Gun Season

Published 12:00 am Friday, February 12, 2010

Local hunters weigh in on bill to extend gun season

By David Howell
Southern Reporter

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ENID LAKE – Change could be around the corner for the state’s 2010/11 deer season following the introduction of a house bill that provides the most drastic adjustment to the state’s deer season in more than two decades.

House Bill 1282 passed in the Mississippi House of Representatives 86-30 on Thursday, February 4, but still has a long ways to go before becoming law, according to Rep. Warner McBride.

McBride was addressing more than 50 hunters during a public meeting at the North Mississippi Fish Hatchery Visitor’s Center Friday night, February 5. Hunters from Panola County and surrounding areas were allowed to offer input during the meeting, which lasted almost two hours.

“It’s a big change from where we have been in a long time,” McBride said as he updated the hunters on the current status of the bill.

“The House of Representatives on Wednesday was going to take it up for debate and it got shouted down,” McBride said. “We could not even bring it up for debate. The next day, under the rules, we brought it back again and it was pretty quiet. It was one of the strangest things I’ve seen. It passed on a 86-30 vote.”    

Rep. Joe Gardner and Senator Nolan Mettetal also attended last Friday’s meeting.

House Bill 1282 increases the number of gun-hunting days, shifting the primitive weapon season to the first three weeks in November – starting November 1 and continuing through the Saturday before Thanksgiving. The proposed season change also extends gun season from the traditional opening Saturday through the end of January in most areas of the state. Previously the primitive weapon season has been Dec. 2 -15, and the last two weeks of January.

The potential change to the season follows a significant change implemented for the 2009/10 season after the Mississippi Department of Wildlife, Fisheries and Parks (MDWFP) upped the minimum size requirements for a legal buck across the state.

House Bill 1282 has generated controversy across the state, as bowhunters have complained that they would lose almost three weeks of exclusive hunting time. With the proposed change, the primitive weapon season would overlap the November days previously designated for archery only.

The differing opinions were apparent in last Friday’s meeting, as the attendees launched questions and comments to MDWFP Deer Program Coordinator Chad Dacus, who moderated the meeting.

“By far this is more people in this room right now than there have been in any public meeting I have been at in the last year,” Dacus told the packed group as the meeting got underway.

Dacus told the group that factors motivating the season changes, which are endorsed by his department, include offering the state’s hunters more opportunities to reduce the state’s ever-increasing population of deer and to increase the number of hunters in the field, a statistic that is declining.

One argument addressed by Dacus was concern from bow hunters that they would lose almost 20 days of archery season each year.

“An archery hunter can hunt from October 1 until the 31st of January,” Dacus told the group.

In Mississippi archery hunters may use a compound, recurve or long bow during archery season, although they are not restricted from using these weapons in other portions of the state’s deer season. Hunters who take the field during primitive weapon season are required to use a muzzle-loader or a .35 caliber or larger reproduction, replica or re-introduction of a single shot breech-loading rifle with an exposed hammer.

A Political Decision

An underlying concern voiced several times during the meeting was that the MDWFP’s push for the season change was based on politics in addition to quality as deer management.

Dacus defended a press release from the MDWFP distributed to hunters via e-mail in late January.

“It was bad… some of the comments I got from folks about them receiving e-mails from the agency said we were digging up IRS numbers to get people’s email addresses,” Dacus said. “We were data mining on people who use our Internet forum to get their email address so we could send them propaganda was another comment I got.”

“Every person that received an e-mail from our agency gave our agency their e-mail address,” Dacus reported.

“We have been talking about it for 10 years. Talking about ways to add more opportunity for sportsmen and at the same time protecting our natural resources,” McBride explained.

“I can remember a time when it was a lot of back room deals… wildlife management was a lot of politics,” McBride said. “It’s not near as much that way anymore. We really listen to the biologists and trust them… with input from the hunters.”

“There are no ulterior motives behind this piece of legislation,” Dacus stressed.

Dacus agreed with hunters in the meeting that the statewide debate has created some off-the-wall comments that were even comical.

“Somebody even posted on our Internet forum that DWFP will not be happy until every doe in the State of Mississippi is dead,” a comment that drew laughter from the group.

    Safety Concerns

“One of the biggest problems I see is you are going to have bow hunters, you are going to have squirrel hunters and you are going to throw the gun hunters all together out there. It is going to be a big safety issue. There is a lot of foliage on the trees,” Terry Allen of Water Valley said.

Dacus stressed that bow hunters will be required to wear orange when the November primitive weapon season starts.

The concern primarily stemmed from hunters using public land where they may not be aware of multiple people in the same area.

“Is there is going to be more hunters in the woods?  Yes,” Dacus answered.

Allen also told the group that hunters need to stick together and not give anti-hunting groups an opportunity to damage the sport.

Over Harvesting The Herd

With several hunters in the group expressing frustration stemming from seeing less deer in recent years, particularly on public land, Dacus stressed that not all areas of the state have too many deer.

The state has an estimated 132,000 hunters, of which 40,000 are archery hunters, Dacus explained. The total annual harvest is around 280,000, according to Dacus, which is not enough to curb the growing deer population on a statewide level.

“We had over 13,000 vehicle-deer related collisions last year. Hundreds of thousands of dollars in crop damage across the state last year. Something needs to change,” Dacus reiterated.

Dacus also stressed to hunters that the season framework and limit were guidelines, and hunters could harvest less antlerless deer if they did not have as many deer as other areas in the state.

Fielding a question about simply increasing the anterless limit, which is currently five per year, Dacus said statitics show that, on average, a Mississippi hunters kills just over two deer per season.

“Increasing the limit will not help,” Dacus said, adding that increasing the number of days hunters spend in the woods will help.

The season changes are designed to up the number of days a Mississippi hunter spends in the woods, Dacus argued, pointing to increased hunters following a change in 2005/06 that allowed primitive weapon hunters to use a more modern weapon.

Youth Hunting

Another concern conveyed was how to structure the youth season with the proposed changes in season.

If primitive weapon season is moved to November, one option discussed at the meeting would be to schedule youth week during the last week in October. If this occurs, it would place gun hunters in the woods even earlier, providing archery hunters even less exclusive hunting time.

“We would be very foolish to eliminate youth opportunity in the State of Mississippi,” Dacus told the group, as he again stressed a priority of MDWFP is to recruit young hunters in the state.

Dacus told the group that he did not know how the youth season would be structured, prompting more concern from the hunters.

“We need to know,” one hunter quipped.    

“The point is well made,” McBride agreed.

The bill does not change the number of dog hunting days, which remains 39 days per season.

At the conclusion of the meeting, Mettetal polled the group, asking for a show of hands in favor of and against the bill. The informal poll showed more hunters who attended the meeting were against the bill than were in favor of it.

An earlier poll taken in the meeting indicated also showed a majority of the attendees were archery hunters.

Other Bills

Dacus also briefly addressed two other House Bills pertaining to hunting –  House Bill 1298 which authorizes a spring squirrel season, and House Bill 1137 which allow hunters on private land in a management program to use guns during archery season to shoot antlerless deer.

The “squirrel bill” eliminates the three squirrel zones in Mississippi, which created staggered opening dates across the state. The bill also creates a spring squirrel season in May.

“Our small game biologists have done a lot of work and a lot of research on having a spring season,” Dacus told the group. “It will not impact the young of year. The season is between breeding cycles for squirrels.”

The bill proposes a limit of four squirrels per day during the May season.

House Bill 1137, which expands hunting opportunities for hunting programs enrolled in the Deer Management Assistance Program (DMAP), allows wildlife officials to let some hunting clubs and landowners enrolled in DMAP use guns throughout archery season for antlerless deer only. The bill is designed to allow hunters in designated areas help control the deer population.

One complaint fielded by Dacus at the meeting concerning House Bill 1137, was placing a hunter in a situation where a buck-of-a-lifetime comes out, tempting the hunter who is only allowed to shoot an antlerless deer under the program.

“I understand that it would give somebody the opportunity to break the law,” Dacus said. “If they shot that deer with a rifle, that will be an illegal harvest.”

“How are y’all going to police that,” a hunter asked. “Are you going to have extra manpower from the department?”

“I don’t think we need any extra manpower. We get a lot of tips from taxidermists on stuff like that,” Dacus said, citing an example of a buck killed in southern Mississippi by a hunter using a gun during bow season.

“There are some places…where deer populations have exploded to levels that I didn’t think could ever exist. We have deer populations at a deer per two acres or a deer per three acres,” Dacus continued. “Literally deer standing on top of each other. They need that ability to shoot those deer earlier in the season.”

Dacus said a normal deer population is a deer per 10 or 15 acres.

All three bills will move to the Senate for discussion during the next month.  The bills will be assigned to the Senate’s Wildlife, Fisheries and Parks Committee, which has a March 2 deadline to act on the bill.

For more information, contact the local state representatives or senator.