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BHA Becomes Partner in Oak Mountain Hunt

By DAVID RAINER

Another one of those partnerships that helps the Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources (ADCNR) reach certain goals has been forged with the Bowhunters of Alabama (BHA).

The particular goal of this partnership is to reduce the deer herd at Oak Mountain State Park through a series of archery hunts. State Parks and the Wildlife and Freshwater Fisheries (WFF) Division had handled the archery hunts at Oak Mountain for the first two years, but public interest in the hunts had begun to wane, according to Forrest Bailey, State Parks’ Natural Resource Manager.

“Based on the law of diminishing return theory, we decided to do this,” Bailey said. “During the 2007-2008 season, the registration process got kind of complicated because there were not a whole lot of people registered, compared to the first two series of hunts. We went from a high of about 3,500 people registered to a low of 465 people. It was hard to maintain an active list of hunters and an alternate list of hunters to take the place of those who couldn’t attend the hunt.

“From an administrative standpoint, it was a very energy-intensive program for State Parks and Wildlife and Freshwater Fisheries. We decided that we would try a different approach. That was based on decisions made by Commissioner (Barnett) Lawley, Corky Pugh (WFF Director), Gary Moody (Chief of Wildlife) and myself.”

The decision was made to let BHA come up with a format to handle the registration process, which includes rigorous proficiency test and an interview procedure for each hunter that determines the number of years hunted with bow and arrow, the number of animals taken and experience in the field.

BHA set up two proficiency tests at Oak Mountain and one at Autauga Bow Range to establish its approved list of 95 hunters.

“If they passed the proficiency test, they sat down with me and went through the interview process,” said Barry Estes, president of the BHA. “I contacted urban deer programs in other states – Pennsylvania, New York and they helped me out tremendously. They gave me a lot of advice and sent me literature on how to select the most proficient hunters. It worked real well. People came out and shot the test, and the vast majority passed it the first time. In the past, the proficiency test required hunters to hit three out of five in the kill zone at 25 yards. We changed it this year to five out of five. Almost all of the hunters were able to pass without a problem.

“We sat down for the interview and I asked them about how many years they had been bowhunting, how many deer or other species they had taken, their distance comfort level.”

Bailey said, “We’ve very pleased with the way this worked. We have a very responsible group of bowhunters, spearheaded by Barry Estes.”

The only problem encountered so far has been the weather. One of the BHA hunters suggested anyone who needed rain should contact the bowhunters and schedule an event.

“The first hunt, we had terrible weather,” Bailey said. “We had tornado warnings, shifting winds and sporadic rain throughout the day. But at 4 o’clock in the morning, when we opened registration, there were 12 hunters waiting for us to open the doors. We ended up with 75 hunters that participated.

“The second hunt, again we can’t do anything about the weather, we had 67 hunters. That’s good. We harvested eight deer the first hunt – seven does and one buck. The second hunt, we had five deer taken, two bucks and three does.”

The archery hunts were two-day events for the first two years, but deer adapted very quickly to the crowd in the park.

“We decided to go to one-day hunts because of the spook factor the second day,” Bailey said. “We noticed since the first series of hunts that the take the second day is not as productive. The deer recognize the increased activity in the woods and don’t move as much as they typically do. These are wild deer. It doesn’t matter that they live in the park.”

Estes said BHA made it very plain that the main goal was to reduce the deer herd at Oak Mountain, which has severely stressed the park’s fragile ecosystem.

“The people were awesome,” Estes said. “We talked about what we were trying to accomplish. We explained that this was by no means a trophy hunt – we were up here to take as many does as we could, but to take deer off the land. That is what Commissioner Lawley stressed. He wanted to take mouths off Oak Mountain.”

Bailey said there has been a noticeable, albeit small improvement in reducing the damage done by the deer herd.

“It has improved,” he said. “We began our research with a vegetative analysis in 1999 and 2001. We’ve noticed a marginal increase in the number of flowering plants in the spring, climbing vines and other plants deer prefer. In the three years since the first hunt, we have created more openings for oak tree regeneration. We do plant some areas, you might say, as green fields.

“We are seeing more ground nesting birds, more mid-story nesting birds, wild turkeys in the park. It does appear that this is having a positive impact – taking these extra mouths out with the white-tailed deer as the cornerstone species in the park. Our long-range plan and goal is to continue to monitor the herd health and vegetation in the park and hopefully reach a point where we can draw a base line and have an impact on the overall carrying capacity in park. We do plan in the fall of 2009 to do another herd health check.”

One of the five deer taken during the second hunt was a 2 ½-year-old 6-point buck that weighed 170 pounds. The other deer harvested also appeared to be in very good shape.

“The condition of the deer that have been taken is really good compared to the past,” said Chris Cook, WFF wildlife biologist. “Last year we had a super acorn crop, so they were able to go into the winter in pretty good shape with a lot of fat reserves. They came out of winter pretty well, and then we went into the summer and we had better-than-average rainfall. Browse conditions were about as good as could be expected, and we had another good acorn crop this year.

“The deer that are being taken this year are in as good of shape as you could expect – coming from Oak Mountain State Park without major habitat improvements. You also have to consider this is a small sample size off 9,000. But the weights are looking good so far.”

Estes said he just hopes the weather will cooperate for the two hunts remaining in January and that both sides will be happy with the results.

“I hope this will be a long-term arrangement,” Estes said. “I’ve only heard positive comments. I think it’s good that the same hunters are going to get to hunt all four hunts this season. They’re learning the property and the deer habits. I think it will be positive for BHA and the Conservation Department when we get it all worked out.”

PHOTO: Chris Cook, wildlife biologist with the Wildlife and Freshwater Fisheries Division, measures the antlers on one of the two bucks taken during one of the two archery hunts at Oak Mountain State Park in December as the successful hunters - Rob Nicholas of Calera (left) and Brian Greene of Alabaster - watch.

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