Deer restocking program means big bucks for Alabama hunting industry
MONTGOMERY, Ala. — It seems hard to believe, but there was a time when Alabama was not the deer hunting destination it is today.
Hunters flock to Alabama from across the nation to take advantage of the state’s long seasons, liberal bag limits and deer herd estimated at between 1.5 to 2 million animals statewide. Archery season is open. That means some form of deer season will be open in the state until Feb. 10.
But just a few decades ago, vast swaths of the state had no huntable deer populations.
An aggressive deer restocking program, started in the early 1900s but really taking off in the 1940s, ’50s and ’60s, got the state to where it is today.
John Carl Bishop, a Prattville hunter, remembers his grandfather talking about those lean years.
“People who are 30 and under have no clue,” the 55-year-old said. “I can remember my grandfather telling me that when he was coming up, that if you saw a deer track, you talked about it for months. There were just no deer down in Lowndes County where he grew up. We lost him in the mid-’80s, but he lived long enough to see us really get in good shape when it came to our deer population.”
And chasing big bucks means big bucks in Alabama. Hunting generates a $1.8 billion annual economic impact in the state, according to a study conducted by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. According to economist Rob Southwick, Alabama hunters spend twice as much each year as the combined annual revenues of the 10 largest companies in the state.
During the 2015-2016 hunting season, deer hunters spent 4.3 million man-days afield, according to a survey of hunters by the Alabama Department of Conservation. That’s enough to generate $104 million each year in state and local taxes, reads the 2013 report “Hunting in America: An Economic Force for Conservation.” Ironically, none of those taxes go to fund a program that manages wildlife resources. The department’s Division of Wildlife and Freshwater Fisheries is funded through hunting and fishing license sales and matching federal funds derived from excise taxes collected on firearms and ammunition, archery equipment and fishing tackle.
Like many states east of the Mississippi River, Alabama had a thriving deer population during the pre-colonial days and colonial period, said Chis Cook, a wildlife biologist and the deer project director for the Alabama Department of Conservation. That started changing in the mid- to late 1800s, he said.
“Alabama has the same story of every other state east of the Mississippi,” he said. “All the states had healthy deer populations. Then unregulated hunting seasons, market hunting and habitat destruction pushed deer from their native habitat. In the early 1900s people began to change their opinions and thoughts about wild animals.
“States began to form conservation and game departments. Regulated hunting seasons were enforced and restocking programs for whitetail deer began.”
According to the “History and Results of Deer Restocking in Alabama,” a pamphlet by Ralph H. Allen and published by the conservation department in December of 1965, there were 3,331 deer restocked in the state. The 40-year period covered 1925 to 1965. Most of those stocked deer were does, 2,167 animals. That move seems logical when you are trying to build a breeding population.
The remaining tally comes in at 796 bucks and 368 animals of unknown sex. And work needed to be done. Early in the 1900s the deer population of the state continued to slide. In 1908, one year after the conservation department was organized, deer were present in 38 of Alabama’s 67 counties. But some 14 years later, in 1922, deer were present in only 11 counties
And contrary to legend, most of the deer in the restocking program came from Alabama, not other states. Specifically the restocked deer came from state sanctuaries and private land in Alabama’s south and western counties of Clarke, Marengo, Sumter and Pickens.
“There was always a remnant population of deer in the river bottoms of western Alabama,” said Chuck Sykes, director of the conservation department’s wildlife and freshwater fisheries division. “That was really our seed population for the restocking efforts.”
Box traps, large wooden contrivances, were the most commonly used way to trap the live deer. The animals were then taken and released in areas that had no deer, or small numbers of deer.
There were 388 out-of-state deer used in the restocking efforts. And some of the stories are amusing. There were 25 deer released in Covington County in 1950-51 from Texas. The animals were received in exchange for beavers from Alabama.
There were 20 deer released in Lauderdale County in 1955-56 that were from Wisconsin, animals bought by the conservation department. Other deer came from Iron Mountain, Michigan and the Pisgah National Forest in North Carolina.
Cook said it took decades for the restocking effort to begin to pay off.
“Fortunately we had local residents who bought into the idea,” he said. “We had good habitat, just no deer. So we had large landowners allow deer to be released on their property. Deer hunting seasons were closed in counties for years to give the released deer a chance to establish themselves.
“People respected the seasons once they reopened. The seasons were enforced. Some of the counties that were not restocked, had deer move in through natural migration. It took a long time, more than 40 years of aggressive restocking, but it paid off.”
In 1908 there were “only a few thousand” deer state-wide, James R. Davis, a wildlife biologist for the conservation department, wrote in 1979’s “The White-Tailed Deer in Alabama.” That number climbed to 1.46 million in 1977, Davis reported.
It’s interesting to delve into the history of the restocking program. Take Dallas County for instance, now known nationwide for its number of deer. Population estimates in 1908 were “few” deer, compared to six in 1940 and 1,400 in 1965.
From 1954 to 1956, 19 bucks and 30 doe were trapped in the sanctuaries of Clarke County and released in Valley Creek State Park north of Selma. In 1959-60 four bucks and 28 doe, taken from Marengo and Clarke counties, were released five miles southwest of Sardis.
There are areas now in Dallas County, especially south of the Alabama River, that border on being overpopulated with deer, local hunters and landowners say.
“You get south of Selma, along Highway 41 heading to Camden and you can see a browse line in many of the woods,” said Hank Carter, who hunts family land in Dallas County. A browse line shows where deer have consumed all the available food and vegetation that can get to. “It kind of makes you worry a little about the future. You know, if there is something that will happen that destroys the resource and all that hard work.”
That weighs on Syke’s mind as well. The state has established mandatory harvest reporting for deer and turkey in the state. Before, the harvest numbers were estimates; wildly inaccurate estimates.
“We need good, solid data,” he said. “Reporting the harvest numbers each year will allow us to build an accurate data base, over time. We can use that reliable information to properly manage the deer population.
“We want hunters to be able to have the opportunity to be successful for generations to come.”
Chronic wasting disease is the biggest threat to having a crash of the population, Cook said. CWD is an infectious neurological disease that affects deer, moose and elk, according the Chronic Wasting Disease Alliance’s website. The disease causes animals to lose control of their functions and become emaciated.
Research shows it can’t be transmitted to livestock or humans.
CWD is always fatal in the animals it infects and there is no workable vaccine for the disease. Most states where CWD is confirmed in wild of captive herds are in the Midwest. The closest state with CWD to Alabama is Arkansas.
Alabama, and other non-CWD present states, routinely test their wild deer populations for the disease. So far it hasn’t been found in Alabama. Importation of live deer from outside Alabama is banned, along with a ban on certain parts of deer harvested in other states.
The threat is there. Conservation officials recently reported that two men connected with a Tuscaloosa County deer breeding operation pleaded guilty in federal court to importing six captive-bred fawns from Indiana, a state where CWD is present. They paid stiff fines.
“So far CWD, is not present in Alabama,” Cook said. The only way the disease can get to Alabama is to be moved here, according to the conservation department’s website.
“But we have to be careful and watchful,” Cook went on. “That’s why the testing program and regulations against bringing in deer from other states have been put into place.”
For Bishop, the Prattville, the future of the deer herd is important.
“I want to be able to take my grandchildren hunting one day, just like my grandfather took me,” he said.