Oklahoma deer hunting season opens, as wildlife agency sees less funding due to lack of tribal compacts

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The Oklahoma Department of Wildlife Conservation predicted another banner year as big-game hunting seasons opened this week. But like any good hunting expedition, the season ahead has some challenges.

Archery seasons for deer, elk, antelope, and black bear opened Sunday, and big-game muzzleloader seasons and a youth-only weekend rifle hunt lie ahead this month. The popular 16-day rifle season opens next month, Nov. 18-Dec. 3.

For the first time, deer and elk seasons opened with Chronic Wasting Disease documented inside state lines, a factor of particular interest to northwest Oklahoma hunters. And while the department has consistent methods for tracking game harvest numbers, it no longer has a clear handle on how many hunters put in the effort. The license-numbers challenge puts a glitch in long-term hunter success-rate data and could be a sign of potentially serious revenue issues ahead.

However, according to the state’s top big-game biologist, hunters are reaping the benefits of suitable habitat and plenty of game. The department’s 2022-23 Big Game Report shows a record-smashing total white-tailed deer harvest of 134,158, which firmly eclipsed the previous record of 126,290 in 2020, presumed at the time to be a result of more hunters afield due to COVID pandemic shutdowns that season.

Wildlife Department Big Game Biologist Dallas Barber credited healthy populations, good habitat conditions, and cooperative weather for the new record. Hunters also killed more does, which made up 45 percent of the 2022-23 harvest and fully met the Department’s percentage-harvest goal for the first time.

Lost numbers, lost revenue

A forced inaccuracy makes hunting effort appear sharply reduced in the report. For the first time, the big-game data roundup fell short in its accounting of hunters.

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While the Department’s 2021-22 report noted record-setting participation in the archery and rifle seasons but a slight decrease in muzzleloaders, the most recent report comes with a giant asterisk and a considerable drop across the board.

The annual Game Harvest Survey, a scientific survey used by the Wildlife Department to track hunter participation for decades, was thrown askew when Gov. Kevin Stitt refused to renew hunting and fishing compacts with the Cherokee and Choctaw nations in late December 2021.

The tribes issued their own licenses, which removed tribal members from the Wildlife Department’s license survey system.

It also erased the revenue from compact license sales. Fiscal 2021 was the last time the department received tribal-compact license sales. It totaled $689,240.

The combined GHS estimates for archery, muzzleloader, and firearm participation in 2021-22 totaled 457,020 hunters. The estimated numbers afield dropped to 294,796 for last season, an on-paper reduction of more than 35 percent.

“It’s something we’re still figuring out,” Barber said. “We don’t know yet what it will mean for long-term trends. We’ll have to analyze that.”

The numbers could indicate another financial hit in the making. The department receives its share of federal matching funds for wildlife conservation based on a formula that relies heavily on the number of certified Oklahoma hunting license holders compared to other states.

Department spokesman Micah Holmes said all 50 states via for federal funding from excise taxes on firearms, ammunition, and hunting tackle under a somewhat complicated formula. The amount available fluctuates annually. Hence, the ultimate change on that budget line is hard to predict.

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“The loss of federal grant funds related to license certifications is unknown due to fluctuating fund availability and changes in other states’ license certifications,” he said.

The Wildlife Department is a non-appropriated agency and receives no state tax money. It relies on hunting and fishing license fees, which state legislators have refused to increase for two decades. Federal matching funds, private and non-profit organization donations, and other smaller fundraising efforts contribute to the department’s bottom line.

CWD precautions widen

Regardless, Barber said another record-setting hunting season could be in the books for 2024.

“I think deer season will be at least close to that number again,” he said. “We’ve been in an upward trend, and habitat, on a statewide basis, looks good. We had rain where we needed it, and there is a lot of good habitat, so hunters have a lot to look forward to.”

Barber said that interest in archery hunting seasons continues to grow, as indicated by annual record-setting harvests in that category.

“It’s a more intimate method, exciting in close quarters, but it’s also a method you can practice in your backyard and put to use in every corner of the state. Plus, it’s a super long season, and as far as the working man goes, they have more weekends available as opposed to the limited-time seasons,” he said.

Chronic Wasting Disease, officially on the books for the first time in Oklahoma, is not expected to curb hunting interest, he said. Before the season opener, the department posted CWD information and tips about carcass disposal on its website.

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The prion disease, similar to mad cow disease and scrapie in sheep, is always fatal and difficult to detect. First discovered in captive mule deer in Colorado in 1967, it has since spread to free-ranging deer and elk in 31 states and three Canadian provinces and captive herds in 18 states and the three provinces. Oklahoma previously had captive-herd CWD cases in elk, and it joined the list of states with CWD documented in free-ranging deer in June.

Parts of Cimarron, Texas, Woodward, Major, and Woods counties now have “Selected Surveillance Area,” or SSA, designations. Hunters in those areas must process their deer and dispose of the carcass in the place where they hunt. The Wildlife Department established CWD sample test drop-off points in each SSA, where hunters can deposit deer heads into a freezer for later testing.

Barber said hunters can help curb the spread of CWD statewide by being careful with carcass disposal wherever they might hunt.

“It’s one of those deals where the more diligent you can be, the better off everyone else is going to be,” he said. “Hunters should take a look at proper carcass disposal methods. If you’re outside the SSA, they don’t necessarily apply, but if you have the ability to bury that deer, great. And if you can ensure that your trash will go to a certified landfill, put it there and not on the landscape.”

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Ethan Smith is a seasoned marine veteran, professional blogger, witty and edgy writer, and an avid hunter. He spent a great deal of his childhood years around the Apache-Sitgreaves National Forest in Arizona. Watching active hunters practise their craft initiated him into the world of hunting and rubrics of outdoor life. He also honed his writing skills by sharing his outdoor experiences with fellow schoolmates through their high school’s magazine. Further along the way, the US Marine Corps got wind of his excellent combination of skills and sought to put them into good use by employing him as a combat correspondent. He now shares his income from this prestigious job with his wife and one kid. Read more >>