It’s been two years of tremendous change and challenge for the experts who manage Mississippi’s wildlife and game species. Here’s how the state’s biologists view what’s ahead.
The past two years have been an intriguing and challenging period for the Mississippi Department of Wildlife, Fisheries and Parks, and for sportsmen in the Magnolia State.
- An outbreak of chronic wasting disease in two different regions of the state.
- A somewhat controversial purchase of land in the South Delta for a new Wildlife Management Area.
- A 10-month backwater flood event in the South Delta.
- The state’s first mandatory harvest-reporting system for turkeys.
Combined, those events, plus other factors, have led to many changes in the way Mississippi hunters will approach seasons, especially for white-tailed deer in the CWD and flood-impacted regions, and the way the MDWFP manages wildlife.
The state of wildlife
With that in mind, Mississippi Sportsman conducted a question-and-answer session about the state of wildlife in the Magnolia State with the executive director of MDWFP’s wildlife division, Russ Walsh, and his staff providing the answers.
The following is the text of that interview.
While it’s still too early to tell the long-term impacts of the South Delta flooding, what approach is MDWFP taking in that area as it relates to wildlife and hunting?
The impacts of the 2019 flooding in the South Delta will take years to fully appreciate. MDWFP will be working with hunters, land managers and conservation partners … to collect data to garner a full understanding of the impacts on wildlife.
Are there any clear impacts already being noticed in deer?
For white-tailed deer, antler growth and body condition were negatively affected. This was particularly evident in areas where they were isolated, like levees, and (where) food resources were depleted. The concentration of deer for an extended period would have created an opportunity for CWD to spread. Testing via hunter-harvested samples will be critically important in the coming seasons to determine whether CWD did, in fact, spread.
We’ve seen a switch to a more-regional management of wildlife, especially white-tailed deer. Can you discuss the reasoning, its immediate impacts, how it has helped in CWD management, and long-term goal of this approach?
Given Mississippi’s wide range of soil productivity, variations in deer populations and breeding dates, Mississippi established deer zones more than a decade ago. Given the aforementioned factors, deer zones allow for better management of the resource at regional scales. In the last year, CWD management zones were established in response to detecting CWD in multiple locations. These zones have additional regulations, such as carcass-transport restrictions and feeding bans in an effort to reduce the spread and prevalence of the disease.
Changes in deer limits
There are some changes in deer limits for 2019-20, including allowing one buck of any antler size, plus an increase in does in most areas? Were those changes based on biology, hunter opportunity or both, and why?
Research indicates CWD transmission in white-tailed deer occurs from direct contact with infectious material, for example saliva, feces, urine, etc. These interactions, whether direct or indirect, are amplified as deer density increases. Thus, reducing deer density is partially achieved by increasing female harvest.
In Mississippi, 73 percent of the CWD-positive deer were males. The higher percentage in males is consistent with other states’ findings. Based on this data, it is sound to allow removal of males in all age classes to reduce buck density. Additionally, removing yearling males may slow dispersal of CWD because they disperse over long distances and could transmit infectious prions to other areas.
The spring turkey season
The 2019 spring turkey season was the first to include the Game Check harvest reporting system. Obviously, it’s early, but how did it go and what possibilities/benefits have MDWFP seen in the first few months?
A total of 8,780 unique users reported 12,627 turkey harvests to Game Check during the 2019 spring season. On average, hunters who reported were 39 years of age. Approximately 7% of reports were submitted on behalf of youth hunters under the age of 16. Nonresidents accounted for 9.5% of all reported turkey harvests. Twelve percent came from public land.
Most of the hunters who utilized the Game Check system only reported one bird, while about 9.7% attained a seasonal bag limit of three gobblers. The vast majority of birds reported were mature (2 years or older). Only 3% had less than a 6-inch beard, and only 5% had less than half-inch spurs.
Game Track was also useful on tracking the timing of harvest. The opening day of the regular season saw the highest harvest, 773 birds reported. About 50% of the birds reported were harvested by March 30.
Game bird hunting
Over the past two years, there have radical changes in the migratory bird frameworks process from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. The benefits for hunters are obvious, but what has meant for MDWFP?
One of the most-significant recent changes in the migratory game bird hunting season-setting process has been the timing of season selections. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service worked with state wildlife agency partners to establish a process for continuing to use biological data to set hunting regulations, while also providing federal frameworks for states to select their seasons earlier in the year. Starting with the 2016-17 migratory game bird hunting seasons, final federal frameworks began being published annually in early spring instead of the previous time line of late summer. This new time line has allowed the Commission on Wildlife, Fisheries, and Parks to select and approve all hunting seasons for the state during the spring. Having all seasons set in the spring allows the MDWFP to publicize seasons earlier and also allows Mississippi hunters a chance to make their hunting plans earlier.
Another significant change made recently regarding migratory game bird hunting season frameworks was a change in the federally allowed closing date for duck seasons. The MDWFP worked closely with the USFWS through the Mississippi Flyway Council to change the duck season framework closing date from the last Sunday in January to Jan. 31. Late January is often a very important time for Mississippi duck hunters. Depending on how the calendar falls each year, this change will allow for up to six days of late January duck hunting that would not have been available previously.
The future of hunting
What is the MDWFP doing to recruit more hunters?
We are continually working to engage new hunters and fishermen. Examples of activities include:
- Provide funding and help coordinate a Youth Waterfowl Hunting and Education Camp each year to engage youth who do not currently waterfowl hunt;
- Allow special youth hunt days on WMAs for multiple game species;
- MDWFP staff assisting with several partner organizations’ youth events each year.
MDWFP will be hosting two mentor deer hunts this deer season on WMAs to engage adults who do not hunt.
Last year’s completed purchase of the new Steele Bayou WMA in the South Delta was a major coup for public hunting in Mississippi. What will it add to the future for Mississippi Sportsman, and just how important is opening new public access opportunities?
The Mississippi River Alluvial Plain is a nearly 24 million-acre region with bottomland hardwood forest as the dominant natural plant community. The productive soil of the Mississippi River floodplain led to large-scale clearing of the once vast expanse of these forests. The largest remnants of the bottomland forests were primarily kept intact as national forests and wildlife refuges. However, some private holdings, such as the Anderson-Tully Company lands, are more substantial and provide critical areas for wildlife species dependent on bottomland systems.
The acquisition of this tract will ensure an intact bottomland hardwood forest in perpetuity for the benefit of many wildlife species. This WMA will be vital in maintaining a long legacy of outdoor recreation for sportsmen and women.
The fee for a Mississippi Sportsman License rising to $45 had to be welcome news for the agency and its Wildlife and Fisheries management staffs. What are the immediate benefits for the Wildlife Bureau in terms of revenue and what it provides?
Court decisions have established that wildlife are to be held by the government in public trust for the citizenry. This basis is the foundation for state and federal wildlife agencies that exist today. Hunting and fishing license dollars are the primary funding source for these agencies and wildlife conservation efforts. The MDWFP Wildlife Bureau cooperatively manages 55 Wildlife Management Areas and provides technical guidance on public and private lands.
Further, our different species program staffs make wildlife management decisions based upon current population data and sound scientific research. Hunting licenses and Pittman-Robertson funds are critical for continuing the vital conservation efforts to manage the public trust.