Georgia’s Wildlife Resources Division (WRD) will have plenty of comments to consider before drafting possible changes in hunting seasons and bag limits later this year.
During eight well-attended public meetings held across the state in January, hundreds of landowners and sportsmen shared opinions—and frustrations—about the state’s declining deer herd, the spread of feral hogs and coyotes, overcrowding on public lands and other issues.
Elbert County hunter Mark Wallace, who was among more than 150 people who packed a Jan. 7 meeting in Washington, said further efforts are needed to reduce doe harvest—possibly by increasing buck-only days late in the season, when most does are already pregnant.
“I’ve spent 20 years working in deer processing, and I can tell you 98 percent of the does that come in after mid-November are bred,” he said. “You say you want to build the deer herd, but you’re killing three at a time late in the season.”
Don McGowan, regional operations manager for WRD, said the state’s whitetail herd is nowhere near its peak of 1.6 million to 1.7 million animals more than a decade ago.
“The deer population in the state has definitely come down,” he told the crowd. “Today, it’s down to about 1 million—we think.”
The decline has been attributed to hunting pressure, liberal bag limits, longer seasons and the rapid spread of coyotes, which prey on fawns each spring.
“In recent years, we have seen a negative trend in fawn recruitment,” McGowan said, “but we’ve seen an aggressive trend in doe harvest.”
Many hunters who are seeing fewer deer believe the state’s liberal bag limit—created back when there were too many deer—is the primary culprit in the herd’s declining numbers.
“With a 10-doe limit, people think you can really shoot that many,” said Lloyd Johnson, a taxidermist from Washington. “We’re probably killing way too many.”
State officials are unsure what changes would help stabilize the deer herd, while continuing to provide the best hunting opportunities possible for sportsmen.
During the 2013-14 and the 2014-15 seasons, a buck-only period was established in most areas of the state from Dec. 1-25, but it remains unclear if the break is helping to reduce the harvest of antlerless deer, McGowan said.
Some hunters, like Richard Butler, suggested moving doe days to the end of the season, when fewer hunters are in the woods, to reduce the antlerless harvest.
“That would take some of the pressure off the does,” he said.
Melvin Edwards suggested going a step further—and scaling back buck harvest, in addition to does.
He suggested a one-buck limit—instead of the current limit of two bucks—to better promote quality bucks.
“One buck would allow people to take any buck they want, but it would also encourage letting the little ones walk,” he said. “I’d like to see a one-buck limit for three years, then re-evaluate. The doe harvest could be reduced by making the first 30 days of the season buck only. We absolutely need to shoot fewer does than we’re shooting now.”
Sportsmen also shared mixed reactions to growing interest in creating a single deer season statewide. Currently, the Northern Zone counties end their season Jan. 1, while Southern Zone hunters have until Jan. 15.
Richard Marshall said extending the Northern Zone season to match the Southern Zone dates would impact small-game hunters, who already face limited opportunities because deer hunting is under way from September to January on most properties.
“Extending the season reduces the window of opportunity for small-game hunters,” he said. “A lot of us hunt with dogs, and we have to stay away from deer hunters or risk harm to our dogs.”
Regardless of how state officials set seasons and bag limits, hunters still have the responsibility and defining role in the health and size of the herd, said Billy Elmore.
“Hunters and landowners can straighten this out,” he said. “At my club, we allow you two does, and that’s it. We have to take care of it ourselves.”
Responsible management by hunters and landowners can also help retain and recruit young hunters, Elmore added.
“Kids don’t care about hunting the deer we don’t have,” he said. “If kids are out there and seeing nothing, they’re losing interest.”
Other topics aired at the Wilkes County meeting included waterfowl opportunities and handicapped access to public lands.
“We have some great, unique waterfowl areas—Fishing Creek and Phinizy Swamp—but they’re being overrun,” said Russell Scott, who suggested a quota system to control the numbers of hunters using some areas.
“Something needs to be done,” he said. “The waterfowl are there, but if we don’t do something about this, somebody’s going to get hurt.”
Charles Eutsler, a disabled sportsmen, told officials there is a need for better access to Wildlife Management Areas, especially with golf carts and similar mobility devices. Older hunters, he said, are very supportive of the public-lands program and deserve better access.
McGowan said comments collected at the eight meetings will be evaluated as part of DNR’s process of proposing revisions to the state’s hunting regulations.
Another part of the process was an assessment survey that involved sending 112,000 e-mails to licensed resident hunters for whom DNR had e-mail addresses.
Of those, 2,000 were returned as invalid and 36,000 were opened. Of those that were opened, 7,800 recipients filled out and returned the assessment, which will also play a role in the department’s ultimate recommendations.
Formal proposals for changes in the 2015-16 seasons could be developed by the end of February, reviewed by the DNR Board in March and shared through public hearings in April, he said. Final proposals could go before the Board in May.