Georgia’s landscape has changed drastically over the past decade, and so has its deer herd and hunting population.
That’s why Georgia’s Wildlife Resources Division is asking for comments on its newest Deer Management Plan that will guide decisions on seasons, bag limits, hunting methods, coyote control and other factors for the next 10 years.
The 99-page draft plan, available online, is actually a revision of a similar plan adopted in 2005, when the primary objective was to reduce the state’s whitetail herd and find ways to increase the number of hunters.
This time, there are other factors at play, including an increasingly vocal segment of the hunting community who say there are too few deer, especially in the state’s northern counties.
Although the volume of forested land in Georgia has remained fairly constant – 38,674 square miles in 2012 vs. 39,531 back in 1972 – things are changing on other fronts.
Population has risen from 4.8 million to 9.9 million, while the number of deer rose from about 220,000 in 1972 up to a peak of 1.4 million in the late 1990s before steadily declining to the current estimate of about 1 million.
In the early 1980s, does – or “antlerless deer” – accounted for barely a fourth of the total deer harvest, according to the draft plan, with yearling bucks accounting for the majority of deer taken.
Greater interest in growing mature bucks and more liberal doe harvest regulations changed that trend radically. Since 2002, the doe harvest has accounted for 60 percent or more of the annual deer harvest. The payoff has been bigger bucks.
What’s on tap for the next decade?
A very critical statistic that was barely even watched in previous decades is the fawn recruitment ratio – or the number of fawns per doe that survive to the six-month stage, after which their chances of survival are greatly increased.
That figure, according to state wildlife biologists, has fallen 26 percent since 2001, which is a concern for wildlife managers.
The rise in coyote populations and multiple studies that show they kill large numbers of fawns each spring are part of the equation needed to balance future deer herds with hunter harvest and other factors.
But as coyotes continue to proliferate, so also has interest in trapping them, according to studies included in the draft plan.
From 1999 to 2011, the number of licensed trappers grew from 385 to 767, with coyote harvest jumping up 350 percent from 1,971 to 6,974 animals.
Surveys so far have identified issues and opinions about what the future should hold.
A slight majority of hunters would support establishing a single, statewide deer season in Georgia by eliminating the deer zones, but about a third would oppose.
Similarly, about half of residents oppose the hunting of deer with dogs, while about a third support. Typical reasons to support are that it increases hunters’ chances of harvest, while typical reasons to oppose is that it is not deemed to give the deer a fair chance.
Among hunters there is more opposition than support, the studies show, with supporters citing tradition and those opposed citing the unfairness to the deer.
In terms of recommendations, state officials appear likely to keep the current bag limit and seasons in effect, while working with the General Assembly and the public to make biologically sound decisions on any needed changes.
If you are interested in the draft plan and want to comment, DNR is holding a series of meetings around the state this week to seek comments. Written or e-mailed comments can be accepted through Sept. 5.
The meetings will be held in Monroe and Hazlehurst on Monday; Canton and Leesburg on Tuesday; Forsyth and Douglasville on Wednesday; and in Cleveland and Brunswick on Thursday.
The draft Deer Management Plan and more details about the public meetings are available online at: http://www.georgiawildlife.com/Hunting/Meetings?cat=1.
STURGEON STUDIES: While most people might never see a shortnose or Atlantic sturgeon in Savannah River, researchers are focusing a new round of research on the rare species this summer.
The partnership between the Army Corps of Engineers and the S.C. Department of Natural Resources involves safely catching sturgeon, inserting acoustic transmitters into them and returning them to the river.
The four-man research team is tagging sturgeon for two separate studies: one in the coastal estuary and the other at New Savannah Bluff Lock and Dam near Augusta.
“South Carolina DNR has been conducting sturgeon research in the Savannah River since the mid-80s,” said Bill Post, diadromous fishes coordinator with the S.C. DNR. “We have the skills and expertise to perform these studies in a way that is safe for the fish while producing reliable data.”
The studies are required as part of the corps’ pre-construction monitoring plan for the Savannah Harbor Expansion Project, which could increase salinity of sturgeon waters and reduce the suitability of some areas for young sturgeon.
To compensate for those impacts, the harbor project includes construction of a large fish bypass around New Savannah Bluff Lock and Dam.
FLYFISHING CLUB: The CSRA Fly Fishers will meet Aug. 25, at 7 p.m. at the River Island clubhouse in Evans. Activities include a practice session at the dock.
Guests are welcome and members will supply instruction for those interested. Also bring ideas for this years programs and trips.
For more information see www.csraflyfishers.org.