The success story of Alabama’s deer herd has been well documented. It is a story replete with good decisions and major achievements – mistakes and failures. Ultimately, it is the story of a magnificent and resilient animal that at one time seemed lost to all but memories, yet now thrives throughout our state in numbers that could not have been imagined fifty years ago. It wasn’t that long ago when folks would come from miles to witness the sight of a deer track – now it is not uncommon for a few thousand acres to sustain an annual deer harvest well in excess of 100 deer.
There are numerous groups and countless individuals who are responsible for the White-tail’s comeback in Alabama. The best way to acknowledge their contributions is to plan wisely for the future. With respect to our deer herd, we are at the crossroads. The direction we take will determine the future of the White-tailed deer in Alabama. We must travel the right path together as a united group of landowners, sportsmen and deer managers. We must face certain realities and be far sighted enough to do what is best for this resource. We must refrain from personal agendas and shortsighted decisions.
The decisions we make will not determine whether our deer herd continues to thrive. Within the framework of legal sport hunting, decimating total deer numbers to levels experienced fifty years ago is an absolute impossibility. It is no longer a question of whether we may inadvertently wipe out our deer herd. It is a question of how we are going to manage the enormous deer herd we have. The decisions we make now will determine how the public views our deer herd and whether our deer herd is healthy, balanced and functioning as nature intended.
In many parts of our country deer are considered a nuisance. They have even been described as “hooved rats”. This is a poor fate for such a wonderful creature. As urban sprawl invades thousands of acres of deer habitat annually, conflicts between deer and humans are inevitable. In many areas, including Alabama, burgeoning deer populations destroy crops. Lyme disease and deer/vehicle collisions are major problems in many areas of America. Sadly, only the deer are blamed in most of these situations. Here in Alabama we still have time to head off many of these problems or we can bury our heads in the sand and tell ourselves it won’t ever happen here. Again, we are standing at the crossroads.
As a younger and more idealistic biologist, I once thought that all decisions regarding our deer (and any other resource) should be based on science alone and that the public should be, if necessary, dragged along to support these decisions. That was a long time ago. I have since come to realize that the public must willingly support decisions regarding our natural resources. Without public support, the best management plans in the world are doomed to failure. I have also come to realize that the majority of the public will support good decisions when they understand why these decisions are made.
The Division of Wildlife and Freshwater Fisheries (DWFF) is working harder than ever to educate and inform Alabama’s sportsmen. With regard to our deer herd, it has been tough for both agency personnel and the public to shift from a philosophy of protection to a philosophy of education and management. To be accurate, both parties are still working to make this transition. This change in direction should in no way diminish the protection efforts of the past – without protection and the enforcement of related laws we would not have the resource today. Nor does this change signal a departure from the Division’s commitment to enforce wildlife laws. However, to best serve this particular resource, we must move forward and adapt.
In simple terms, it is basically a question of what do we do with this abundant resource now that we have it. Our deer herd is estimated at more than 1.5 million animals. As a rule of basic deer population biology, at least one third of a deer population must be harvested annually to hold that population stable. This harvest must also be distributed evenly between both sexes. At any harvest rate less than one third, the population will continue to grow. Current harvest rates have not approached one third of our estimated population. In short, we are not meeting our obligation. Should we lose a substantial number of hunters in the future, it is doubtful that the remaining hunters could ever control deer numbers in most of Alabama.
The Division of Wildlife and Freshwater Fisheries (DWFF) has implemented a 75-day either-sex season for 32 of Alabama’s 67 counties. With this change, the framework to meet our harvest obligations is now in place for much of the state. Additional either-sex days have also been added in other counties in an effort to promote a sufficient and balanced harvest. Reactions to these changes have been mixed. To some, it is the beginning of the end of our deer herd and to others it is a change long overdue. Most of the public find themselves in the middle of this spectrum of opinion – waiting with cautious optimism, hoping we know what we are doing. Rest assured, we do indeed know what we are doing, but that isn’t as important as having the public know what we are doing and why.
Traditionally, there have been only two major considerations when managing a deer herd from a public agency standpoint. These considerations are carrying capacity and public acceptance of the management approach. Balancing the necessity for maintaining deer within carrying capacity and providing a level of hunting opportunity acceptable to a majority of the user group is rarely easy. Biologists want to manage population levels within a biologically defined carrying capacity. User groups tend to want population levels managed more for a socially defined carrying capacity. For many state wildlife agencies, deer management consists of managing the conflict between these two philosophies. There will probably always be some difference in the deer population levels both groups find acceptable. However, through an educational approach, this difference may possibly be narrowed to a level that is negligible. Clearing this long-time hurdle will allow all involved to address other aspects of deer management that are no less important.
Providing these increased doe harvest opportunities is a tremendous step in the right direction. The truth of the matter is that we must get a handle on deer populations in areas where they are too abundant and we must head off overpopulation in areas where it has not yet occurred. There is no more effective way to accomplish this than through the harvest of does. Maintaining deer populations within a reasonable and well-defined carrying capacity is a shared obligation between the DWFF and Alabama’s deer hunters. Meeting this obligation will ensure that both deer and their habitat remain healthy and viable. It will ensure that both sportsmen and non-hunters hold deer in high regard for years to come. It will also ensure that deer numbers are not regulated by entities outside the DWFF.
The DWFF has an obligation to the state’s deer herd to implement a management regime that promotes total overall deer health. Too often, both agency personnel and user groups consider deer herd health in oversimplified terms. If deer are not dying of starvation or if disease is not rampant – then they may be considered “healthy”. We have learned far too much about deer in the last twenty years to continue this approach. This February will mark the 24th meeting of the Southeast Deer Study Group. There is no greater assemblage of accomplished deer biologists and managers than can be found at this annual meeting. Despite their prowess as deer managers – these individuals are powerless to implement significant changes to the south’s deer herds.
Significant change can only be achieved through our sportsmen. It is imperative that deer managers and state agencies work together with user groups to manage toward a common goal of sound deer management. Old habits die hard; for some Alabama sportsmen it is difficult to conceive of ever harvesting a doe. Most of these sportsmen are well seasoned and vividly remember the days when there were no deer to speak of. Their reluctance is understandable. The fact remains that doe harvest has been and always will be a necessary and integral part of sound deer management. We must all work together to make converts of the reluctant or we must take up the slack – we must meet this obligation.
Concern for total deer herd health also addresses buck harvest management. We have had a long and liberal season on antlered deer for many years. Coupled with insufficient opportunity to harvest does in the past, this carte blanche on bucks has resulted in heavily skewed sex ratios and a very poor buck age structure in most parts of our state. Fortunately, in recent years, attempts to educate the public regarding wise buck harvest management have paid off. There is strong sentiment among many hunters that younger bucks should be passed up in an effort to promote an older, more natural buck age structure. This is evidenced by strong public support for current Quality Deer Management programs in place on some of the state’s WMA’s.
On a socio-biological level, nature never intended for many of our deer populations to be in the shape they are in. The negative effects of poor buck age structure and unbalanced sex ratios are well documented by countless university and private studies as well as research conducted by DWFF biologists. These negative effects include extended breeding and fawning periods as well as the virtual absence of mature buck sign and natural breeding behaviors. Such characteristics are not indicative of total deer herd health. Fortunately, these problems can be corrected through sound management. Sound management can only occur in an environment of sound information and trust. The DWFF is striving to foster this environment – the future of Alabama’s deer herd depends on building and maintaining our credibility through a diligent educational approach.
The state’s deer hunters have an obligation to implement sound management principles when they are afield. The real power to implement changes in our deer herd is contained within the trigger finger of every Alabama deer hunter. Each time a hunter uses that trigger finger a management decision has been made, for better or worse. Some user groups feel the DWFF should mandate what types of bucks can be harvested or even how many. Simply regulating buck harvest would be easy, but hardly as effective as an educational approach. No law, rule or regulation imposed in a free society is ever as strong or effective as an engrained attitude or socially imposed code of conduct. When regard for total deer herd health influences the majority of our hunter’s harvest decisions, we can count this achievement as important and remarkable as the restoration of deer in Alabama.
As we move into the new Millennium, it is certain that our agency will face many new and unforeseen challenges. There is no doubt that deer/human conflicts loom on the horizon as urbanization encroaches upon deer habitat. This urbanization will take the form of physical displacement of deer and deer habitat. It will also take the form of an urbanization of the hearts and minds of a substantial segment of our state’s population. Dealing with the latter will be the most daunting challenge we have faced. Facing this challenge will fall to Alabama’s deer hunters as well as DWFF personnel.
To deal with these new challenges, we must have put to rest such rudimentary issues as whether to harvest does or whether to manage for a more natural deer herd. Hopefully, a majority of the state’s hunters now realize both of these objectives have to be met. There must be trust and communication between our agency and its constituency. We must become “family”. In the tradition of family, we must stick together through thick and thin. We must resolve conflict with compromise. We must support one another. We must grow and we must learn from the past while building a future. It is the only way we can be ensured of a future.