Did we learn anything about deer and deer hunters?
I don’t know if I have ever been so ready for a deer season to be over as I was last week when the 2016-17 season finally came to a close. A combination of early drought, bumper acorn crop, hot weather and BES’s death yielded the worst deer season I have had in recent memory. The silver lining to the dark cloud of this deer season for me was the success of the first year of mandatory Game Check.
Despite what conspiracy theorists and the anti-government crowd had to say, the world of deer hunting didn’t come to an end this year and over 80,000 deer were reported into the Game Check system. I would like to think all of the hard work and miles on the road conducting over 50 educational seminars paid off. The best numbers produced by voluntary Game Check occurred during the 2013-14 deer season when fewer than 20,000 deer were reported. A combined total of 51,267 deer were reported during the three seasons of voluntary Game Check while 82,414 were reported during the inaugural year of mandatory Game Check.
Over 50 percent of the deer reported through voluntary Game Check were entered by telephone. This method of reporting was not only costly to the Wildlife and Freshwater Fisheries Division, but it also yielded the most incomplete data of the three available reporting methods. This year approximately 30 percent of the hunters used the 800 number to report their harvests. I consider both of these stats to be a huge success for our Division.
The update of the Outdoor Alabama app made the reporting process a breeze. Once the App had been downloaded and the user’s profile established, the actual process of reporting a harvest took less than one minute. This could be accomplished whether cell service was available or not. Almost 50 percent of the hunters chose to report using the Outdoor Alabama app. Many of the Game Check critics were silenced when they realized they no longer had to carry a paper license or paper harvest record if they simply downloaded the app. Let me repeat, deer could be entered into the system through the app even if you didn’t have cell service. This data was stored on the phone through the app until cell service was again gained and the information was downloaded. How much easier could we possibly make it for the hunters?
Anyone who attended one of the seminars knows our division has been estimating deer numbers and harvest numbers based on a mail survey. This survey is distributed to approximately 10,000 licensed hunters each year. Roughly 3,000 recipients participate and return the completed survey. The data from the participant responses is then extrapolated for the entire state. Last year, the mail survey estimated 295,000 deer (115,000 bucks and 180,000 does) harvested. That’s about 60 percent does and 40 percent bucks accounted for in the yearly harvest. Honestly, based on the people I hunt with, I would have guessed the ratio to be more on the lines of 70-30. Remember that Game Check had 82,414 deer (45,529 bucks and 36,850 does) reported this year. That’s quite a bit lower than what the mail survey estimated.
Based on an informal study conducted by our staff, we are estimating 35 percent of the hunters actually participated in Game Check this year. If you do the math, utilizing 35 percent, that would lead us to believe approximately 235,500 deer were actually harvested. That’s a bit more in line with what the mail survey estimated.
There have been some other interesting preliminary findings when comparing the annual mail survey results to mandatory Game Check. First, the highest reported county with a total harvest of 2,513 was … unknown!!! I bet you can guess why that was. Yep, those came in from the 800 number. The county with the top harvest according to the 2015-16 mail survey was Macon. According to Game Check, Macon was twelfth. Jackson County was the leader during all three years of voluntary Game Check and finished No. 2 when it became mandatory. But, according to the mail survey, Jackson was nothing special, falling in the middle of the pack.
The one piece of data I thought was most significant was the buck-to-doe ratio. For instance, Dallas County, the No. 1 reported county in Game Check, showed 2,497 deer (1,181 bucks and 1,315 does). That’s practically a 1:1 ratio. The mail survey had Dallas County with almost 10,000 deer harvested and approximately 1:3 buck-to-doe ratio. Many of the top counties also had these same results.
I guess that is what surprised me the most. I would definitely not have counted on Alabama hunters harvesting more bucks than does. Is this really the way it is or did hunters just simply not feel the need to report does? Who knows? I guess time will give us the answers.
I would like to take time to thank the hunters who did participate in Game Check this year. We know it is a big step to take, but it will be worth it for the overall health of our deer herd and the management of one of our most precious natural resources. As we said all along, we are not going to make knee-jerk reactions and initiate changes based on one year of data. This is going to be a long-term process. Trend data must be established before any changes are implemented.
However, I can say a couple of things with total confidence: Game Check worked and we need more hunters to participate. So, how do we do that? Unfortunately, we can’t just rely on people to do the right thing. So, next deer season, our officers will be instructed to start enforcing the regulation.
If you want to see all of the data referenced in this article, you can find it at www.outdooralabama.com. All of the mail survey results as well as Game Check data can be found there.
It will be interesting to see how turkey season goes. I am cautiously optimistic that we will have 50 percent compliance from turkey hunters. Enjoy the last month of turkey season and don’t forget to Game Check your gobbler!!