By DAVID RAINER

Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources

Chuck Sykes is a happy guy, at least to a point. Sykes, the Director of the Alabama Wildlife and Freshwater Fisheries (WFF) Division, has been regularly checking the number of deer reported through the Game Check system, which became mandatory for the 2016-2017 season.

“I figured that only about a third of the deer killed were being reported,” Sykes said.

During a routine road block in which State Troopers conducted checks for public safety and insurance verification, game wardens provided assistance and checked for conservation violations.

“Eight of the hunters checked had harvested deer in their possession,” Sykes said. “Only two of the deer had been properly recorded on the harvest record or reported into Game Check. So, I guess my assumption was pretty close.

“The people who have used Game Check to report their deer harvests are seeing how incredibly easy it is.”

Count me in that category. I hadn’t had the chance to use Game Check until recently when I was sitting in a stand in Choctaw County. A spike with about 4-inch antlers was the first to come into view, followed quickly by an adult doe and then a yearling doe.

My freezer had conked out last spring and I had absolutely zero venison in reserve. I watched for several minutes before I put the crosshairs on the adult doe and squeezed the trigger. The doe dropped in her tracks as the younger deer high-tailed it into the pine thicket.

With the doe obviously not going anywhere, I pulled out my smartphone and opened the Outdoor Alabama app. I swiped one time and got to the page that said “Report Your Harvest.” I clicked through and started the process. When I bought my license in September, I also acquired my Conservation ID. My phone had my Conservation ID stored, and it took me less than two minutes to complete the reporting process while I was still sitting in the stand.

The app stores your harvest record on your phone, plus you can opt to have a copy sent to the email on record. Sykes had been telling me how easy it is. Now I’m a believer.

Sykes, however, said despite WFF’s best efforts to spread the word, some still don’t know about the reporting requirement or are willfully ignoring it. Sykes and his staff traveled extensively across the state last summer and fall to give seminars on Game Check and answer any questions the attendees had.

“I did 44 seminars myself,” he said. “And we did 50 overall. We’ve done YouTube videos. We’ve done TV spots. We’ve done radio spots. We have beaten the bushes as hard as we possibly could, and I’ve got personal friends who have called me to ask questions. I had one who called about his 10-year-old son and whether to report the harvest on his license. This man is an avid hunter and didn’t have a clue.

“Honestly, I don’t know what more we can do than what we’ve done to try to get the word out.”

To answer the question posed by Sykes’ friend: Those hunters who are license-exempt (over 65, under 16, resident landowners hunting on their property) must obtain a free Hunter Exempt License Privilege (HELP) number through the outdooralabama.com website or any place licenses are sold. The HELP number is only good for one hunting season. A better idea is to go to outdooralabama.com and utilize the HELP number to obtain a Conservation ID, which is good for a lifetime.

What’s most frustrating for Sykes is the aforementioned group that doesn’t see the need to comply with Game Check.

“No matter what we do or say, they’re not going to do it,” he said. “The enforcement officer I mentioned earlier gave warnings to those six people who had not Game-Checked their harvests. But, as I promised in my seminars, there is no excuse for not complying with the Harvest Record regulation that has been on the books since 2007, so they were issued tickets. We’re trying to educate people on the Game Check regulation.

“Some people don’t see any reason for it. Honestly, I don’t see why I have to drive 70 on the interstate, but some people saw enough of a need that they made a law for it. Therefore, I abide by it.”

Sykes said people just don’t understand how valuable that information is.

“Hunters in Alabama have never been required to report anything,” he said. “Hunters in other states grow up understanding the need for it. It’s a complete culture change, and it’s going to take a while. We understand that.

“I don’t have problem arguing with somebody over the facts. But the blatant disregard for the facts is where I have a problem, and 90 percent of the issues that we’re running into now comes from campfire talk that has no valid basis in fact. I’ve been there. Some consider it government intrusion, but the wildlife belongs to everybody in Alabama. They may own the land, but the wildlife belongs to the citizens of Alabama, and we are the ones responsible for the management of this natural resource.”

WFF tried voluntary compliance with Game Check for three years, and not many Alabama hunters participated. The first year, about 19,000 deer were reported, but that dwindled to about 15,000 by the third year.

With more than a month left in the season, 45,000 deer have been reported in the first year of mandatory Game Check.

“That’s much better, but our mail survey is saying we’re harvesting 250,000 deer,” Sykes said. “Honestly, I don’t think either one of those is right. I think Georgia has registered about 150,000 on their program, which I think is in line with what it ought to be.

“Now that we’ve gotten some rain and folks have food plots they can sit on, it may bump up a little. I know some people who haven’t been hunting because of the drought and the weather. But the people who have been hunting have killed some big deer, like 196 (Boone and Crockett scoring system) and 203 deer that have come from Bankhead National Forest, and that’s public land.”

Sykes said Alabama hunters need to understand that not reporting a deer or turkey harvest is not going to help the hunters or wildlife.

“They’re not helping by hiding,” he said. “If we see we’ve got more deer, we might be able to give them an extra buck. We don’t know. We just need the numbers.”

Sykes pointed out that management decisions are not going to be made based on one year of harvest information.

“People need to understand this is going to take several years of data,” he said. “This is for trend data. You can look at near real-time harvest data, but we’re not going to make any management decisions until we have several years of data. Keith Gauldin (Wildlife Section Chief) has his research coordinator discussing the use of varying statistical analysis techniques with several universities that can be utilized to generate population and harvest models. This will enable our biologists to make better decisions regarding the management of our deer and turkey populations. But we’re not going to do anything off of one year’s data.”

Sykes is optimistic that compliance will increase as Alabama hunters become more aware of Game Check through outreach efforts and campfire talk.

“Look, I’m happy that we’ve got 45,000 deer reported,” he said. “Do I think that’s how many have been killed? Absolutely not. But we’ve got to start somewhere. It’s more than we’ve had, and people can say, ‘Huh, this wasn’t nearly as bad as I thought.’

“I think compliance is going to get better and better each year. It takes no time to do it. It’s so easy.”

Watch a video on Game Check