For many hunters, the February season shift is reason to celebrate. Here is an account of how the decisions were made:
As a biologist, I understand the need for quality data to make management decisions. Understandably, some people who do not have a scientific background may view data collection as unnecessary. One can never discount the political and social factors that come into play with decisions made on a state level. As a newcomer to the State Agency side of wildlife management, I don’t bring along the institutional knowledge of why decisions have been made in the past and what processes were used to make those decisions. Therefore, I utilized a once-wet-behind-the-ears biologist who is now a seasoned veteran and leader in the deer management arena to assist me with the explanation of how the Wildlife and Freshwater Fisheries Division began the process to get to where we are today with the season shift in South Alabama. The following is his account of the journey to the February deer season shift.
"WFF staff members have been collecting data to examine the reproductive health of deer in Alabama and improve their understanding of the various factors influencing the biology and behavior of Alabama’s herd since 1995. As more sites were sampled, it became clear that most deer herds in Alabama had the potential to be quite productive (i.e., very high pregnancy and fetus/doe rates), but predicting the local herd’s conception dates was often difficult. Deer in populations separated by only a few miles sometimes had average conception dates that were as much as two months apart. Unfortunately, efforts to collect these data from throughout the state were slow to expand.
"During this same time, more and more of Alabama’s deer hunters were educating themselves about not only new hunting tactics but also new ways to improve the quality of their local herds and hunting experiences through harvest and habitat management. These hunters learned of the importance of data collection and the importance of using these data when making management decisions. Many also began to question WFF’s own data-collection efforts and how the data was used in setting seasons, bag limits, etc. These inquiries often were dismissed or met with unsatisfactory responses. The old strategy of patting everyone on the head and telling them to ‘trust me’ was quickly becoming practically useless for WFF staff. It became clear the Emperor was naked.
"Two particular questions WFF could not answer to the satisfaction of many were: ‘When is the rut?’ and ‘Why can’t we hunt in February?’ Two neighboring states, Mississippi and Florida, offered February deer hunting in areas just across the border from Alabama. Much of the justification for allowing February hunting in those areas was due to the late breeding (i.e., late January/early February) seen in these areas. Hunters in south Alabama believed their deer rutted at the same time as neighboring deer in Mississippi and Florida, but found little support for a February season from WFF administrators. Opposition was not supported by data since very little conception date data existed from South Alabama.
"With the arrival of the current administration, a new push to collect conception-date data across the state was launched by WFF. These increased data collection efforts did a very good job of filling in many of the conception-date data gaps in Alabama. The increased data made it very clear most sites in some portions of the state had rut dates that went beyond January 31. The one area where the late dates were most consistent from site to site was southwestern Alabama. Data collected from 1995-2012 showed the average conception date in the area open for February hunting in 2013 (i.e., the February zone) was January 31, with 49 percent of the deer in the sample having conception dates after January 31. For comparison, deer sampled in the remainder of the state during that period had an average conception date of January 15, with 24 percent of the deer breeding after January 31.
"WFF’s Wildlife Section staff has continued to expand its reproductive health data collection efforts into areas where no previous sampling had occurred or where data indicated significantly earlier or later conception dates than surrounding regions. Two such areas where significantly increased sampling efforts were warranted beginning in 2013 were the area surrounding the 2013-14 February zone and the area with unusually early conception dates along the Chattahoochee River in southeastern Alabama. Data collected from these sites during 2013 and 2014 confirmed what hunters and biologists in these areas had suspected – the February zone should be much larger, but not all of South Alabama should be included.
"The additional data made the decision to expand the February zone and exclude portions of Barbour, Henry, Houston, Lee and Russell counties for the 2014-15 season an easy one. More hunters in south Alabama are finally getting their wish of hunting the peak of breeding in South Alabama. Unfortunately, shifting the season does not guarantee more success for hunters especially if proper hunting techniques are not utilized.
"The data also made it clear that shifting the opening day of archery season in the February zone should be a priority. The peak of fawn births in the new February zone is mid-August. Most fawns are not fully weaned until about 3 months of age. Opening archery season on October 15 in this zone means there is a very good chance many fawns will be orphaned at only two months of age. Orphaning fawns at that age greatly reduces their chances of survival. Giving them an additional 10 days to mature by shifting opening day to October 25 should improve their chances of surviving if their dam is taken by a hunter in the early archery season. Delaying the opening of archery season in this zone until mid-November or making the first two weeks of archery season buck only may be explored as alternatives to minimize this issue.
"Data collection and evaluation, research and public input should all be key components to effectively managing Alabama’s wildlife resources. The push to collect data on the reproductive health of deer populations across Alabama and the resulting interpretation of the data to set season dates are just two examples of how WFF is moving forward. Game Check, hunter surveys, cooperative research projects and retooling the Deer Management Assistance Program are other examples of how WFF is improving its management efforts for deer and other wildlife across Alabama."
Data is not a dirty word and it definitely isn’t the Boogie Man. Closing eyes and plugging ears because you don’t want to see what the data shows is no way to manage wildlife. Trust me, it doesn’t work.
Chuck Sykes is director of the Alabama Division of Wildlife and Freshwater Fisheries (WFF).