Deer tagging reporting lags _lowres

Photo provided by MIKE MICHELLI What a prize! Jacob Michelli's first deer was a giant taken from the National Catahoula Wildlife Management Preserve near Winnfield. The nine-year-old Prairieville hunter took the 10-point, 165-pound trophy, his first-ever deer, with his 20-gauge shotgun. Hunters wanting to take to this 36,000-acre tract in Winn and Grand parishes must secure permit from the Kisatchie National Forest office on Shreveport Highway in Pineville..

Tags, tags for deer, tags for turkeys.

And the state’s 7-year-old program for documenting success afield continues to draw moans and groans from hunters, mostly older hunters: Their complaints usually start with “Why?”

From a wildlife biologist’s perspective, tagging is another tool to properly manage each species, and since Louisiana hunters are getting ready to get knee-deep into the deer season, it’s time to start with whitetails.

“The plans allows, theoretically, to look at harvest by parish and by sex in relatively real-time fashion,” State Deer Study leader Scott Durham said. “I run the reports at least once a week (during the hunting season) and can look at the numbers of bucks and does taken in each parish.

“It gives us an index to productivity, whether the harvest is up or down, and to ascertain the success of hunters and the deer herd.”

Benefits for hunters

Since the state pushed its season limit on deer to six a little more than four decades ago, hunters have complained that number is excessive, especially when it came to the long-held, bucks-only mindset among hunters.

The rationale was that taking a doe would definitely impact future expansion of deer herds.

Years later, when the state’s deer population estimate reached 1 million, biologists warned landowners and deer leaseholders that the carrying capacity of their lands could not handle an increasing number of deer. It was a situation that would lead to undernourished herds and could lead to any number of factors, mostly diseases impacting less-than-robust deer, and create a sudden collapse in deer populations in selected areas where overpopulation was a problem.

Field biologists had been doing browse surveys long before the tagging program came along, and these surveys gave hunters information about the overall future of deer in selected areas.

Over-browsing meant there were too many deer, therefore too many does.

It wasn’t until the tagging program was instituted that the six tags each hunter received restricted the take of bucks to no more than three per season, and, if the hunter wanted to fill out his or her tags, they would have to take three does.

Durham said there’s more to tagging than that.

“Basically we can determine the number of deer taken per hunter, and in places where there is hunter success, and success is determined by harvest, we want to maintain the season structure,” Durham said.

“We know deer hunting is fundamental to the lives of a lot of Louisiana people,” Durham said. “It’s part of our culture, and we want it to be sustainable. We know that a couple of hundred thousand hunters spent 3.8 million days afield last year. That’s a lot of recreational activity and lots of economic impact.”

Because work on next season’s dates and other restrictions — whether hunters get either-sex take days and how many of them — begins during the current season, tagging data becomes a big factor.

“It’s not the only tool we use to monitor deer populations related to hunter success,” Durham said. “One year of (tagging) data is not enough to make recommendations. We look at at least three years of data, take the average, then use other variations like weather and mast crops (acorns and other nuts deer eat) to make our recommendations for seasons.”

Other factors, he said, are land use, forest ownership and forestry practices, droughts and flooding events.

And, Durham explained, the wildlife staff does that for all 10 state deer-management units.

“The (population and hunter success) trends are what’s important,” Durham said. “We use tagging data to determine trends if the population is stable, increasing or on a decline, and we’ve see a decline in numbers since we started tagging. Except for a few parishes, the decline is statewide.

“The highest harvest numbers came in the first year hunters reported using their tags,” he said.

That’s a concern for Durham and state biologists, because their fear is hunters are not fully reporting their kills, and that can directly affect future seasons and in-season restrictions.

“If only half the hunters are reporting, then that’s not a true reflection of the harvest,” Durham said. “That’s why reporting tags is important. We also do mail surveys and years of those surveys has given us an index since the 1960s. And the tagging data is not tracking the results we get from the mail survey.

“We need hunters to use and report using tags, and we have to have confidence that hunters are reporting,” he said. “Yes, tag data is not the only tool we use, but it’s a very important one.

“We have to know we had problems with hunters reporting using tags, but those problems have been corrected,” he said, adding that a smart-phone app is in the near future.

“Arkansas has had a (tag) reporting system for decades and confidence in their data is extremely high,” Durham said. “Maybe it will take a little longer, maybe another generation, before hunters reporting tags becomes second nature.”