Managing South Carolina wildlife left to legislators, not science
Trophy deer are disappearing. Flounder are caught by the cooler-full as the species declines.
From a recent S.C. Department of Natural Resources special news release:
“Prior to 2008, the prohibition on hunting deer over bait on private land was contained in regulations written by DNR which stated big game could not ‘be baited or hunted over bait.’ Act 286 struck the regulations and enacted the prohibition into law. When the law was amended it stated it was unlawful to ‘bait for deer.’ Under current law it is unlawful to bait for deer in the Upstate, but it is not unlawful to hunt deer over bait. The recent decisions by the magistrate’s court and the Attorney General’s Office lend themselves to the conclusion that is lawful to hunt deer over bait, but unlawful to bait for deer. These decisions have the unintended consequence of making existing law confusing for both the public and DNR law enforcement officers and staff.”
That in a nutshell is how the nearly $2 billion per year hunting and fishing recreational industry is managed in South Carolina.
Regulations like bag limits or season restrictions are enacted by the General Assembly based on recommendations, rather than by a wildlife board acting on best management practices.
Derided as a “good old boy” system, the process has led to a convolution of rules that frustrates hunters, anglers and wildlife managers alike.
And it’s killing off game populations.
“The deer are just not here. They used to be, but not any more. Going home tonight, I’ll be worried more about (the truck hitting) a hog than hitting a deer,” said Carl Morris Jr., 43, of Huger, about the decline of deer on public land in the Francis Marion National Forest, around which he has lived all his life.
“Where it goes wrong is where hunters take their complaints to legislators and the legislation doesn’t deal with the science,” said Kip Adams, Quality Deer Management education and outreach director.
“That’s just the reality of it because people care so much about wildlife and hunting. But it doesn’t always result in the best management or regulation.”
In most states, wildlife department staff sets the rules based on research and a department board enacts them under legislative oversight.
What difference does the South Carolina process make, with legislators taking the lead?
The frustration stems from a recent S.C. Department of Natural Resources news release that tried to explain a court decision that muddled the existing laws governing deer baiting, or setting out food to lure deer. The last line is the most telling: “The (Natural Resources) department will seek to have the law clarified during the upcoming legislative session.”
Emily Cope picks her words carefully. The DNR deputy director of wildlife and freshwater fisheries talks about how all wildlife agencies have to find a balance that’s scientifically responsible and socially acceptable.
The South Carolina setup “creates a different dynamic in how we go about doing the business of natural resources,” she said. “We get out, get public opinion and work with the entire General Assembly. Our role is to provide information on the biological impact and to understand those impacts on the constituents.”
S.C. Sen. Chip Campsen, R-Charleston, sits on or chairs most of the Senate committees where the laws are thrashed out. He’s a sportsman, and he concedes it could be done better.
“I do think DNR should have more say in game management decisions. However you can’t cede the law-making authority,” he said. “It’s a balance. I think the balance is tipped a little too much in the legislative direction.”
Talking about the confusion of laws that set markedly different rules for deer hunting Upstate and in the Lowcountry, he said, “That’s probably the nature of game laws. A lot of that is cultural. It would be good to have a little less of a mentality that we’re going to do it this way because we’ve always done it this way, and a little more based on science.”
In the bag
How wrong has it gone in South Carolina?
In just one example, a two-deer-per-day bag limit — with no seasonal limit — is in effect virtually across the state. It’s cutting the herd down to younger, less genetically healthy deer that are less of a draw for hunting tourism dollars.
That’s because older bucks with more developed antlers are the trophy animals, the ones hunters would rather go after.
The proportion of antlered bucks at least 1½ years old — still too young to be trophy size — dropped from 89 percent in 1989 to 38 percent in 2010, Adams said.
The national average is 41 percent.
“That’s directly related to a very liberal bag limit. It doesn’t do much for herd health,” he said.
For the past two legislative years, DNR has asked for a five deer or less seasonal bag limit, so far without success.
“If you ask people, I believe the majority would want to go with quantity rather than quality. Mainly, people are going out there to put meat in the freezer,” Morris said.
Until the deer disappear. Morris now hunts on private land, where the herd is more carefully managed with restrictions, such as no doe hunting.
DNR surveys indicate that three of every four hunters, among the thousands who have been asked, say they want bag limits.
Surveys also indicate that only 3 percent to 5 percent of hunters take more than five deer per year, but that small percentage takes 20 percent of more than 200,000 deer harvested each year.
Cut in half
Other examples are rife.
After the numbers of spottail bass — one of the prize saltwater catches — plummeted, wildlife managers in 2000 convinced legislators to drop the catch limit from five fish per trip to two.
No sooner than the catch improved, angling groups began pushing legislators to up the catch to three per trip, even though wildlife managers told legislators it was too soon to tell if the long-lived fish had really staged a sustainable comeback.
In 2009, the Legislature upped the catch to three.
And then there’s the flounder: Catch limits remain 20 per person per day, even though DNR net surveys indicate the population has been cut in half in fewer than 20 years.
The bottom line is a $2 billion per year tourism industry left with a product that’s less valuable or harder to find, and customers who must fend through tangles of rules to get to it.
“If you’re a weekend-type hunter you can get into trouble pretty quick,” said Morris, a former DNR deputy officer. “If you look at that rules and regulation book, sometimes it almost contradicts itself.”