By DAVID RAINER, Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources
Chuck Sykes is on a quest. The Alabama Wildlife and Freshwater Fisheries (WFF) Director is touring the state to educate hunters about the Game Check program and how it can benefit both hunters and wildlife resources in the short term and for many years to come.
The Game Check program, which has been used on a voluntary basis for the past three years, will be mandatory for the 2016-2017 hunting seasons for reporting the harvest of deer and turkeys.
The goal of Sykes’ tour is to make that transition as easy as possible. More than 20 public seminars are planned across the state, and Sykes urges all hunters to visit one of the meetings that will be held through the summer and early fall. Visitwww.outdooralabama.com/game-check-seminar-series for the current schedule.
“We need people to come out and understand what Game Check is and why we’re doing it,” Sykes said. “The Conservation Advisory Board passed Game Check unanimously. The Department (Conservation and Natural Resources) understands there is going to be a learning curve. That is why we’re doing these seminars all over the state. There will be at least three seminars a week throughout the summer somewhere in the state.
“My goal is to let our hunters know why we need Game Check. But just as important, I’m showing them the way to do it. I’m walking through, step-by-step, the quickest and easiest way to use Game Check to report your harvest. I’m also talking about other rules and regulations and answering any questions people have.”
When Game Check was first introduced three years ago, WFF decided to try the voluntary route to see if enough Alabama hunters would report their harvests. Alabama is one of only three states without mandatory harvest reporting. Unfortunately, the number of hunters who reported their harvest via Game Check was less than 5 percent during that span.
“We tried voluntary reporting for three years and it didn’t work,” Sykes said. “There were 19,000 deer reported in 2013 and only 15,000 last year.”
“That’s our guess,” Sykes said of the harvest estimate. “We need to know. It’s too important an industry to the state ($1.8 billion economic impact), and it’s too important to the way of life to many people, including me, for us to base everything on a guess.”
Sykes said WFF surveys indicated that 77 percent of the respondents did not oppose a mandatory Game Check system, but he continues to have to debunk some of the rumors that were previously spread about the program.
“At the meetings we’ve had so far, people want to know how to do it and what we’re going to use the information for,” he said. “Some people are under the impression that if they give us the data that we’re going to take something away from them. That’s the furthest thing from the truth. If we find we have more deer than we think, if we’re not killing as many as we think, we possibly can give them more hunting opportunities.
“We don’t know. I don’t have enough data to argue pro or con right now. It’s easy to stick your head in the sand when things are going well, but the fingers are going to be pointed at Wildlife and Freshwater Fisheries if it’s not. This is too important to guess. We need to know.”
“The phone system is the least reliable and the phone line costs us money,” Sykes said. “From the three years of the voluntary Game Check, the phone reporting was about 50-percent unreliable because it allows for more room to import faulty data like missing counties, wrong sex and incorrect license numbers. We offer it for the people who don’t have internet access. The app and online reporting don’t cost us money. For everybody who has internet, we are strongly encouraging them to get the app or go online.”
There is an incentive for hunters to use the Outdoor Alabama App.
“If they do it that way, they don’t have to carry their harvest records anymore,” Sykes said. “We’re trying to make it as easy as possible. We just want people to understand how to do it.
“This is one of the largest efforts the Department has done in a decade that’s going to impact everybody who deer and turkey hunts in the state – not negatively, but it will impact them. We need to educate people on why we’re doing it and how to accomplish it. It’s that simple.”
While Game Check will allow WFF biologists and the public to monitor harvests on a near real-time basis, Sykes said the best information will come a few years down the road.
“We can look at it week-by-week, but we’re not expecting anything significant for two to three years, preferably five years,” he said. “We don’t want one bad season to impact any decisions. You may have bad weather or where gas is $4 a gallon again and people aren’t traveling as much to hunt. So I would love to have five years of data where we can look at that trend and see what the harvest number is doing, see what participation is doing, so we can make sound management decisions.
“We’re not going to make decisions on what people report this year. We’ve got to crawl before we can run. But it will alert us to any situation. More importantly, it will alert the hunters. They can go online and see if the February season is having an impact on buck harvest. They will be able to tell what bucks are being killed in every county. You can look county by county, day by day and see what’s going on.”
Sykes doesn’t know how many hunters will embrace participation in the Game Check program but he is optimistic.
“I would love to have 100-percent compliance, but that’s unrealistic,” he said. “Georgia instituted mandatory reporting during turkey season, and they’re estimating they got about 45-percent compliance this year. That’s huge. Right now, we’re only sampling hunters that have a license, which isn’t that many, unfortunately. With Game Check, everybody who hunts will be sampled. It should blow the database through the roof.
“I just want people to come to these seminars to ask questions and form an opinion based on facts, not what they hear from a friend, not what they read on social media. Come listen. Come ask questions. See what it’s all about, and then form their opinion. So far, even the people who have not been jumping up and down in support of Game Check, once they hear the presentation, ask questions, have those questions answered, they understand why we’re doing it and it’s OK.”