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Sykes Becomes WFF Director on Birthday

January 19, 2013
 
By DAVID RAINER
Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources
 
Chuck Sykes celebrated his 42nd birthday in a most unusual way: The Choctaw County native spent the day plunging into his new role as the Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources’ (ADCNR) Wildlife and Freshwater Fisheries Director.

Sykes’ career change will bring a new perspective for him on the outdoors he loves and has spent his life advancing.

“That was the first day I had ever sat behind a desk,” said Sykes. “I’ve been a private, on-the-ground, hands-dirty, Carhartt, snake-boots kind of guy. So right now, I’m learning.”

Sykes graduated from Auburn University with a degree in Wildlife Sciences in 1992 and used what he learned to form a natural resources consulting firm, C&S Wildlife Services, which managed thousands of acres for landowners throughout the United States. In 2001, he created and produced “The Management Advantage” television program, which aired for 11 years on the Outdoor Channel. Just prior to joining ADCNR, Sykes served as Senior Scientist and Biological Services Manager for Environmental 360, Inc., an environmental and resource management company based in Tennessee.

Sykes is looking forward to the challenge of being the WFF Director and has great support as he adapts to a new environment.

“I’m doing a lot of listening,” he said. “I know, from the short time I’ve been here, that there are really good people above me and really good people on the staff who I’m going to rely on and ask a ton of questions.

“The thing is, I want to be able to bring that common-sense approach for that everyday guy who’s out there trying to see what works. I want to bring some new ideas that help him and other Alabama residents reach their goals.”

Conservation Commissioner N. Gunter Guy Jr. said he is especially appreciative of Sykes’ hands-on background.

“We’re excited that Chuck brings 20 years of practical experience to this position,” Guy said. “His extensive work in wildlife and wildlife habitat management is a perfect fit for the Wildlife and Freshwater Fisheries Division’s mission to ensure our outdoor heritage for future generations.”

Sykes replaces M.N. “Corky” Pugh, who retired Dec. 1, 2011. Fred Harders served as acting director for the past year.

Sykes started guiding at Bent Creek Lodge in Choctaw County while he was in high school and worked at several hunting lodges through the years before he took over as manager at a 5,000-acre quail plantation in east central Alabama in 1995.

“To learn my way around, I just started bush-hogging roads,” Sykes said of Circle N Lodge. “There were about 150 miles of roads on the place. I started picking up some pretty decent (antler) sheds. The owner wanted every deer off the place because they were eating up his quail food.”

Sykes suggested that the owner consider a commercial deer hunting operation with a lodge already in place. A limited number of turkey hunts were also made available in those first few years before the turkey population soared.

“The year I got there, there were four gobbling turkeys on the place,” Sykes said. “The year I left, we killed 14 longbeards and I knew where 17 more were. It went from nothing to unbelievable. It was because of intensive management – timber management, prescribed burns, food plots, predator control, you name it. But I lived there. I worked that place every day.

“As far as deer management, we were growing 140- to 150-inch deer regularly. The best deer grossed 186, and the one on the wall in my office scored 173. It was a unique place in terms of deer. We had a Georgia influence where the Georgia deer were rutting the first week or 10 days of December. Then they had another rut the first week of January. Then somewhere around the 15th of January, the Alabama deer were rutting. You could hunt three distinct ruts. Once I figured that out, I started targeting the Alabama deer for management. I put a 17-inch limit on the Alabama deer, either inside spread or main beam. That was mostly three-year-old bucks when we started. By the time I left, some of the two-year-olds had stepped up into that category. But on the doe harvest, I put a limit of 100 pounds on the does; no does shot over 100 pounds. That is totally backward from the way most people manage. But what that was was either a year-and-a-half-old Georgia doe or a mature Alabama doe.”

Sykes’ success at Circle N drew attention through articles published in “Outdoor Life” and “Progressive Farmer.” The publicity led to the advent of a consulting business (with his wife, Sue) that helped landowners improve their wildlife and habitat management.

C&S Wildlife Services eventually became The Management Advantage, which developed the TV show.

“I wanted to draw attention to the consulting aspect of our business, but the TV show soon took on a life of its own,” Sykes said. “It aired for 11 years. The television show kept me so busy I didn’t get to consult like I wanted to. The show was almost all education about wildlife and habitat management, but we still had to show hunting, because that’s what the people were doing. We developed a food plot, planted it and harvested an animal on it.”

Starting in August of 2012, at the request of the viewers, Chuck made the transition from TV to the Internet with The Management Advantage.

“My heart is on the ground, getting my hands dirty, helping people make the most of what they have,” Sykes said. “If I go out and kill a nice deer or turkey, that’s OK. If somebody calls me or emails me and tells me they followed my advice and their child was able to kill their first deer, that’s where I get my ego stroked.”

Last year, Sykes joined Environmental 360, Inc., where he worked with commercial clients, mainly in the paper products industry, to develop a natural resources component to their business that included feral hog removal projects and habitat improvement.

The two main issues that Sykes confronted in recent years in his private consulting business were cogongrass and feral hogs. Cogongrass is an invasive species that has proven hard to control. It survives prescribed burns and requires multiple herbicide applications for effective control. The feral hog problem continues to grow to the point that the Alabama Feral Hog Control Council was formed this year through the combined efforts of Commissioner Guy, Agriculture & Industries Commissioner John McMillan and the Alabama Wildlife Federation.

“I’m sure these will be two of the top issues, as wildlife managers, we’re going to have to face over the next decade,” Sykes said. “One is trying to figure out management activities that will keep feral hogs at a manageable level. I don’t think eradication is a possibility. We’ve also got to try to stop the encroachment of cogongrass. It’s already all the way up to Sumter County. The majority of the cogongrass is in the southern counties, but it’s spreading fast.”

Sykes said one aspect of his new position will be a continuation of what he’s done his entire career – educate.

“You can have the best ideas, have all the scientific data to prove it, but if you can’t explain it in a way that people understand and buy into, it does no good,” he said. “The Lord has blessed me with the ability in my private career to take scientific information and present it in a common-sense approach that works. I’m hoping we can do the same thing on a statewide basis. Alabama has such great natural resources, and I’m finding people in the department who are passionate about wanting to make it better. They’re constantly collecting data, constantly doing research to try to make things better.

“From the outside looking in, I think some of the translation is lost in getting it to people on the ground. That’s where I hope I can help.”

PHOTO: New Wildlife and Freshwater Fisheries Director Chuck Sykes, right, celebrates a huge Choctaw County buck he took with his father, Willie, and Australian shepherd, BES, as hunting companions.

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