Wildlife management is neither pure biology nor pure social science. When it is at its best, it is a balance of the two.
As with most things in life, balance is tough to achieve. At times, it feels as easy as walking a wide steel beam — until we suddenly realize it’s a tightrope on which we’ve been walking all along.
I’ve walked among people in the middle of those tightropes. People worried about feeding their families, making a living or concerned about species disappearing.
Oklahoma’s deer are not on a tightrope, but wildlife managers are dancing along that beam with plenty of commentary predicting they might stumble one way or the other these days.
The biggest proposed change to deer hunting dates and bag limits in nearly 20 years is on the docket for the Oklahoma Wildlife Conservation Commission and it’s getting plenty of attention, as it should.
Public participation is key to wildlife management, so long as it finds its way to the most important eyes and doesn’t live solely on Facebook and Twitter. I need to emphasize here, too, that this isn’t a conversation just for deer hunters. This is a “public” process.
Get involved if it means something to you in any way.
Note also that I mention this is the biggest change “to hunting dates and bag limits” in recent history. The advent of e-check, allowing use of crossbows for all of the archery season and creation of the holiday antlerless season all had an impact as noteworthy.
In an attempt to boil things down on the current proposals, I spoke with biologists at the heart of the matter, Oklahoma Department of Wildlife Conservation Big Game Biologist Dallas Barber and Wildlife Programs Supervisor (and former big game biologist) Jerry Shaw.
While extended seasons and higher limits may be available, it is a certainty they won’t be universally applied. Private landowners manage the hunting on 97% of this state’s land, the state’s 10 deer management zones are not going away and the 23-day season has not been proposed for wildlife management areas.
Limits and methods available will continue to vary according to region and property, just as they do now.
Also, the state’s season bag limit for bucks will not change. People will have an extra week to bag one with a rifle in some areas, however.
Adding days open for antlerless deer for archery hunters on some WMAs and the 23-day gun season with a limit of five does and one buck instead of two does and one buck could indeed give more hunters a chance to get out and offer the chance to take additional does.
The theme of changes is all about antlerless harvest, Barber said. The focus is on increasing the doe harvest as a percentage of the overall take.
“We’ve gone five years where we have not met the goal of taking 40%,” Barber said. “We’ve been around 36%. Maybe only missing by 4% doesn’t sound like much, but when you do that three, four, five years in a row, then that’s a lot of critters.”
I’ve heard a lot about the “second rut” lately, and any hunter who is learning to use tactics to target bucks in secondary and tertiary rut periods should recognize that is not a good sign.
It’s a sign of a vicious cycle with a lasting impact on the population, according to Barber, who cited studies out of Mississippi State and Texas A&M.
“Does that are not covered in the first rut come back into estrus, which is harder on the doe, harder on the bucks because of an extended rut period and it’s hard on late-born fawns,” he said. “It takes four years for a fawn to recover, or be equal to, a fawn born just a month earlier.”
That said, Oklahoma’s deer population and its deer hunting opportunities are better than ever. The harvest numbers and the record books in recent years can attest to that.
But there are areas of depredation and habitats reaching carrying capacity and there is some public pressure to expand hunting opportunities, according to Shaw.
“Right now, we are kind of in a sweet spot for our state and we’re doing a pretty good job of catering to both the bigger antler crowd and the ‘I’m just looking to get out and get a deer’ crowd,” Shaw said.
However, there are areas where, clearly, more does need to go to the meat locker.
If what is proposed is the answer, it is up to hunters to lobby and comment.
Shaw, who was in the thick of things when the season increased to 16 days from nine early this century, gave the biologist’s perspective.
“If it was strictly deer management, I can tell you what to do because I know what that deer is going to do,” he said. “It’s going to get up and eat and find someone to make more deer and eat and go back to bed. With hunters, it’s unknowns. Right now, we have numbers that show gun hunters on average hunt less than six days a year. Will that hold the same or increase or decrease with a change to the season? We can’t know that for sure. That’s what gives us pause and reason to think.”
And reason to listen to public comments, he said.
“Public opinion is very important and it’s our way to communicate with the people we serve,” he said. “Just remind them to do it in the official location. You can post your opinion on social media, but that doesn’t put it in front of the people making the decisions. They need to use the official location.”
Constructive commentary counts. If you’re a landowner, a quail hunter or duck hunter or anyone who has a thought about how a three-week gun season might impact you — speak up.
“I’ve been in enough of the commission meetings over the years where there is a public hearing and you go in with people that proposed one thing and thought one way and there are people who show up at the meeting who think different, and ideas change,” Shaw said.
Offer your comments on the proposals through the link at wildlifedepartment.com