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Bill takes aim at deer-hunting season

Backers hope act curbs deer-vehicle accidents

Rodney Wayne could not believe the damage to his vehicle when earlier this year, he hit a deer near Flora on his way to work. The accident totaled his Jeep Grand Cherokee.

“The power steering pump ended up inside the valve cover,” said Wayne, a mechanic by trade and avid deer hunter. “That’s expensive deer hunting.”

An ever-growing deer herd in Mississippi coupled with urban sprawl has led to a significant increase in deer-vehicle accidents. A report from State Farm late last year found an 18.3 percent increase in deer-vehicle accidents in the U.S. from 2007 to 2009. But, Mississippi’s rate soared above that — up 38 percent over that same period.

There is some hope that a bill in the Mississippi Legislature that has already passed overwhelmingly in the House of Representatives might help curb these incidents by culling the state’s herd that is estimated at 1.75 million animals. There is also potential for the measure to boost lagging hunting license sales and bring new, young hunters into the field, according to backers.

And, any issue involving deer hunting in Mississippi should be important even to non-hunters. Total expenditures on deer hunting in the state last year rang in at roughly $520 million, according to the Mississippi Department of Wildlife, Fisheries, and Parks (MDWFP).

H.B.1282 cleared the House earlier this month 86-30, and was in the Senate for consideration at press time. The bill would restructure the state’s deer-hunting season, moving primitive weapons to Nov. 1, adding more gun hunting by extending it through Jan. 31 and removing up to three weeks of exclusivity previously enjoyed by bowhunters.

The MDWFP has already endorsed the legislation.

“H.B.1282 empowers landowners and hunting clubs to harvest deer earlier in the season with a more efficient weapon,” said Chad Dacus, white-tail deer program coordinator at the MDWFP.

Dacus said the primary reason for restructuring the deer-hunting season was to curb crop and habitat damage and help fix the herd’s out-of-balance sex ratio. However, he added that the change will possibly help reduce deer-vehicle accidents.

“Our road kill survey shows a significant increase since 2003,” Dacus said. In 2008-2009, deer road was higher than in the six previous years.

John Mosley has his own numbers that tell him deer-vehicle accidents are a growing concern. He is the owner of Clinton Body Shop in Clinton, and his figures show a 25-30 percent rise in repairing deer-damaged vehicles over the last three years. State Farm says the average cost of repair from deer accidents in the U.S. is $3,050. Mosley said the average at his business is closer to $3,500.

In addition to decreasing car accidents, backers of the bill are hoping it also helps remedy another issue — dwindling deer hunters. According to a report this year from the Quality Deer Management Association (which ranks Mississippi first in the Southeast for effective deer management), from 2007-2008 Mississippi registered the largest decrease in hunting license sales (-6.8 percent) in the U.S.

By type of hunter, the largest decrease was in bowhunters. MDWFP shows the number of bowhunters in Mississippi dropped by more than 600 from 2004 to 2008. Primitive weapon hunters, over that same period, rose by more than 2,600.

The early gun season also coincides with youth hunting, a program geared to grow the popularity of deer hunting among children. Ronnie Foy, owner of Foy Guide Service near Canton, said moving up youth hunting means they will enjoy better weather, and he thinks many will decide, since the gun season is open, to continue to hunt after the close of the youth hunt.

Dr. John Woods, a hunter and outdoors writer, said, “We are facing a real problem in Mississippi. We’re simply not replacing hunters that are retiring from the woods. Our hunters are getting older and older.”

Woods was an avid bowhunter until a shoulder injury made pulling a bow impossible. He is not anti-archery, but said he is not quite sure it is fair for bowhunters to expect an exclusive season.

Dacus admitted there are vocal opponents of the bill, especially early on when many were unclear what the act would or would not do and why it was needed. He said opposition has quieted since.

Foy said he would not be surprised if bowhunters had their lobbyists at the State Capitol looking to kill the legislation. However, the insurance industry will probably be well represented, too, and his money is on the insurers.

The MDWFP is quick to point out that bowhunters still have 123 days of hunting opportunity because they can bowhunt during the gun season.

“This is not a dramatic move in season structure,” said bureau director Larry Castle. “This bill is moving away from exclusive seasons and allowing hunters to decide which weapon they want to use.”

Dacus said he had not talked to any lawmakers, but felt good that the measure would pass out of the Senate and make it into law. Attempts to reach Sen. Tommy Gollott, chair of the Senate Wildlife, Fisheries and Parks Committee, were unsuccessful at press time.

In the mean time, Wayne remains a little gun shy.

“I’m keeping an eye out for those suicide deer,” he said. “I’m thinking of painting my car hunter orange.”

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About Wally Northway