Georgia could soon join other southeastern states that use special management programs to give landowners more flexibility with whitetail harvest.
The concept, known as a Deer Management Assistance Program, or DMAP, is already used in 14 states and typically authorizes state biologists to help private landowners make decisions on matters such as antlerless deer harvest.
“A few years ago, when we first started talking about this, I polled our counterparts in other states and got every detail we could get about DMAP programs,” said state deer biologist Charlie Killmaster. “Now we are trying to develop a proposed program to provide to the General Assembly for funding consideration to implement.”
Although programs differ from state to state—and have varied costs and requirements—their common thread is the focus of state resources to better advise landowners on deer management issues.
It can be particularly useful in states like Georgia, which have widely varied terrain and habitat—combined with a large number of hunters who prefer a simple, statewide hunting season, Killmaster said.
“It was a big topic of discussion in the whole deer management plan process we’ve just been through,” said Killmaster.
DMAP could help compensate for differences in habitat, deer density and hunting pressure by using wildlife officials to focus scrutiny on specific areas and make recommendations to help landowners meet their goals.
“One thing it does is to free up the state from having a one-size-fits-all for harvest, whether it’s either-sex, or bag limits, which are controlled by the legislature,” Killmaster said. “Our regs now do offer broad flexibility, but within that flexibility is a big potential for over-harvest.”
The DMAP concept also benefits state wildlife managers because participation often requires landowners to keep harvest records and collect other data used to fine tune the statewide deer program.
“The carrot for the department is a very economical means of collecting data,” Killmaster said. “The carrot for the club is not only to have technical guidance of a biologist to help with management, but additional flexibility for harvest if state regulations are not adequate.”
Most DMAP states require, at a minimum, data that includes weight, sex, age, antler measurements and other basic information. Many states also have a minimum acreage requirement to participate in the program—and many states charge fees.
Some of Georgia’s most useful harvest data comes from state supervised WMA hunts, and Killmaster believes comparable data from large swaths of private land would be very beneficial.
A state WMA can be managed for quality bucks and a quality hunting experience; or for quantity of deer and maximum opportunity.
“We utilize data we collect to more specifically control hunting opportunities to reach that specific goal,” he said. “A DMAP would allow private lands to operate that way.”
Georgia’s effort to establish a DMAP, Killmaster added, is dependent on whether funds would be made available by the General Assembly.
“Because it is contingent upon funding, we have no timetable on when it could be implemented,” he said. “But in terms of staffing, we think we would eventually need somewhere between five and 10 additional personnel, but a lot of that depends on participation. You have to build on it, and you don’t just start it big overnight.”
WRD has battled with shrinking budgets in recent years, which could make it more of a challenge to establish a DMAP.
Other factors that must be considered include Georgia’s already-liberal harvest limits, which have reduced DMAP participation in some states.
In Mississippi, for example, the DMAP was first offered statewide in 1985, attracting about 430 cooperators who controlled 1.3 million acres. Participation grew to 1,200 cooperators and 2.8 million acres by 1994 but has since fallen to about 650 properties on 1.7 million acres, according to an online summary provided by the Mississippi Department of Wildlife, Fisheries, and Parks.
The decline, state officials wrote, is most likely related to antlerless hunting opportunity.
“During the late 1980s, and into the early 1990s, liberal statewide antlerless opportunity was only available if a property was enrolled in the DMAP,” the summary said.
A subsequent increase in antlerless harvest rules created an attractive alternative to DMAPs, and participation fell.
The decline, officials added, wasn’t necessarily a bad thing, because it weeded out participants who merely wanted antlerless deer tags.
“The cooperators which remain on the DMAP are, as a rule, genuinely interested in deer management. The DMAP has actually benefited from the decline in cooperators. State biologists were overwhelmed during the peak years of DMAP participation. Currently, most biologists are able to devote the necessary time to provide quality management information to DMAP cooperators.”
Alabama’s DMAP was started in 1983 with 10 hunting clubs, according to the Alabama Division of Wildlife and Freshwater Fisheries, and soon attracted 2,200 hunting clubs controlling about 12 percent of the state’s acreage.
Enrollment, however, declined over the past decade as a result of the liberalization of the antlerless deer hunting seasons, the division’s online program summary said. “The decline in participation resulted in less age-specific data available to biologists to use in assessing the health and condition of Alabama’s white-tailed deer population.”
By 2012, only 104 clubs were using the program, but officials have since launched a series of incentives—including the elimination of enrollment fees—to try to restore the program to at least 400 to 500 clubs.
South Carolina, which has one of the oldest DMAPs in the nation, is quite pleased with its program, which has been in existence since 1965, said Charles Ruth, deer and wild turkey program coordinator for the S.C. Department of Natural Resources.
The program’s simplicity, he added, is part of its charm.
“The landowner or lessee can apply for antlerless deer tags for use on their property—or properties they have put together—and the quota is based on recreational, agricultural and deer management objectives,” he said. “The bottom line requirement is for them to report harvest of antlered bucks, button bucks and doe deer.”
The state charges a $50 participation fee and uses staff biologists at its regional offices to administer the program.
There is also an option for the cooperator to collect additional biological data, such as jawbone aging, antler spread and lactation in female deer—and many clubs are providing that information because it helps their management programs.
“If you have folks collecting this data the right way, it saves the department from having to collect so much data,” Ruth said.
For quite a few years, participation has been fairly stable with about 1,600 cooperators who jointly control 3.4 million acres, mostly in the state’s coastal plain region, he said.
“From a pros and cons standpoint—and from an agency standpoint—you’re getting a good product out there that allows landowners to manage a property,” he said. “We help with a quota and the number of tags, which is our expertise being put back through our recommendation to that property owner.”
One of the biggest proponents of DMAPs is the Quality Deer Management Association, which tracks deer hunting and wildlife management trends nationwide.
“I’m a big fan of them for a lot of reasons,” said Kip Adams, a certified wildlife biologist and QDMA’s director of education and outreach.
“The additional data really helps fine tune what the agencies are doing, and it is also an opportunity for an agency to engage with landowners and hunters—and a lot of other programs can benefit from that engaging.”
Georgia, he added, is one of the last southeastern states without a DMAP.
“Florida and Georgia are the only southeast states that don’t have one, and even Florida has a similar program that’s not quite a DMAP,” he said. “So Georgia is really the last one.”
With a large deer herd and a huge hunter population, Georgia stands to benefit if a program can be established, he said.
“You can go almost any place in Georgia and find places with high deer herds, low deer herds and something in between,” Adams said. “You need the ability to remove antlerless deer without removing too much. Having that more surgical management allows antlerless harvest to be more biologically applied—and makes for a healthier deer herd.”
Some hunters, however, aren’t sure the state’s limited resources should be devoted to management of private lands.
“The program is simply another avenue for those who actually have the resources (financial/equipment/personnel) to take care of the management part of the equation on their private acreage,” said Albany hunter Jerry Thomas. “But typical of the ‘Old South Plantation Mentality’ they had rather let someone else (the average Joe deer hunter) foot the bill for them.”
Although a DMAP program in Georgia would face funding challenges, hunters like Joseph Morris can see the opportunity for a good return on the state’s investment.
“It would be a good asset to have statewide,” said Morris, a consulting forester who hunts on family land in Burke County. “There are lots of people who want to grow bigger deer or do a better job managing, but they don’t always have the resources they need to get there.”
Landowners could benefit from professional guidance on carrying capacity, antlerless harvest and the importance of protecting young bucks from premature harvest, he said. “Lots of people have good intentions, but having that kind of help could get them closer to where they want to be.”