from various sources claiming doom and despair over the current state of affairs in conservation matters. I recently endured a long-winded tirade from a self-proclaimed deer-management authority. He raved on about overly liberal seasons "causing the demise of white-tailed deer populations," then whined about "ever-increasing numbers of complex rules and restrictions" and eventually finished with how hunting and fishing licenses are simply a "perpetuation of big government bureaucracy. Why don’t y’all do like Florida? They do things better."
I gritted my teeth while reciting Scripture in my head, "Answer not a fool to his own folly lest thou also be like unto him."
Diplomacy won out. He wouldn’t have listened, but he deserved to have it dished back in his lap, anyway.
I’ve taken to comparing memories over the past 32 years to present day, the before and after so to speak. The aforementioned rant sparked a memory of touring a 2,500-acre hunting club in Baldwin County in 1985. A club member proudly pointed out the poster-board harvest tally tacked to the wall of the skinning shed. It showed 83 buck deer, 79 of which were spikes. Doe killers and pedophiles were not allowed membership.
1985 was the era when bait-shop bulletin boards were plastered with Polaroids of hunters proudly displaying bucks taken well before their prime, and the beds of pickup trucks usually revealed several skull caps sporting finger-length antlers. The harvest mantra was, "If I don’t shoot him, someone else will." Unantlered deer were sacred in most parts, reserved only for the derelict, outlaw poachers. The Deer Management Program that came about in the 1980s was widely viewed as heresy, and any biologist or officer preaching the new harvest gospel to include shooting does and not shooting young bucks endured similar accusations about "causing the demise of the deer populations."
Thirty years later, most landowners and deer hunters are better educated on the basics of habitat management and deer harvest strategy, largely due to WFF’s education efforts. Despite the dire predictions of some of the public in the 1980s, deer and turkey have expanded to every county in the state. Social etiquette says not to say, "I told you so." But the WFF Division did tell you so.
Numerous other species of wildlife and fish WFF manages have flourished as well. I am proud that my brother, an avid birder and kayaker, is able to view bald eagle nesting activity on Guntersville reservoir due to WFF eagle hatching programs in the 1990s that re-established active breeding in Alabama. I am pleased to have witnessed the return of annual migrations of manatees to the Mobile-Tensaw Delta and that osprey now nest on many state reservoirs. Black bear now appear to be expanding well beyond the small thickets of north Mobile County, where they have struggled for years. Commercial harvest of paddlefish has resumed in waters where they were scarce or absent in the late 1980s. The striped bass-hybrid fishery in nearly every reservoir can be attributed to successful WFF hatchery programs. The naysayers have it wrong. The WFF Division has done pretty well thus far. But government agencies aren’t supposed to brag.
Although these successes resulted from varying degrees of WFF management, all included regulations designed to foster their success and an active law-enforcement program to ensure public compliance. The concern about too many complex rules is nothing new. The WFF Division recognizes that a maze of season restrictions and frivolous rules serves only to discourage newcomers to hunting and, therefore, constantly vets the justification for rules against the public good. The trend has been to encourage landowners and lease holders to make sound management decisions for their individual property needs by allowing as much leash as possible. In recent years, over 50 regulatory restrictions have been simplified, reduced or repealed entirely. These include restrictions against certain archery devices, ammunition types, firearms, firearm suppressors, bag limits and season zones. Want to predator hunt in June? No problem, as we opened the season on fox, bobcat and raccoon. Want to use buckshot outside of dog deer season? Go for it. Trying to recall the three planting zone dates for top-sown wheat for dove fields? Forget about that as there is now one zone for the entire state, and the guidelines for planting are greatly simplified. For those who whine about the complexities of today’s three statewide deer harvest zones, I would invite them to revisit 1985 when some areas had four zones within one county. Maybe the hunters then were better able to decipher the rules?
We arrived at the present state of plentiful wildlife opportunities on the backs of willing, license-buying hunters and anglers from years past. The WFF law enforcement program is 100 percent dependent on these funds, and the steady decline of license sales has resulted in a present force of conservation officers that resembles 1970 levels more so than in 2000. There are more license discounts and exemptions afforded to hunters and anglers today than there were in 1907. Let that soak in for a moment, and then tell me how anyone could reasonably view hunting and fishing licenses as perpetuation of big government bureaucracy?
The attempts to discuss future funding for WFFLE through restructuring basic license exemptions have been unfairly labeled as "more government waste." Given all I’ve observed in my work with WFF for over three decades, I’d call it leadership.