August 2017
From Wildlife and Freshwater Fisheries

Alabama’s Public Hunting Evolution

Wildlife species either adapt or perish; we must adapt our management strategies as well.

 

Wildlife Management Areas can offer hunters an opportunity to harvest an older-age-class buck.

Alabama’s Division of Wildlife and Freshwater Fisheries has a long tradition of providing public hunting land dating back as far as the 1940s. Most hunters younger than 50 may not remember the days when public lands often provided the best opportunities for deer and turkey hunting in many parts of the state. From the late 1960s through the early ‘80s, Alabama’s Wildlife Management Areas provided thousands of man-days of hunting opportunity for a large percentage of the state’s hunters. During this period, many WMAs in Alabama were the only lands where the average hunter could have access to abundant deer and turkey populations.

Over time, deer and turkey began to spread and thrive on private lands across the state, and interest in hunting these species grew almost exponentially from the early ‘80s to the present. Consequently, hunting opportunities flourished on private lands throughout the state, and leasing land for hunting became commonplace throughout Alabama. Today, the hunting-lease system has evolved into a multimillion-dollar business and, aside from outright land ownership, provides most of the hunting opportunities enjoyed by Alabama hunters. This transition from public- to private-land hunting has left many Alabama WMAs relatively unhunted when compared to the past.

Historically, private timber corporations would allow WFF to utilize their large tracts as a WMA, under a contractual lease, with the only consideration being WFF would maintain boundary lines, roads, gates and other infrastructure as in-kind services. Having WFF perform this maintenance allowed the timber companies to focus on timber management while also providing for substantial public hunting opportunities. This model worked well until the increasing hunting-lease values reached a point where these corporations evolved into Real Estate Investment Trusts and Timber Investment Management Organizations. They were required to generate more sound financial returns for their stockholders. This situation continues to erode significant acreage from the WMA system.

In spite of this adversity, the WMA system in Alabama has quietly plugged along and continued to provide abundant hunting opportunities to those who will take advantage of it. Additionally, WFF has worked diligently to acquire thousands of acres of land through a great partnership with the Forever Wild Land Trust Program, utilizing federal-matching funds from the Pittman-Robertson Wildlife Restoration Program. PRWRP funds are generated through excise taxes on guns, ammunition, bows, arrows and other hunting equipment, and are provided to each state based on the size of the state and the number of hunting licenses sold there. The Forever Wild Land Trust funding, generated by the interest earned from offshore-natural-gas royalties deposited into the Alabama Trust Fund, has provided the required state-matching funds to access those federal funds.

Today, Alabama’s WMA system comprises 35 areas totaling over 720,000 acres of public hunting land for the whopping cost of approximately $17 for an annual WMA hunting license. It should be noted the WMA hunting license is only required for those hunting deer, turkey and waterfowl; small game WMA hunting privileges are included in a regular annual hunting license.

In the late ‘90s, WFF began to take a new approach to public hunting on some of its WMAs. Hunter support for restrictions on buck harvest resulted in the inception of the state’s first public Quality Deer Management area on Barbour WMA beginning in the 1998-99 deer season. Similar measures were adopted on other WMAs throughout the state to provide hunters with an improved hunting experience and an enhanced opportunity to harvest an older-age-class buck. Many WMAs still continue to offer a traditional-deer-hunting experience for those interested in simply bagging some venison. Changes are continuing to be made in an effort to provide a greater level of customer satisfaction and encourage greater participation.

Other new WMA programs include early gun hunts, primitive-weapon-only hunts, youth hunts and, beginning this year, special bonus-buck opportunities on select WMAs. On bonus-buck hunts, hunters may take a buck on specific WMAs and hunt dates without that buck counting against the statewide three-buck limit, but the bucks must be validated by WFF personnel at the check station to qualify.

Also beginning this season, four public Special Opportunity Areas will be made available to hunters through a limited-quota registration at www.outdooralabama.com. Fred T. Stimpson SOA, a 5,361-acre tract located in Clarke County, began this process last hunting season by dividing their area into 15 zones, ranging from 200-400 acres, and hosting hunts for youth gun deer hunting, adult archery deer hunting and squirrel hunting. Two new SOAs, Cedar Creek SOA in Dallas County and Uchee Creek SOA in Russell County, will both offer limited-quota draw hunts to the public as well. Both Cedar Creek and Uchee Creek SOAs are new acquisitions of 6,256 acres and 4,735 acres, respectively. These areas are sectioned into multiple 200- to 300-acre hunt units and will offer deer and turkey hunting for the 2017-18 season.

Waterfowl hunters will be pleased to learn another SOA dedicated to waterfowl will be offering limited-quota draw hunts for the 2017-18 season. The Crow Creek Keith McCutcheon Waterfowl SOA is a 250-acre Alabama Department of Transportation mitigation area in Jackson County. The area contains four hunt units of water-controlled waterfowl habitat. Hunting will be conducted in three-day blocks with eight hunts available during the season.

Lastly, Boggy Hollow WMA is a new, approximately 7,000-acre quail-emphasis area located in the Conecuh National Forest in Covington County. This area will focus primarily on managing habitat for quail and will offer limited hunting opportunities for other species. Given the area’s size and close proximity to Blue Spring WMA, the hunting season format for Boggy Hollow was designed to provide more opportunity for dedicated small-game hunters, particularly quail hunters.

Alabama’s WMA system has undergone many changes since the early days of its inception. Many of these changes have been to meet the desires of today’s hunters. WFF is optimistic some of our new approaches will generate interest in discovering the great hunting opportunities afforded by these areas. Despite all this talk of change, some things about Alabama’s WMAs remain constant. These areas remain safe, affordable and enjoyable hunting destinations to spend a day afield in the great outdoors of Alabama. I encourage you to experience them for yourself.

For more information on all of these programs, visit www.outdooralabama.com.

 

Chuck Sykes is director of the Alabama Division of Wildlife and Freshwater Fisheries.