I Never Thought I Would See the Day
By Chuck Sykes, Director of Wildlife and Freshwater Fisheries
We are currently dealing with many difficult issues that relate to sound wildlife and fisheries management, from the spread of chronic wasting disease to the Asian carp invasion. No species is immune from the dangers of habitat loss, disease, invasive species competition or commercial exploitation. As the state agency tasked with managing most of the species, we have conservation-minded individuals looking to us to base our management recommendations on a sound scientific foundation. As if these issues aren’t enough to stress the health and sustainability of our natural resources and stretch our budget and manpower thin, there is an 800-pound gorilla in the room that most sportsmen don’t consider. In their defense, until I took this job, I didn’t notice it either.
The one thing that is usually left out of the conversation around the campfire or Facebook forum is the political aspect of wildlife management. Very early in my tenure, I was given an invaluable piece of advice from a seasoned veteran director from Texas. He told me a very eloquent story of going before a judge on a deer-hunting issue and pleading the state’s case for a change from the status quo. In his concluding statement he said, “Your Honor, we have wildlife science on our side.” Much to his dismay, the judge told him he practiced political science not wildlife science, and his form of science was definitely not on the state’s side.
For a biologist, that’s a pretty hard pill to swallow. But, as with the critters we manage, we either adapt or die. So, I’m learning how to maneuver through the political minefields. Let me give you an Alabama example of what I’m talking about. For the past several decades, many of the issues brought before the Conservation Advisory Board each year have centered around dog deer hunting. Let me make one thing perfectly clear–the complaints are not against the practice of hunting with dogs. They are against someone else’s dog interfering with the enjoyment of their personal property.
In response to these complaints, many areas have been completely closed to dog deer hunting, while others were placed on a permit system created by the CAB. The permit system required any group desiring to hunt deer with dogs to provide the Wildlife and Freshwater Fisheries Law Enforcement section with maps of their property and a list of all individuals hunting the property. If complaints continued to be filed against the group, their permit would be revoked, and they could no longer hunt with dogs.
Although the permit system has been extremely effective, it is still not a perfect answer. In short, the permit system penalizes entire counties or areas of counties and, in turn, some innocent individuals or groups have been penalized for the actions of others in their county. Therefore, the CAB has been working diligently on an alternative.
Picture yourself sitting in your favorite treestand well before sunrise on opening morning of gun deer season. You’ve sacrificed and saved your money for the past 10 years and purchased your own 40 acres of heaven in Alabama. You spent countless hours of blood, sweat and tears turning this property into your very own wildlife paradise, and 30 minutes after daylight a hunter who doesn’t have permission to be there walks by. What do you do? You call the local conservation officer, who issues the trespasser a citation, and your issue is solved.
So, what happens if, instead of a hunter taking advantage of your land, it is a pack of dogs that is supposed to be on the neighboring property that runs through your property and ruins your hunt. What do you do? You catch the dogs, call the officer and he arranges for the dogs to be returned to the neighboring hunter. What happens if this occurs next weekend or every weekend? The exact same thing because you as a landowner have no recourse.
The CAB has heard story after story like this for the past 30 years. So, they voted unanimously to create the dog encroachment regulation. This simply makes the dog owner liable for his dogs. That seems simple, doesn’t it? If a man trespasses on the property of another, he gets a citation. Why should the man who allows his dogs to repeatedly trespass on the property of another not get a citation as well?
Some would say dogs can’t read property lines. That argument left the arena with the advent of GPS collars, whistle breaking and common sense. This is not a regulation against the practice of hunting deer with dogs. This is much more basic than that. This is a regulation protecting private property rights – plain and simple. It punishes the careless hunter and not the entire group or county.
It took four years to get the regulation before the Legislative Council for them to approve. Despite being provided letters of support from numerous landowners and hunters as well as the Alabama Dog Hunters Association and a brilliant explanation of the history of this issue by our law enforcement chief, the committee voted down the regulation by a vote of 14 to 3.
For all the landowners and conscientious dog hunters who have asked the CAB and the department to help with the dog trespassing issue, all I can say is we will continue trying to solve the issue.
Despite all the issues, Alabama’s hunters, anglers and outdoor enthusiasts can rest assured there are some incredible people out there working for the benefit of our natural resources. They wake up every morning with love in their hearts for wildlife and no agenda other than making sure wildlife has a future. They may put on a wildlife officer’s gun and badge and work long hours with very little appreciation. Or, they may be regional biologists, up before dawn driving long hours to do a survey, knowing no one will ever see their faces or ever know their names. People in coats and ties driving or flying place to place, working every day through the political game to make sure wildlife is winning, even though, personally, they may be losing.
As sportsmen, managers and conservationists, all you can do is hope the words of people like Aldo Leopold are being heard and followed with each thought and decision that is being made. If you as a hunter or conservation-minded individual aren’t familiar with his work, I urge you to become so. With that, I’ll leave you with one more quote that pretty much sums up the political and sociological issues we deal with daily.
“The problem, then, is how to bring about a striving for harmony with land among a people many of whom have forgotten there is any such thing as land, among whom education and culture have become almost synonymous with landlessness. This is the problem of conservation education.”