Prime Time

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Prime time is right now.  The first two weeks of January present the best opportunity for taking mature bucks; we also live and hunt in the prime time of deer management and hunting opportunity.

 As today’s hunters, we enjoy abundance unfathomable to hunters of only 50 years ago.  Many people still remember seeing their first deer or even deer track as recently as the 1970’s.  This phenomenal restoration of deer, and other wildlife, to the landscape is a testament to the incredible resiliency and reproductive capacity of wild animals, given adequate habitat and wise use.

  Willing landowners provided suitable habitat for restocking efforts.  Hunters, with the incentive of producing huntable populations, agreed to provide protection for the time necessary for deer and turkeys to become established.  Restoration work was performed by state biologists and aides.  Law enforcement protection was critical to the effort, and state conservation enforcement officers aggressively pursued violators of the restrictive game laws needed for re-establishment.  Law enforcement relied heavily on support from landowners and lawful, ethical hunters for information about violators.

 Hunters paid for restoration work performed by state wildlife agencies, through hunting license purchases combined with federal excise taxes on hunting arms and ammunition collected at the manufacturers’ level.  This partnership between hunters, manufacturers, wildlife professionals, and landowners is responsible for the abundance now enjoyed and sometimes taken for granted.

With abundance comes the need to manage both numbers and deer herd composition.   January is prime time if you’ve done your part through adequate doe harvest combined with letting younger bucks walk.  These sound deer management practices can produce surprising results, but not overnight.  To get a deer population in balance, with a good buck-to-doe ratio requires several years of effort, but the result is well worth what it takes.

Successful game management requires focusing on the factors that are within your ability to do something about.  Managing population dynamics is within reach of every hunter and landowner.

Some skeptics may think that the actions of an individual hunter are meaningless.  The fact of the matter is that only through the collective actions of individual hunters can you ever manage deer.  The trigger is pulled or not pulled one hunter at a time.

Skeptics may tell you that you can’t manage deer on 80 acres—the average forest landholding in Alabama.  The facts of the matter are that all those 80s together make up the total landscape of our state, and the resulting diversity is beneficial to deer and other wildlife.  Many of the record-book whitetails have come from such relatively small tracts wisely managed and wisely hunted. “Wisely hunted” translates into minimizing human disturbance, especially paying attention to wind direction and where it carries your scent.

Taking adequate numbers of does is the only way to get the number of deer within the carrying capacity of the land, and is the foundational building block of deer management.  Voluntary restraint on buck harvest is the way to get the adult sex ratio in balance, but only works in combination with adequate doe harvest.

There are no short-cuts.  Deer genetics are what they are.  Top-notch deer biologists liken attempts to tinker with genetics to pouring a glass of water into the ocean.  Those who attempt to reduce wildlife management to animal husbandry are fooling themselves and everybody else.  What may work on captive deer simply does not work in free-ranging, wild populations of deer.  Livestock breeding practices have no legitimate place in deer management.

No legitimate hunter wants to shoot an essentially tame deer that has the physical and behavioral characteristics of a cow.  Neither does the public support such canned hunts.  Thankfully, the mainstream hunting community has spoken loudly and clearly against these kinds of practices.  Alabama, along with many other states, has banned hunts in which the hunter is guaranteed a specific animal, or the animal is tame, hobbled, tied, or otherwise unable to reasonably evade the hunter.

Browse is the mainstay of deer nutrition.  It’s not acorns, which at best are available 6 to 8 weeks out of the year.  It’s not corn, high in carbohydrates, but lacking in other needed nutrition, and illegal to hunt over as well.  And it’s certainly not some kind of magical “buck-in-a-bag” potion.

Immediacy is seldom a reality in game management.  The successes of this hunting season are not the result of something done to manipulate habitat a month ago or of some magic potion from a bag or a bucket.  The successes—or failures—of this hunting season are a product of the cumulative effect of many years of habitat work, responsible deer harvest, and the tremendous potential that inherently resides in Alabama deer.

Several factions will try to convince you otherwise.  Purveyors of bait, feed and feeders, and various and sundry potions would all lead you to believe that their particular merchandise will solve the “problem” with your deer, whatever that mystical “problem” may be.  Starving researchers asking for your money would lead you to believe that predators of various kinds are “the problem”, whatever it may be.  There are those perennially disgruntled souls, bless their heart, who would never be satisfied with any deer, regardless of weight or antler mass, who bash state agencies for not doing a better job of managing deer.

The truth is that game management –the art and science of game management—is an imprecise undertaking.  Misguided attempts to turn it into a precise endeavor like engineering or chemistry are bottomless pits fraught with exceedingly high costs and little in the way of practical applicability for free-ranging, wild populations of deer.

Yes, the first two weeks of January are prime time for hunting.  But we also live and hunt in prime time.  Alabama’s deer resource is the envy of most other states.  You can kill a bigger deer in Michigan or Saskatchewan—Bergman’s rule says the further north the latitude, the bigger the animal.  Take big northern deer and move them to a southern state, and one generation later, you have smaller, climate-adapted deer—Bergman’s rule.  Almost all states, including Alabama, have banned importation of deer, elk, or other cervids because of the disease risk to native deer populations.

There is no question improvements can always be made.  There is no question that state agencies should do all they practically can to responsibly manage deer and other wildlife populations for the sustainable benefit of Alabama hunters.  Beware, though of pressure from the perennially disgruntled faction or even from naïve biologists who believe that more data is always good regardless of the monetary costs or imposition on the hunting public.

Don’t let the nay-sayers of various kinds spoil prime time for you.  We live and hunt in an unequaled era of deer abundance, quality, and hunting opportunity.