Oak Mtn. deer hunts return

A select group of bowhunters again have the chance to chip away at the white-tailed deer overpopulation at Oak Mountain State Park as the first of two hunting sessions are being held Dec. 18-19 at the 9,940-acre park.

In 2004, Barnett Lawley, Commissioner of the Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources (ADCNR), decided controlled archery hunts would be the best way to deal with the park’s burgeoning deer herd, which had damaged the park’s habitat and affected not only the deer but the rest of the wildlife in the park.

Hunters registered online for the hunts and 80 hunters and 80 alternates were randomly chosen for the regulated hunts, the second of which will be Jan. 8-9, 2008.

Lawley said not only do hunters get a chance to pursue their passion for bowhunting, but they also provide valuable assistance to wildlife managers.

“We are very appreciative of the bowhunters who participate in the hunt,” Lawley said. “It is a service to the natural resource, the state and deer herd. The overpopulation was the reason we started this hunt three years ago. We appreciate the hunters’ time and effort to help in this initiative.

“This is not a trophy hunt. The main goal is decrease the number of deer in the herd to protect the herd and the habitat. We have seen small improvements since these regulated hunts started. When we’re able to control populations, it will help the integrity of the park.”

Results from hunts during the 2006-2007 season offered a glimmer of encouragement for ADCNR wildlife managers. During last season’s hunts, 33 deer were taken – 17 bucks and 16 does.

Forrest Bailey, natural resource manager with the State Parks Division, said 183 deer have been harvested since the program’s inception, while another 64 deer were taken out of the herd by animal control experts for a total of 247.

“Most of those deer were donated to Hunters Helping the Hungry,” Bailey said of the program

that distributes donated venison to various food banks around the state. “Two people have actually come into the park and heard about the hunt that were needy and came into the park and we gave them deer from the cooler.”

Although Bailey said there has been some progress through the management of resources, he stopped short of forecasting an end to the habitat damage by the deer.

“From last year’s hunts, we have looked at the condition of the animals, and it appears a little better fat index, but there could be a variety of reasons other than the deer that have been taken out of the herd by the hunts,” he said. “The movement of these whitetails on and off the park could have something to do with it.”

Chris Cook, a wildlife biologist with the Wildlife and Freshwater Fisheries Division who specializes in whitetails, said balancing the deer herd with the habitat is a long-term proposition.

“This is a small step in the right direction with a long way to go,” Cook said. “This (the regulated hunts) was something new when it was initiated. It has been accepted by the public, for the most part, as necessary to control the herd.

“But this is going to be a tough one because we have to preserve the integrity of the park.”

Hunters like Jimmy Sparks of Pelham continue to come back each year to help.

“I felt like I could help the situation here,” Sparks said. “I’m an avid bowhunter and believe in management. I thought if I ever got the chance I could help out. But these deer over here are harder to hunt than a lot of people think they are. They’re not tame deer. They’re very wild.

“My wife travels (Highway) 119 to work every day. She’s almost hit one. You see dead deer along the side of the road over there all the time. This is a needed hunt that needs to continue.”

The bowhunters will be under new regulations for this season’s hunts. A doe must be harvested and checked in before a buck can be hunted. There is a three-buck season limit.

David Rainer is a weekly columnist for the Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources. He can be reaced at david.rainer@dcnr.alabama.gov