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Former wildlife biologists oppose Tennessee buck rule

Retired Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency employees are speaking out against a new rule imposed by the Tennessee Fish and Wildlife Commission (TFWC) last year.

The TFWC is composed of 13 members appointed by the Governor and the Legislature in staggered terms. They serve as the governing body over the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency, setting all regulations governing hunting and fishing in Tennessee.

In 2016 the TFWC changed the definition of a legal buck. Previously a buck was defined as any deer having antlers at least 3-inches long. If the antlers were less than 3-inches long, the animal was legally defined as an "antlerless deer" and did not count against a hunters' annual buck limit. Following the change in the regulation however, even a buck with 1-inch antlers is classified as a buck and counts toward a hunter's current annual bag limit of two bucks.

The new regulation was not recommended by TWRA staff biologists but was instead, passed at the urging of the TFWC Wildlife Management Committee chaired by outgoing Wildlife Commissioner Trey Teague.

Numerous hunters complained about the new regulation during the most recent deer season. Most complained that it is often extremely difficult under real-life hunting conditions to see extremely small antlers. Numerous stories have been shared of hunters who shot what they honestly believed were does and didn't discover the animals had extremely small antlers until they recovered the animal.

George Buttrey, a retired TWRA wildlife biologist from Middle Tennessee said, "[The new regulation] is designed to protect button bucks. But what's happening is you're leaving little bitty, inferior bucks out there. When you're raising cattle do you kill your best bull and leave your scrub bull to breed your herd?"

Buttrey retired from TWRA in 2011. He says that several TWRA retirees meet in Murfreesboro once a month for informal gatherings and that at a recent such gathering, virtually every former TWRA employee in attendance complained about the new buck regulation.

"It's also curtailing your doe harvest," said Buttrey. "People won't shoot them for fear it might be a tiny buck. In Unit L we need more does killed, not less."

Ed Penrod is another retired TWRA biologist from Columbia, Tenn. Penrod wrote a letter to current biologists and commissioners during the recent formal "Hunting Season Comment Period." Penrod listed fourteen specific reasons why he believes the new buck definition is bad idea, including:

  • Difficult to identify at a reasonable distance
  • Reduced statewide deer harvest
  • Allows less desirable bucks to breed
  • Unnecessary restriction to young hunters (youth hunt)
  • Reduces the ability to maintain friendly relationship with the agricultural community
  • Integrated Nuisance Deer Control (INDC) is reduced
  • Negative impact on the "Antlerless Deer Season Only on Private Lands"
  • Hunters reluctant to shoot does, because mistake will alter their antlered bag limit
  • Confusing and difficult to measure
  • Encourages violations
  • Increases number of deer left in the field (wanton waste)
  • Decreases deer available to Hunters for the Hungry
  • Increases rick of vehicle/deer collisions
  • Recreational and subsistent deer hunting has been reduced for Tennessee sportsmen

Penrod ended his letter saying, "I appreciate the TWRA and the Commission allowing the silent majority of deer hunters to have input in this decision."

Chuck Yoest, Assistant Chief over the TWRA Wildlife Division, admits the new regulation has been a top-of-mind topic among deer hunters. He said during the official comment period 55 hunters spoke out against the new buck rule. He said, however, it is hard to know how many hunters like the new rule because, "You never hear from people unless they're advocating for a change."

He also said it is too early to know whether or not staff biologists will recommend a return to the old 3-inch rule.

"That's a good question," said Yoest. "There is some internal interest in having that conversation. It's on people's minds, but I don't know whether it will develop into an Agency recommendation."

Yoest explained that there is always a series of meetings about proposed season and regulation changes, beginning with field staff, working their way up to top-level managers in Nashville. Those meetings will take place in March, culminating with the Agency's formal public recommendations being presented to the TFWC at its April meeting. The TFWC will vote on any changes at the meeting in May.

Yoest said, even though the 3-inch rule change wasn’t recommended by staff biologists, "If we've got the data, we're still going to learn something."

He said, however, that one year of harvest data under the new buck definition wouldn't tell them much. He said anytime a new variable is introduced in regulations, it takes at least three or four years for biologists to assess whether the new rule is having any significant affect, or not.

Southeast Tennessee Wildlife Commissioner Bill Swan said he hasn't heard much input about the new buck rule.

"I honestly I have not," said Swan. "Typically I wouldn't, however, because I'm not on the wildlife committee."

Swan said he made a motion for a compromise measure last year that died for lack of a second. Afterwards he voted for the new buck rule when it passed the commission by a unanimous voice vote.

He wouldn't say how he would vote on it if the question comes back before them this year.

"I don't know," said Swan. "I'd have to give it some thought and hear some discussion on it. There will be a lot of questions asked of [staff biologists] if they recommend returning to the old system."

However Swan points out that five wildlife commissioners (Cannon, Teague, Bledsoe, McMillin and Ripley) rotate off of the governing body this year.

"It's hard to say what the Commission will feel with five new people coming on," said Swan.

Under state law, wildlife commissioners have every right, or obligation, to sometimes over-ride the recommendations of TWRA staff biologists. Because of the politics involved it is often difficult for staffers to publicly argue against the changes inspired by the commission, at least without strong biological and/or public support.

Retired biologists need not worry about the politics involved. They can "tell it like it is" without fear of repercussion. It seems that, in this case, that's exactly what some of them are doing now.

It will be interesting to see if anyone is listening.

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