By DAVID RAINER
A press release from the Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources.
With the weather unseasonably warm for the opening weekend of gun deer season, hunters in the counties in the CWD (chronic wasting disease) Management Zone (CMZ), Lauderdale and Colbert, did not harvest whitetails at the same rate as last season’s opening weekend.
Wildlife biologists with the Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources’ (ADCNR) Wildlife and Freshwater Fisheries (WFF) Division collected 127 samples as part of the weekend of mandatory CWD testing. Last year 207 deer were sampled in those two adjacent counties. Three cases of CWD have been confirmed in Lauderdale County, the first two in early 2022 and the third in early 2023. No other cases of CWD have been confirmed in Alabama.
As part of the CWD surveillance effort, mandatory sampling weekends were set for the 2023-2024 season in Lauderdale and Colbert counties. The first mandatory weekend for both counties was this past week’s opening weekend. The second mandatory testing weekend for Lauderdale County in the high-risk zone (HRZ) is December 2-3, 2023. The second mandatory weekend for the buffer zone (BZ), all of Colbert County, is January 6-7, 2024.
“We had folks at two of the processors in that area, like we did last year,” said WFF Deer Program Coordinator Chris Cook. “I was at Florence Frozen Meats, which is the busiest processor in the area. I think that this year’s 127 deer sampled was probably more attributed to the weather. Last year, opening weekend was cold. This year, the weather was pretty and clear, but it was warmer than last year. That can affect deer movement.
“As far as compliance, I think we did pretty good.”
Cook said when you compare the sampling data to the Game Check data, the compliance rate was between 73% and 74%.
People in northwest Alabama appeared to be enjoying a nice day in the outdoors, but other activities reduced the number of hunters in the woods, according to Cook.
“What was reported statewide in deer harvested was 11,672 for last season’s opening weekend,” he said. “This year, there were a little less than 9,000 deer harvested on opening weekend. So, it was a little off statewide. I think the mild weather had a lot to do with that. I know we saw a lot of people fishing when we were coming over the bridge going into Florence.
“But it was a good weekend. We talked to a lot of folks and answered questions, which is always good at these in-person sampling events. By doing it this way, we get a good random sample of age classes of both sexes. It was a really good distribution of samples based on the locations the people gave us. They were scattered all over the county.”
Other than the Florence site, WFF had sampling locations set up at the Lauderdale WMA (wildlife management area) near Waterloo, Freedom Hills WMA near Cherokee and North Alabama Deer Shack Processor in Rogersville.
Cook said some of the samples collected were from counties outside of but near the CMZ.
“We got deer from Lauderdale, Colbert, Franklin, Lawrence, Madison and Marion,” he said. “Lawrence and Limestone are also high priority counties. Hopefully, the weather for the next mandatory weekend will be a little more conducive for hunting and we’ll get more samples. We should get more samples from Colbert County during the January mandatory weekend. That’s when the hunting picks up down there.”
When the first CWD case was confirmed on January 6, 2022, an emergency regulation was signed the next day to establish the CMZ in Lauderdale and Colbert counties. The initial HRZ of Lauderdale County was west of U.S. Highway 43. However, the HRZ was expanded to include all of Lauderdale County. Carcass restrictions were also put in place that prohibit the transport of deer carcasses and deer parts in the CMZ. Deer harvested in the HRZ must remain in the HRZ, and deer harvested in the BZ must remain in the CMZ.
Supplemental wildlife feeding and baiting privileges have been suspended within all of Colbert and Lauderdale counties. The suspension of supplemental feeding will not apply to bird feeders within 100 feet of a building or occupied dwelling or feed inside an active feral hog trap. Supplemental feeding and baiting privileges will still be allowed outside of the CMZ.
For those who don’t process their own deer, hunters can take deer harvested in the HRZ to processors and/or taxidermists only within the HRZ. Hunters can take deer harvested in the BZ to processors and/or taxidermists located anywhere within the CMZ.
Cook said the hunters in the CMZ appear to have adapted well to the new CWD regulations.
“We didn’t get any negative comments,” he said. “Everybody seemed to have gotten used to it, and everything went smoothly. It seemed like everybody was going about it like business as usual. Like I said, we didn’t get as many deer this year, but we got good feedback and compliance. I think we got similar compliance percentages as we did last year.
“And the businesses have been very accommodating. They let us set up at their businesses and collect samples. We really appreciate what they’ve done. We try to make it easy on the processors and hunters to drop the heads off. It’s worked out really well.”
Hunters in the rest of the state are urged to voluntarily drop off hunter-harvested deer at the self-service freezer locations. Go to www.outdooralabama.com/cwd/cwd-sampling for more information and an interactive location map. The freezers are available 24/7.
Cook said the good news is the neighboring states of Mississippi and Tennessee, which have had several positive CWD cases, have not reported any new cases that would affect Alabama.
“There’s nothing new from Mississippi in the counties close to us,” he said. “In Tennessee, I haven’t seen anything about anything new that would affect us. None of the counties bordering Alabama have had any positives. They’re sampling more in Hardin and Wayne counties, the counties that border Lauderdale.”
Last summer, Florida reported a road-killed deer had tested positive for CWD in Holmes County, which borders Alabama.
“Florida has a mandatory sampling weekend set for December 16-17,” Cook said. “Our people in Geneva and Houston counties are trying to get more samples. We haven’t found any new positives with that.”
Visit www.outdooralabama.com/CWD-Info for the latest CWD information.
Cook said, as usual, plenty of big deer were taken on opening weekend, especially in Zones D and E, which have early ruts.
“There were also a lot of nice deer brought in at Florence,” he said. “There were several 3- and 4-year-olds and a few 5-year-olds, some really good deer.”
As with any outdoors endeavor, the results of any hunt can depend on a variety of factors, including food sources.
“I’ve heard mixed results on the acorn crop with very few in the north end of the Black Belt and others with plenty of acorns,” Cook said. “If you have a lot of acorns, the deer are going to be more dispersed and not coming to the limited resources that make hunting a whole lot easier.
“If the weather cooperates on the weekends when people typically focus their hunting efforts, I don’t see why we wouldn’t have as good a year as usual. We had a really dry period until here recently. But we have had some rain in much of the state. The soaking rain was definitely needed on everybody’s food plots.”
Cook said Alabama still has plenty of hardcore deer hunters who plan their vacations around hunting seasons. Others who hunt may not have the same priority as those dedicated deer hunters.
“We had more hunters last year than we’ve had in several years, based on our phone survey,” he said. “And there seems to be more younger folks. They seem to focus on waterfowl and turkeys, but they still deer hunt.”
Cook also said the younger people being introduced to hunting are motivated by the harvesting of organic protein.
“That’s what is driving a lot of them,” he said. “You see that especially with the folks who come to our mentored hunts (www.outdooralabama.com/hunting/adult-mentored-hunting-program). They are looking for that additional protein source, and they know where it came from. They take pride in being able to provide that food for the family. The thing is, once exposed to hunting, they really start enjoying the other aspects of hunting instead of just the end result.”