Saturday before Thanksgiving in Oklahoma means the rifles come out for deer season. It’s a long tradition with more than 100,000 hunters taking to the woods with their guns, hunter-orange safety garb and campfire stories.
The only thing hunters love to talk about more than deer hunting is deer hunting regulations, and one proposed rule this year is sure to have the campground soapboxes ablaze this weekend.
Among proposed regulations is one to boost the rifle season from 16 days to 23, effectively a 50 percent increase in hunting days for a the season that accounts for 60 percent of the annual deer harvest, according to Oklahoma Department of Wildlife Conservation figures. That annual harvest has been just over 100,000 deer the past two seasons.
Bowhunters have a longer season and take roughly 25 percent of the annual harvest, muzzleloader or “primitive” season hunters take about 15 percent.
“All of data shows that Saturday will be the most highly participated hunting day of the year,” said Wildlife Department Big Game Biologist Dallas Barber. “A good majority of the harvest will occur over the weekend. It’s not only just a really good weekend to be out for hunting, but the success of hunters is usually pretty high for the first two days of the season.”
The gun season also accounts for the largest part of the estimated $600 million annual economic impact the state sees from deer hunting, according to Wildlife Department figures.
Making the season longer has been discussed off-and-on in the past. In last year’s legislative session Rep. Rusty Cornwell, R-Vinita carried a bill that proposed a lengthened season but he chose to sit on it, essentially because he wasn’t really excited by the idea.
“Being a first-time legislator I was still trying to learn the process,” he said. “For one I knew it would be a highly contested bill, I also had some issues with it, and I didn’t want to take that for one of my first bills... I thought we could sit on it for a year and hear some feedback and go from there.”
Cornwell said it’s even better if the Wildlife Department proposes the change and it goes through its public comment process and the Wildlife Conservation Commission votes on the change as a regulatory change rather than a legislative move.
The proposal will be among a list of proposed changes to state hunting and fishing rules that will be issued on Dec. 2 for public comment, according to Wildlife Department spokesman Micah Holmes. Online and mail-in comments will be taken for more than a month. Public hearings are set for Jan. 2 in Oklahoma City and Broken Bow. After the comment period the Commission votes on proposals in late March or early April. New rules have to be approved by the legislature and governor before going into the regulations book for the following season.
Holmes said the proposed rule came from internal department discussions and that department wants all the feedback hunters have to offer on the subject, “good, bad or otherwise.”
“There have been lots of different discussions about deer seasons and ideas over the years,” he said.
What a three-week season means instead of two weeks is likely more of a social impact for hunters than a biological concern for Oklahoma’s healthy deer populations, Holmes said.
“We used to have a nine-day season and then two weeks, and there really wasn’t a big impact on the number of hunters or the number of deer killed,” he said. “Most hunters don’t hunt every day of the season and most only kill one or two deer a year.”
What an extra week could do is offer hunters some flexibility for people with busy holiday times and, if the Wildlife Department could have its way, give hunters a chance to take a doe on an extra weekend or perhaps take a new hunter into the field, he said.
The department also recently sent out a survey to 6,000 hunters who were successful last year to ask their opinions on a range of subjects that might help guide the decision process as well, he said.
“Basically we want to provide as much of an opportunity for hunters as we can without negatively impacting the resource,” Holmes said.
“(Deer season dates) is something that has been in discussion for a long time,” he said. “We’re eager to hear what hunters think about all the proposals coming up, but especially the deer season. It’s an important tradition and important economic impact for the state.”