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Bill Allowing Deer Hunting Over Bait Progresses In State Senate
Extended deer season still on the table after debate of the issues in front of Senate Conservation Committee.
By Nick Carter
Posted Friday March 9 2012, 2:24 PM
A deer-baiting bill jumped one more hurdle on the way to potentially becoming law through the state legislature this week. A bill to extend deer season is still on the table but may be subject to some tweaking.

These developments occurred March 7 during a public hearing in front of the state Senate’s Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry Committee. The baiting bill, SB 346, which would make hunting deer near feed legal as long as it is at least 100 yards away from and out of sight of the hunter, passed out of committee, making it eligible to advance to the floor of the Senate for a vote.

The committee did not vote on the bill to extend deer season, SB 359. During the meeting, committee chair Sen. Tom Whatley (R-Auburn), who sponsored both the bills, said he is considering changes to SB 359.

In its current form, SB 359 would extend deer season by two weeks statewide. Sen. Whatley said he is considering altering the bill to extend deer season only for a portion of the state instead of statewide. He also indicated he might offer SB 359 for a committee vote as early as next week.

At the meeting, which was held at the behest of the Alabama Wildlife Federation (AWF) and lobbying organization HUNT Alabama, Whatley allowed just a few individuals to speak out on each side of the issues.

Hunting Over Bait

Those speaking out against the baiting bill gave the standard arguments against hunting deer over bait.

Phillip Hester, president of the Alabama Chapter of the Quality Deer Management Association, said hunting over bait is unethical and that it diminishes the need for woodsmanship in hunting. He brought up the potential for disease spreading through supplemental feeding before saying land managers can feed deer eight months out of the year anyway.

One pay-to-hunt lodge owner said most of his clients were drawn to Alabama because they prefer to hunt without bait. He said if Alabama allows baiting it will hurt his business.

Tim Gothard, executive director of the Alabama Wildlife Federation, said the bill is problematic because feed 101 yards away from and out of sight of a hunter promotes hunting by aid of bait. Then he made the argument that non-hunters, who outnumber hunters, support hunting generally but do not support hunting when it involves bait. He said support from non-hunters is important for hunters in the long-term.

The chief argument in favor of the baiting bill appeared to be the current lack of a defined distance from which hunters must be from feed in order to hunt. This is a subject the Conservation Advisory Board has tried and failed to address.

Currently, if there is feed anywhere on a property during hunting season, it is left to the law enforcement officer to decide whether or not a hunter is hunting by the aid of bait. Proponents of SB 346 argued that supplemental feeding is beneficial to deer during the hunting season, and that a defined distance would allow them to both feed deer on a property and hunt.

Dr. Steve Ditchkoff, head of Auburn University’s Deer Lab, after stressing his neutral position on the issue, spoke of the benefits of year-round feeding programs for high-fence hunting operations. He said allowing feeding during the rut would diminish weight loss and the potential for post-rut mortality for bucks.

At least one proponent of the bill objected to the term baiting, preferring to call it supplemental feed, even when it is used during hunting season and as a harvest tool. A couple of people said they supported the bill and hunting over bait as a management tool. Dennis Wilborn, of Wilborn Outdoors, in Cullman, said people are doing it anyway, so why not make it legal.

Sen. Whatley abruptly closed the public comment session before bringing the bill to a vote before the committee.

“To me, this boils down to an issue of private property rights,” said Sen. Whatley.

SB 359 was reported favorably out of committee by a 4-3 vote. Senators Marc Keahey (D-Grove Hill), Paul Sanford (R-Huntsville) and Billy Beasley (D-Clayton) voted against the bill.

Extended Deer Season

Steve Huffaker, of Bay Minette, speaking on behalf of the organization, opened the discussion on the bill to extend deer season. He said Alabama is the only state he knows of where hunters in portions of the state are not allowed to hunt the rut. He pointed out that most other states allow hunters to hunt the entire rut, and there has been no negative impacts to those deer herds.

Huffaker also said an extended deer season would provide an economic benefit in south Alabama as well as for DCNR in the form of out-of-state license sales. He presented DCNR’s fetal-study data as evidence that deer in most south Alabama counties breed after Feb. 1.

Those appeared to be the main arguments in favor of SB 359.

Don Abercrombie, of Barbour County, compared Alabama deer hunting to the beaches of Florida as a tourist draw. He said not allowing hunting in February during what he called the “perceived rut” would be like Florida closing its beaches for two weeks around the Fourth of July.

Barry Estes, president of Bowhunters of Alabama, said extending the season to Valentine’s Day would help Alabama divorce attorneys. He also bemoaned the current state of hunting in Alabama and said the bill would change hunting for the worse.

Two former DCNR employees spoke out against extending the season.

Retired Alabama Wildlife and Freshwater Fisheries director Corky Pugh was partly responsible for the public hearing, having asked for it on behalf of his non-profit lobbying foundation Hunters United Now and Tomorrow (HUNT). Pugh made some of the same arguments he has made in the past when an extended deer season debate has come before the Conservation Advisory Board.

Pugh said deer management should not be a legislative issue. He argued that DCNR is best suited to make decisions regarding hunting regulations based on science. He also said the Conservation Advisory Board process is how the public should make its opinions known on hunting regs.

Pugh took up the case of small-game hunters who he said only have the woods to themselves in February. He cited statistics from state surveys which show 63,000 quail, squirrel and rabbit hunters. He said Oct. 14 through January is ample time for the more than 200,000 estimated deer hunters.

Former conservation enforcement officer and current executive director of the Conservation Enforcement Officers Association Rusty Morrow said throughout his career his duty has been to protect the natural resources of Alabama. He said the purpose of the game laws are to protect the resources for future generations, not to make hunters happy. He also mentioned small-game hunters.

One small-game hunter spoke before the committee. He said February is important to squirrel and rabbit hunters because it’s the only time deer hunters will allow them on deer leases.

At the end of the hearing, Sen. Beasley asked if there were any studies on how an extended deer season would affect hunter numbers. Abercrombie said it would spur better sales to out-of-state hunters and help pay-to-hunt outfitters. Pugh countered, saying an extended season would result in a reduction of license sales because of a loss of small-game hunters.

Sen. Whatley said he has people working on another version of the extended deer season bill, and indicated he is still planning to move it forward in this year’s legislative session.
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