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Marengo Big Buck Project Questioned
Back-to-back letters highlight the developing issue of releasing farmed deer into the wild in Alabama.
 
By Steve Burch
Posted Tuesday November 27 2012, 11:00 AM
 
Sixty days after the Big Buck Project in Marengo County was first announced on a radio program, much has happened, and little has happened.

The Big Buck Project plans to release farmed deer into the wild to improve the genetics of the herd and the excitement of hunting in the county.

At least one very nice buck has been released into the wild in Marengo County. One.

And at least one major landowner in Marengo County has stated its opposition to the program.

The details of what has been happening are interesting.

When it was first announced, the program was met with a mixed chorus of glees and gut grunts.

Many sportsmen flocked to the website to learn about the program and to vote on-line about the area of the county they would most like to see receive the genetic infusion promised by the program.

Other sportsmen questioned the rational and the legality behind the program.

The program is clearly legal, although Alabama seems to be the only state in the Southeast where releasing pen-raised deer into the wild is legal.

Still, Fieldandstream.com said of the Project, “Alabama’s Big Buck Project is Delusional—Maybe Dangerous.”

Quality Deer Management Association (QDMA) has called for the program sponsors to keep the farmed deer behind the fence.

Since those initial comments about the Program by out-of-state groups, a major property owner in the state has written a letter to DCNR requesting a meeting to discuss the program and address concerns by the landowner.

The First Letter

On Oct. 11, the Westervelt Company wrote the department requesting a meeting. In the letter, the company noted that it “is concerned the potential negative impacts to the indigenous deer herd are greater than the good intentions [that] form the base of this organization’s actions.”

The letter noted multiple credible sources that cite a host of potential threats to the health of the free-range deer that can result from the release. The letter did not identify the threats specifically.

The purpose of the Westervelt letter was to request a meeting with DCNR personnel to “gain a clear understanding of the Conservation Department’s position” on the situation in Margengo County.

Westervelt owns just under 40,000 acres in Marengo County.

The Second Letter

The following day, Oct. 12, the Big Buck Project sent a letter to DCNR requesting assistance from the agency “to ensure that the Project is executed in a manner that yields the maximum possible benefit to the area’s deer herd and hunters.”

The letter stated the two goals of the Project to be, “First, by introducing better antler and body size genetics into the existing deer herd, the Project hopes that a healthier herd with increased antler growth will result. Of course, the introduced deer will have to be allowed to mature and breed to accomplish this result. Therefore, the second, and equally important, goal of the project is education.”

The letter suggests a long-term study be undertaken to monitor and document the results of this pilot program. It concludes with this long-term view “...the data that the ADCNR could help us compile would not only be helpful in objectively evaluating the results of the Project, but would be invaluable in guiding the Project along the way as we refine its strategies and efforts to achieve a positive and lasting result.”

Meetings

Meetings have been held between DCNR and both groups. The Westervelt and DCNR. meeting occurred on Halloween in Montgomery and included the game management team and the commissioner’s office.

Commissioner Gunter Guy, in an interview with AON, made it clear that some less-than-accurate reporting had occurred in some media outlets across the state.

“There have been some reports suggesting that ADCNR has endorsed the Big Buck Project. Those reports are false. We did not support or condone the Big Buck Project.

“I can tell you that we are looking at this project very closely, and that we expect full cooperation with the Project. We will closely monitor the situation.” He added that, “A lack of cooperation could result in action by the department.”

Not Much Meat On The Bones

People on all sides are in a tough spot. The more AON has learned about the program and the department’s action, the less if finds.

The first area is the number of deer being moved into Marengo County. Since March 1 of this year, a total of 97 deer have been relocated into Marengo County. While this sounds like a lot of deer, it is not. To move farmed deer in Alabama, one is required to first obtain a permit from DCNR. This is as simple as a phone call. The deer farmers are known to the agency. When a farmer calls for a permit, he simply asks for a permit number to move X number of deer from one location to another.

That information is noted by DCNR, and the farmer is given a permit number. The usefulness of the number to the agency is that if someone notices that deer are being moved, they can check with the mover and verify that this is a permitted move.

The short of it is that getting a permit to move deer is very simple and captures only the barest of information.

No information as to age or sex of the deer being moved is collected.

A review of the permits issued to move deer into Marengo County since March 1 shows 94 deer went to one location and three deer to a second location.

AON understands that the location receiving the 94 deer is a location specializing in the bottle-feeding raising of fawns, and it is common for deer to go to that location for a while, and then to be returned to their place of origin.

As to the remaining three deer, at least one of those is thought to be the nice breeder buck released by the Big Buck Project. But Big Buck Project spokesperson Hale Smith declined to provide specifics about the three deer, citing concern about location and safety of the deer involved with the program.

“These deer have to live long enough to make a contribution to the program. So we don’t want to focus hunting pressure on these deer. And we don’t want to cause any trespass problems for our landowners,” he said.

Closely Monitoring

And that highlights the next head-scratcher. Everything being done in the Big Buck Project is legal. The unknown, the things that might require or benefit from monitoring, is what legal things are in fact being done?

Further, there is no legal requirement that a landowner provide any information to anyone about these activities. DCNR may mean to “closely monitor” the program, but it is difficult to see what can be monitored. If AON’s understanding is correct, the number of deer involved in the Big Buck Project at this time numbers somewhere between one and three. If one, two or three deer have been released into the wild, and those released deer are not wearing ear tags or some other marking to identify them, one wonders how either the Big Buck Project or the state could find anything to closely monitor. Unless they come when you call them, how can the deer be monitored?

How far will a farmed deer move after release into a strange environment before setting up a home range, for instance? That would be useful information.

Since the goal of the Big Buck Project is to improve genetics by releasing deer into the wild herd, and since the rut is approaching, the deer relocation into Marengo County by the Big Buck Project either likely will increase significantly over the next few weeks, or will release deer directly from fenced locations in the county, or this year will be a quiet start.

Spokesperson Hale Smith summed things up this way, “We are concerned that this may be viewed as the Project being in opposition to someone or another. I can tell you that we don’t want to oppose anyone. Not the state, not Westervelt, not anyone. We are trying to do something positive, and we look forward to learning from and working with all our neighbors to make that happen.”

Westervelt posted the following on its website. “The Westervelt Company is opposed to the release of captive-bred deer into the wild. We are a land resource organization with a stated system of values, one of which is ‘stewardship,’ which we define as a demonstration of ecological wellness and sustainability best practices.

“As a landowner in Marengo County, Alabama, we will not grant permission for animals used in the “Big Buck Project” to be released on the nearly 40,000 acres we own there.

AON will continue to monitor the deer-release issue as it progresses in Marengo and other possible counties.
 
 
 
 
 
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