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A FWS biologist on the shoreline of a river
Information icon Dave Helon, forest ecologist at Grand Bay National Wildlife Refuge. Photo by Dan Chapman, USFWS.

Hunt Alabama. And Mississippi. And the rest of the country.

The Service boosts hunting opportunities to benefit land conservation

Grand Bay, Alabama — Head west on U.S. 90 from this old Gulf Coast farming town, turn left onto Pecan Road and then follow Bayou Heron Road through the Grand Bay National Wildlife Refuge to one of Alabama’s best spots to go duck hunting.

In Mississippi.

Because you can’t easily reach one of the finest redhead-hunting sites in Alabama without first crossing the border into the Magnolia State. But that doesn’t keep dozens of Alabama duck hunters from hauling their Jon boats to the 10,200-acre, bi-state refuge each morning before the sun crests Grand Bay.

“It gets real crowded here, packed out on that road up yonder,” said Sidney Brown, owner of Brown’s Bait Shop next to the dock. “It’s full every day during duck season. They’re all mostly from Alabama. This is the easiest way for them to get to the mouth of the bay and to the good spots in Alabama.”

A black and white sign that reads Brown's Bait Shop
Sidney Brown’s bait shop overlooking Bayou Heron. Photo by Dan Chapman, USFWS.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, along with Alabama, Mississippi and just about every state in the country, seeks ways to boost hunting and fishing, particularly on wildlife refuges. Fewer hunters and fishers means less revenue for conservation overall. The Service taps a variety of funding sources to acquire land, restore habitats, propagate species and eradicate invasive plants — all costly conservation efforts that benefit hunting and fishing.

Spring turkey season kicks into high gear this week across much of the South. Most Alabama counties are set to open March 21 and close May 3. Most of Florida also opens March 21 and ends April 26. Mississippi's season began March 15 and ends May 1. Georgia's season runs from March 21 through May 15. Find hunting opportunities on a National Wildlife Refuge near you.

At Grand Bay refuge, for example, the Service has mulched, chemically treated and carefully burned hundreds of overgrown acres the last two years to return the forests to a more natural state. Less-cluttered habitat also make it easier for hunters to walk, and shoot, through. Much of the collaboration with states, though, revolves around hunting rules and regulations: adding species, expanding harvest dates, boosting bag limits.

“Hunting and fishing are integral to our culture, so we need to do everything we can to help folks enjoy the outdoors,” said Leo Miranda, an avid hunter and the Service’s regional director for the South Atlantic-Gulf and Mississippi Basin regions. “And the more they hunt and fish, the more revenue generated to restore habitats for anglers, hunters, hikers and birdwatchers as well as at-risk, threatened and endangered species.”

Each year, though, fewer and fewer Americans take to the woods or the water. State and federal officials, consequently, have their work cut out for them.

More than a hunter’s idyll

About three-fourths of the Grand Bay refuge lies in Mississippi, yet there’s enough hunting on either side of the state line to satisfy just about any sportsman or sportswoman. Duck, goose, coot and dove hunters hug the Gulf shoreline, prowl the cypress-tupelo swamps or target the freshwater bayous below the Escatawpa River. Deer, hog, squirrel and other small-game hunters head to the piney uplands.

The refuge, though, is more than a hunter’s idyll. It was established in 1992 to protect one of the largest remaining expanses of rare pine savanna, one of the nation’s most endangered ecosystems. Less than five percent of the species-rich habitat — pitcher plants, sundews, butterworts, scarlet tanagers, eastern towhees, painted buntings — remains.

“We’re allowing more native grasses to grow, like bluestem and wiregrass, which is more palatable for wildlife,” said Dave Helon, the forest ecologist at Grand Bay refuge. “Restoring the habitat in turn helps the wildlife which in turns helps the hunters.”

Helon drove his Service-issued 2004 Dodge Ram through the refuge one recent winter morning pointing out the restoration work that has transformed hundreds of acres of dense gallberry, saw palmetto and Chinese tallow undergrowth into open-canopied slash pine savanna. Torrents of rain had earlier lashed the coast and more was coming.

He talked of the refuge’s expansion, nearly 1,600 acres the last couple of years in both Mississippi and Alabama, and the opportunity for more hunting. In 2019, for example, Grand Bay aligned its waterfowl season with the two states, expanding from four days a week to seven and letting hunters go all day instead of stopping at noon. Rabbits may be hunted this year for the first time, with rules similar to Mississippi’s and Alabama’s. Nutria and coyote hunts are also new as long as they’re incidental to other hunts. Grand Bay refuge, in general, follows the states’ seasons and bag limits.

Some of the refuge rules, though, remain more restrictive than the states, including the prohibition against ATVs and UTVs, and night hunting. Deer can’t be taken with firearms. And wild hogs may only be hunted as “incidental take” during deer hunts. The Service and the states, though, will discuss ways to more closely align public hunts this year.

Helon stopped his truck at the Gideon Tract, a once-impenetrable stand of pine and scrub used as an illegal trash dump. The refuge installed a gate and the dumping stopped. Much of the 100-acre tract was mulched last summer, is scheduled for prescribed fire this year and will be treated chemically next year.

“We do have quite a few people come out here now to deer hunt,” Helon said as the rain beat down. “The state guys, who’ve been here a lot longer than me, say they’ve really noticed a difference this year. They tell me the hunting is a lot better because we’ve opened up the forest.”

Hunters and anglers foot the bill

It will take a lot more than gallberry-free woods, though, to rekindle interest in hunting. In 2009, hunters nationwide bought more than 45 million licenses, permits, tags and hunting stamps, according to Service figures. A decade later, they bought 36 million. The reasons, by now, are familiar: baby boomers age out of the sport; the population shifts from country to city; kids are more interested in video games than duck blinds. The Service reports that only five percent of Americans 16 years and older hunt.

Southern hunters, though, hold their own. Only four states since 1960 have witnessed a per capita increase in hunting license holders: North Dakota, Oklahoma, Mississippi and Alabama. While dwindling populations boost per capita numbers, the love of hunting remains strong across much of the rural South.

More than 813,000 Southern hunters stalked deer, hogs or waterfowl last year, up 15,000 from the year before, according to Service figures. They visited 86 of the region’s 130 refuges. More than 3.7 million anglers — up five percent — took to refuge waterways.

Surveys show that Alabama hunters, in general, don’t want to drive more than an hour to shoot something. Grand Bay refuge, and an adjoining state wildlife management area, are close enough to lure duck hunters from Mobile. Others travel from central and northern Alabama and Mississippi to hunt diver ducks like redheads, buffleheads or lesser and greater scaups. Alabama’s duck stamp numbers have remained near-constant at 29,000 the last few years.

“Hunters, basically, foot the bill by providing funds through Duck Stamps to purchase these lands that everybody is able to get out and enjoy,” said Keith Gauldin, the wildlife division chief for the Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources. “Hunters are a cog in the machinery for the conservation industry and they have been for many, many years.”

Migratory bird hunters at Grand Bay and elsewhere must buy Duck Stamps with the revenue helping acquire refuge lands and conservation easements. Excise taxes on firearms, ammo and other hunting-related items allow states to conserve wildlife and boost outdoor recreation. A similar tax on fishing equipment supports sport fish habitat, wetlands conservation, fish stocking and research.

The money is needed. Last summer the Service rolled out plans to open or expand hunting and fishing on 1.5 million additional acres across the country. In all, 77 refuges and 15 hatcheries added more hunts, land for hunting, species to hunt and hours to hunt. The goal, in addition to getting more people into the woods or onto the water, is to more closely align federal and state hunting rules.

In the South, hunters and anglers gained more access to 10 refuges and two hatcheries — a total of 125,000 additional acres. The Service plans more expansions this year too. Alabama has a list for the Service to consider.

“They’ve made an effort to better align their seasons with what we have on the wildlife management areas,” Gauldin said. “That’s eased the confusion for a lot of our hunters who don’t understand the difference between a WMA and a refuge.”

Grand Bay plans to burn more forests, improve more habitat and attract more hunters. Anglers too.

“The fishing’s coming back,” said the bait shop’s Brown, looking over Bayou Heron. “I’m going to need some more parking.”

Contact

Dan Chapman, public affairs specialist
daniel_chapman@fws.gov, (404) 679-4028

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