By David Rainer, Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources
-- Although it's too early to tell if the antler restriction in place in Barbour County will have the same effect, there's no argument that the restriction of three points on one side has had a significant impact on the white-tailed deer hunting at Barbour County Wildlife Management Area.
The WMA started its antler restriction program in the 1999-2000 season on the 20,000-acre public hunting area after asking hunters what they wanted.
"We had surveyed some of our hunters in mid to late '90s and asked several questions," said Bill Gray, District VI wildlife biologist supervisor for the Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources' Wildlife and Freshwater Fisheries.
"One question was would you prefer high numbers of smaller deer or lower numbers of larger deer. About 60 percent said larger deer. Then we got in depth with the survey - what makes for an enjoyable hunt, what harvest makes for an enjoyable season? The opportunity to take a mature buck and several antlerless deer were the things that precipitated an enjoyable season.
"Those surveyed supported the antler restrictions two to one. The restrictions we proposed were much more stringent than what was adopted. We talked about a 15- inch spread, 17-inch main beams or four points on one side. We wanted to pass up all the 1 1/2-year-old and 2 1/2-year-old deer."
Gray and his colleagues sat down and looked at the options proposed by biologists associated with the WMA and decided those hunter-supported restrictions were too complicated.
"We decided to look at the data and make it simpler and still have the desired effect," said Gray, who teamed with fellow biologist Chris Cook to pen "Biology and Management of White-tailed Deer in Alabama," which is available for download at http://www.outdooralabama.com/hunting/game/deer/deerbook.pdf.
"With 10 years of harvest data from the WMA, we found by implementing something simple like three on one side it would protect 94- percent of the 1 1/2-year-old bucks. We decided if we got more restrictive and jumped it up to protecting the 2 1/2-year-old bucks then the harvest may be so poor it might doom it to failure. We decided to see what we could do with three points on one side."
To say the antler restriction has been a success would be a gross understatement, according to Gray and Steve Ditchkoff, a wildlife professor at Auburn University.
"It's far exceeded expectations as far as age structure of the harvest," Gray said. "It's done a remarkable job of growing a lot more older-age-class bucks for the hunters to harvest. Basically we had a 500-percent reduction in the harvest of 1 1/2-year-old bucks, and a 375-percent increase in the number of 3 1/2-year-old and older bucks harvested. We went from taking a 31/2-year-old buck for every 1,900 acres down to taking one for about every 400-500 acres. The number of man-days required to harvest a 3 1/2-year-old buck was down significantly, too. During the 1995-96 season (before restrictions) alone, more 1 1/2 -year-old bucks were harvested (total of 118) than 31/2 -plus-year-old bucks during the last 10 years prior to the restrictions combined (total of 109)."
In the first five years of hunting with the antler restrictions in place, hunters have already taken 157 of the 3 1/2 and older bucks.
"It's been a very successful experiment. The hunter satisfaction remains high. The Barbour County WMA was named one of the top 10 public deer hunting areas in America. Most people that I come in contact with seem to be very positive about this and are happy with it. They think it's working."
Ditchkoff, who has more than 15 years of experience in white-tailed deer physiology and management, agrees with Gray's assessment of the Barbour County WMA antler restriction.
"I think the results from the Barbour WMA have been fantastic," said Ditchkoff, who oversees a 430-acre research facility called the Deer Lab near Camp Hill. "The bucks harvested are much larger and older than before the antler restriction. Without question it did some good.
"There are always complaints with antler restriction, like what happens if you accidentally shoot a spike. But you are protecting age classes. There are so many more 3 1/2-and 4 1/2-year-old bucks that from my perspective it's really a benefit to hunters. A survey done by the Alabama Wildlife Federation shows that Alabama hunters are interested in improving their chances of harvesting a mature deer."
With the backing of local landowners and hunters, the remainder of Barbour County went under the same antler restriction as the WMA in 2004, but Gray says there isn't enough data to determine if the WMA success extends county-wide.
"It's really too early tell," Gray said. "It's not like the WMA, where we had been keeping harvest records. The county never had any data before. We're just in our third year, and our data collection was difficult that first year. Last year we paid wildlife students from Auburn and got a much better data set. We're paying students again this year. Half of that money was raised by local entities in Barbour County.
"It's a daunting task to get the data we really need. After a couple of more years, though, we will be able to look at year one versus year five in the harvest of mature bucks and antlerless deer."
Ditchkoff said he provided logistical help to line up those students to collect the data, which will help Wildlife and Freshwater Fisheries and the students alike. Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources Foundation, Barbour County Farmers Federation, Clayton Farm Supply, Eufaula/Barbour Chamber of Commerce, Grady Hartzog and Alabama Wildlife Federation contributed funds for the students' expenses.
"Bill contacted me and I contacted the students, worked out their schedules and send them to Barbour," Ditchkoff said. "It's worked out real well. The students really enjoy the opportunity. They get a little bit of field work at Auburn, but we can't compete with the number of animals in Barbour County."
Ditchkoff and Gray were also on a nine-person committee formed by Conservation Commissioner Barnett Lawley to study a buck limit in Alabama. Ditchkoff presented the committee report and recommendations last year to the Alabama Conservation Advisory Board, which voted to impose a three-buck limit, two of which can be any legal buck with antlers above the natural hairline, while the third buck must have four points on one side.
"The statewide limit is basically a numerical limit," Gray said. "It is a buck restriction, but it is quite different from the Barbour WMA. I'm sure the success in Barbour County factored in there somewhere."
Ditchkoff thinks the entire state will benefit from the new buck limit, although it will be in varying degrees.
"Landowners who were already imposing restrictions won't see a dramatic improvement," Ditchkoff said. "Landowners surrounded by hunters who shoot everything - they're really going to see some positive benefits. Now that they can only shoot three instead of six or eight or 15 a year, it's going to have a benefit. When you change something you've always got some who are against it. But this is a positive step. We need to be on the ground collecting data so we can make informed decisions. When you make decisions based on data, you can't go wrong.
"I don't think the buck limit was intended to turn Alabama's deer herd into a trophy population, but it was time. It was past time."