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Oak Mountain Archery Hunt Format Changed

By DAVID RAINER

Since 2004, the Alabama State Parks Division has attempted to keep the burgeoning white-tailed deer population at Oak Mountain State Park under control through a series of regulated archery hunts.

While those hunts have succeeded in taking more than 200 deer out of the park, the limitations of the format caused concerns. Previously, the hunters were only allowed a few hunts per season and the entire park was closed during these hunts. Of course, the success of the hunters was dictated to a great degree by the weather.

The 2010-11 hunts, which start Nov. 15, will be conducted under a significantly different format with many more hunting days available to the archers and the park will not be closed.

“The way we’ve proceeded since 2004 with our Oak Mountain hunts is we set them up three to four months in advance,” said Forrest Bailey, State Parks’ Natural Resource Chief. “We let the dice fall where they may. It has been very successful up to this point with the exception of the bad weather/rainout days, which kept people out of the woods, of course. Anybody who hunts knows this and you can’t predict whether you’ll have good weather.

“This year, State Parks, Wildlife and Freshwater Fisheries and Bowhunters of Alabama (BHA) took a look at expanding the time frame to hunt under certain conditions.”

The format that resulted is the Oak Mountain archery hunts are Monday through Friday from Nov. 15 through Jan. 31. No weekend hunting is allowed, which also covers the Christmas and New Year’s holiday periods this year.

“We’re doing this in hopes that our core group of bowhunters – 45 bowhunters who were screened through applications and through proficiency testing just like our rules and regulations from the past hunts, as well as our safety briefings and meetings like our past hunts – will be able to hunt at their discretion,” Bailey said. “We feel like, at the most, there will be 10-12 hunters in the park at any given time. The park will not be closed, as far as any facilities. The hunters will check in upon arrival at the park and check out, based on prior rules and regulations.”

Bailey said the safety rules, which are being communicated to the public, stipulate that no hunter can hunt within 300 feet of any recreational facility, road, trailhead or building.

Bailey also knows this new format will come under extra scrutiny because of the interaction of the park’s other user groups.

“This is a large step for us and the Bowhunters of Alabama because basically the whole world is watching,” he said. “The user groups at Oak Mountain are diverse. There are numerous hikers and a tremendous number of bikers, both off-road and on the roadways, as well as horseback riders.  So, all of the entities will be utilizing the park at the same time.

“We feel very comfortable with this new format. We will monitor any complaints by any user groups. We’re relying on the hunters to be cognizant of exactly where they are. At the last safety meeting we had, only 11-12 of the hunters had not participated in a hunt at Oak Mountain, so the rest of the group knows what to expect. They know the parameters we’re working within and are very much aware the park will not be closed during this time.”

Barry Estes, chairman of the urban deer control program with BHA, said the bowhunters who were fortunate enough to be chosen for the Oak Mountain hunts are looking forward to the flexibility.

“Everybody is very excited about the new format,” Estes said. “We will be able to hunt when it’s not raining eight inches a day or with tropical storms and tornadoes. This should help accomplish the objective of taking more deer off the park. I guess you could say this format will be more user friendly. We’ve got some hunters who live very close to the park and can hunt in the afternoon. Some will have to take vacations days or off days, but it’s all going to work out. It’s going to be good.”

To ensure the hunting pressure will be distributed evenly, the 9,940-acre park has been divided into 11 zones. Each zone will accommodate four to five hunters, who made a zone preference during the application process.

“They will basically stick to those zones,” Bailey said. “Each of those zones will have a team captain to facilitate communications. We felt this was a fair and equitable way to break the park up without putting so much pressure in certain zones.”

Instead of a harvest check-in station at the park, hunters will take the deer to the processors, where all pertinent information (weight, age, sex, antler configuration) will be recorded and provided to parks personnel. Successful archers can keep the deer or donate it to Hunters Helping the Hungry.

“The statewide three-buck rule will apply at Oak Mountain even though this is a special hunt,” Bailey said. “Everybody is very cognizant about not passing up a doe and waiting on a buck. They learned this lesson the first two seasons of the hunt because people thought that the white-tailed deer in the park would be less wild than those on private property, but that is not true. We hope these changes will result in more deer removed from the herd at Oak Mountain.”

Bailey hopes at some point to be able to conduct a population dynamics study on the Oak Mountain deer herd to determine the total number of deer in the park and determine how many deer need to be removed to improve the health of the herd.

“That study would be an invaluable tool to help us evaluate that,” Bailey said. “It’s based on camera census and camera check over a period of time, utilizing bait stations within a grid in the park. All that information is tabulated and interpreted over a two-year period. But budgetary constraints won’t allow us to conduct the study right now.”

Since the Oak Mountain hunts started, Bailey said the archers have taken an average of 28 deer per season with a ratio of 75-percent does and 25-percent bucks, which is to be expected with an estimated doe-to-buck ration of about 5 to 1.

While Bailey hopes for increased harvest under the new format, the herd reduction to date has benefited the park’s plant life. Before the archery hunts started, the damage to the flora in the park was obvious with a noticeable browse line and the absence of numerous native plant species.

“There are improvements to the vegetation, depending on what part of the park you go to,” Bailey said. “One of the things we tried to do, noting that Oak Mountain is basically a closed-canopy forest, is we have taken areas we have opened up because of pine beetle damage and storm damage and improved those areas with forest mulching, some right-of-way herbicide work, and some replanting of native species. We have created situations where we have native forbs and grasses growing in these areas. We have seen more native wildflowers that have survived. There are more climbing vines. We’re seeing more turkeys in the park because the increased vegetation gives more cover for the ground-nesting birds.”

Those who visit any of Alabama’s state parks also need to know about a rule passed last year that prohibits the feeding of deer inside the parks.

“We did that for a number of reasons,” he said. “Deer are creatures of habit to a degree. When they get used to handouts, especially from campers in the campgrounds, they tend to gravitate toward those areas around dusk. We’ve had deer-vehicle collisions and have had to put deer down. This rule was put into effect for the health of the herd, because the food the deer get from people is not nutritious.”

Visit www.alapark.com for more information.

PHOTOS: (By David Rainer) Several of Alabama’s state parks have abundant deer herds and several of the parks, including Oak Mountain near Birmingham, have an overabundance, which leads to habitat damage and numerous deer-vehicle collisions. In an effort to reduce the deer herd at Oak Mountain, archery hunts have been used to take animals off the park since 2004. The 2010-2011 Oak Mountain hunts will be held under a new format that gives bowhunters much more flexibility in the hunting schedule.

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