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Sykes Hopeful Hunters Will Embrace Game Check

October 24, 2013

By DAVID RAINER

Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources

Although the Game Check harvest-information program is now voluntary, Chuck Sykes is hopeful that Alabama hunters understand its great importance and will embrace it as a new hunting season is beginning.

Sykes, Director of the Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources’ Wildlife and Freshwater Fisheries Division, championed the program when it was unveiled as a mandatory program with a 24-hour reporting period earlier this year. After careful consideration, Conservation Commissioner N. Gunter Guy Jr., with the full support of the Alabama Conservation Advisory Board, decided to withdraw the mandatory Game Check regulation and implement voluntary compliance.

Sykes admits he is disappointed that the program was not implemented as originally planned, considering that deer and turkeys are the main drivers in the state’s hunting industry, a $1.2-billion economic engine for Alabama.

“I still support the decision of the Commissioner (Guy) and the advisory board for the 24-hour mandatory reporting, because I feel that’s where we’re going to get the best information,” Sykes said. “With that being said, I’m hoping the public relations campaign and all of the attention that Game Check has received will give us all the data we will need.”

Earlier this year, Commissioner Guy, Sykes and field staff from across the state conducted a series of town hall-type meetings throughout the state to explain the Game Check program and answered questions from the public.

“The response at the town hall meetings that we attended from one end of the state to the other was extremely encouraging after we cleared up misconceptions about Game Check,” Sykes said. “By the time I left, even if people didn’t want to do it, they were going to comply because they understood how valuable that information is to us to allow us to do our job.

“Game Check is important because every decision we make in life is based on data, whether it’s what you’re going to have for supper or what your career is going to be. The more information you have, the better decision you can make.”

The Game Check program was designed to give the Wildlife and Freshwater Fisheries Division (WFF) data on the harvest of white-tailed deer and wild turkeys to assist in crucial wildlife management decisions. If enough hunters voluntarily comply, Game Check will provide the information needed for season and bag limit recommendations. It will also give the Enforcement Division the ability to check on compliance with harvest limits for deer and turkeys.

Some of the misconceptions that Sykes, Commissioner Guy and staff were able to debunk included one that maintained that Game Check would cost Alabama hunters more money.

The funding for the entire project comes from the budget of the Wildlife and Freshwater Fisheries Division. Game Check does not increase license costs for Alabama hunters. Other than small Consumer Price Index (CPI) increases, which were approved by the State Legislature, resident hunting license fees have only been increased five times during the 106-year history of the Department.

Another misconception was that the information gathered would only be available to WFF. Anyone can visit www.outdooralabama.com and view the same information that WFF personnel have access to.

Currently, Alabama has abundant deer-hunting opportunities from a deer herd that is estimated at 1.5 million animals. But that is just an estimate. Game Check would provide support for making those estimates. Because Alabama’s geography changes so dramatically from the Appalachian Mountains to the coastal plains, Sykes has mentioned before that wildlife management in the state is not “one-size-fits-all.” Compliance with Game Check will allow biologists to monitor deer harvest in each county.

“We just want the information to do our jobs better,” Sykes said. “Harvest data on a county-by-county basis and sex basis is better information than we’ve ever had. It’s not an end-all, be-all. As a biologist, I want more. But this is a step, a foundation for us to start building sound management plans.”

For several years now, the “Note It Before You Tote It” regulation has been in place. Hunters are required to record their buck and turkey harvests before the animal is moved. While there were numerous complaints when that regulation was adopted, hunters have adapted and compliance is high. That regulation is unchanged. Because of Game Check, there are spaces on hunting licenses to record the harvest of unantlered deer. Although it is now voluntary, the recording of that information will assist WFF biologists greatly if hunters will report the harvests through Game Check.

For those who have lifetime licenses or those who are exempt (65 and over, under 16, or property owners) and want to report a harvest, a HELP (Hunter Exempt License Privilege) number will allow them to participate in Game Check. It’s available free online at www.outdooralabama.com or wherever licenses are sold.

“Game Check just gives us a much better picture of what is going on in terms of hunting success,” Sykes said. “Think about it, we’ve got the February season extension in southwest Alabama. What better way to track the success or failure of that program than through Game Check. Now how are we really going to know if it’s going to accomplish what the hunters wanted?”

The only way hunters and WFF biologists will know if these changes to the deer season are working is if Alabama hunters participate in the voluntary system.

“That’s going to be the key,” Sykes said. “At least half the people have smartphones. It’s extremely easy to comply with a smartphone.”

Speaking of smartphones, I attended a dove hunt in central Alabama earlier this year and was talking to one of my fellow hunters about Game Check.

“How is this going to work?” he asked.

“Got a smartphone?” I asked.

“Yep, it’s an Android, I think,” he said.

“OK, go to wherever you get your apps and look for Outdoor Alabama,” I said.

Within a couple of minutes, he said. “OK, I’ve found it.”

“Install it and then open it up,” I responded.

A couple of minutes later, he opened the application and started exploring.

“Hey, here it is,” he said. “’Report your harvest.’ And there’s all this other information, too. You can even find out what WMA (Wildlife Management Area) is near you.

“That was easy.”

Sykes is optimistic that compliance will be higher than what skeptics expect.

“I believe a lot more people will comply because, quite honestly, I’ve had a lot more complaints when it went voluntary than I did when it was 24 hours to comply,” he said. “There are a lot of people out there who wanted this to happen. Those people are going to participate in Game Check.

“But again, it’s a voluntary program. If we had a voluntary 70 mph speed limit, how well do you think that would go? That’s just human nature. Everybody is not going to do it for the right reasons. I wish that was the case, but it’s just not. I really hope I’m pleasantly surprised with the participation in Game Check.”

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