By DAVID RAINER

Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources (DCNR)

With the availability of large tracts of land diminishing at a rapid rate, the Alabama DCNR’s Wildlife and Freshwater Fisheries (WFF) Division and the Forever Wild Land Trust have teamed up to step outside the proverbial box to provide additional hunting opportunities in the state.

The new concept in this combined effort is to purchase smaller tracts using Pittman-Robertson and Forever Wild funding and develop those properties as special opportunity areas (SOAs) that are managed differently than the traditional wildlife management areas (WMAs).

“Honestly, the new SOA program is based on running a hunting lodge, giving people the opportunity for a quality hunt at an affordable price,” said WFF Director Chuck Sykes. “That’s the premise of it, and that’s my background. It’s sort of on the lines of going out west. If you apply for an elk tag, you have to pick which unit you want to hunt and what dates you want to go. It’s a selective process, and they only put so many people in any area so the resource is protected and people have a quality hunt. We’re just offering a different type of quality hunting.

“Being able to put together 15,000 to 20,000 acres these days is not going to happen, so we had to change our model for public hunting. We’re looking at under-served areas of the state like Dallas, Wilcox, Marengo, Choctaw and Russell counties.”

The new SOAs that will be available for the upcoming hunting seasons are the 6,500-acre Cedar Creek SOA in Dallas County, the 4,500-acre Uchee Creek SOA in Russell County and the 400-acre Crow Creek SOA in Jackson County. The Fred T. Stimpson SOA, a 5,400-acre tract in Clarke County that had been open for youth hunts and limited adult archery deer hunts have transitioned to this hunting mode to assist in reducing deer densities on the area.

Those SOAs will be divided into hunt units, and the successful applicants will be assigned to those specific units for specific dates.

“Most of our WMAs are 20,000 to 90,000 acres,” Sykes said. “You pick up a map and try to figure out where to hunt. I consider myself a pretty good hunter, but that can be a little overwhelming for me, so just think what it’s like for an inexperienced hunter. Where do I go? What do I do? Is there going to be somebody in the same area?

“By breaking these hunt units into manageable sizes of about 300-500 acres, when you walk onto that property, you know it’s only going to be you and your friend who will be there. You’ve got your own personal hunting club to hunt instead of 50,000 acres. I know it’s going to provide a different kind of hunt for our public land hunters.”

Sykes also thinks those who don’t necessarily hunt public land will probably become interested in the SOA concept.

“I think it’s going to appeal to people who have been intimidated by public-land hunting,” he said. “I think it’s going to open some doors for those people.”

Cedar Creek SOA has about 3 miles of Alabama River frontage and about 3 miles of frontage on Cedar Creek. The habitat includes hills and hollows with mixed hardwoods and pines, hardwood bottoms with sloughs and large cedar glades.

“Anybody who grew up in west Alabama knows that if you see big blocks of cedar trees, that equals big deer,” Sykes said. “Those calcium-rich soils produce big deer.

“The Uchee Creek tract has an incredible infrastructure with a road system, large timber stands with large food plots. You can tell it was a private piece of property that was carefully managed for hunting.”

While other states using the SOA concept are charging fees to use the areas, Alabama’s program is provided free of cost, except for the proper hunting license and WMA license.

“We’re going to be able to provide some incredible hunting opportunities for people, and it doesn’t cost them anything,” Sykes said. “All they have to do is get a Conservation ID number and register. It’s open to out-of-state hunters as well. People who buy non-resident licenses pay into the system just like residents.”

Sykes also said the SOAs will be managed to minimize the pressure on the wildlife during hunting seasons.

“Take Cedar Creek, we have 16 hunts scheduled during deer season,” he said. “We’ll take 10 hunters on a four-day hunt. It may be another two to three weeks before that unit is hunted again. Everybody knows the key to successful hunting is to minimize the pressure.”

Cedar Creek will also be the site for a pilot project WFF will start this coming season for a handful of fortunate individuals. Mentored hunts will be available for young adults who are new or inexperienced hunters.

“Most hunting programs are designed to take kids hunting for one afternoon,” Sykes said. “This is going to be a weekend hunt, and the ones we’re looking for to participate are college age and up.”

Those interested in the mentored hunts can go to www.outdooralabama.com and look for mentored hunts. A questionnaire is required for applicants. Those questionnaires will be vetted. The qualified applicants then will be entered into the database and a random selection process will choose the hunters.

“We’re looking for people who are interested in learning how to hunt,” Sykes said. “It may be a little intimidating to them. They didn’t have someone to take them hunting when they were growing up. This basically will be a weekend crash course in hunting, where we do hunting safety, sight in rifles, look at the habitat for deer and turkey sign. Then we carry them on a hunt, and hopefully harvest a deer. We’ll process that deer. Everyone will be staying at the same place and eating wild game. It’ll be what we hunters grew up with. It will be a hunting experience, not just an afternoon hunt. We’re going to teach them some basic hunting fundamentals on what to do and how to do. All it costs is an Alabama hunting license and a WMA permit.”

The Crow Creek SOA will be for waterfowl hunters, who can bring along three hunting buddies on each hunt.

Registration for the SOA hunts begins August 28, and selections by a computer-controlled, random process will be made on October 3 for all SOAs.

“We’re not allowing camping on these SOA tracts,” Sykes said. “People coming in on these hunts are going to have to have a place to stay, groceries and gas.”

Patti Powell, Director of the DCNR’s State Lands Division, which administers the Forever Wild program, said the SOA hunts should bolster the local economies.

“In addition to providing a unique public hunting experience, the Forever Wild program’s Board of Trustees is excited about the positive economic impact this type of public recreation will bring to the local communities,” Powell said. “The structure of the 2-day and 4-day hunts means that these hunters will need lodging for multiple nights, and that the usual food and fuel-type expenditures associated with day-use public recreation opportunities will be extended over a longer period. Increasing public recreation and promoting economic growth are two important goals for Forever Wild acquisitions.”

Cedar Creek is 15 minutes from Roland Cooper State Park. These hunts will take place during the off-season for the park and could provide another source of income for Roland Cooper.

Sykes added, “Of course, we’re not going to make everybody happy, but this is going to be a good thing for Alabama.”

PHOTOS: (WFF) The new Special Opportunity Areas (SOAs) available for the upcoming hunting seasons are, from top, Cedar Creek, Uchee Creek and Crow Creek.

###