Numerous topics of interest to hunters-trappers at TFWC meeting

Two-day meetings of the Tennessee Fish & Wildlife Commission, such as this one at Bryan College in Dayton, can be long and tedious. But the information learned and observations made can be extremely educational. It would be wise for every hunter and fisherman to attend at least one TFWC meeting to observe first-hand, exactly how the system governing TWRA works. (Photo: Richard Simms)

On Wednesday, meeting in Dayton, Tenn., the Tennessee Fish & Wildlife Commission increased the number of elk hunting permits that will be provided to hunters via lottery this coming Fall. This was the most significant item of action taken regarding hunting and hunting seasons by the TFWC at this week’s meeting.

There were, however, numerous other items which were acted upon or discussed at length which provided interesting information and indications of potential future actions affecting hunters, including:

3-INCH ANTLER RULE

Last season the TFWC passed a new law regarding the legal definition of a buck. Previously a buck was considered any deer with antlers a minimum of 3-inches in length. But the new law passed last year defined a buck as any deer with antler visible above the hairline. The law was intended to discourage the harvest of small bucks, allowing them to grow larger.

Numerous hunters across the state have widely protested the new definition. The primary concern is that tiny antlers are difficult to see in many hunting situations, and there are many occasions when hunters thought they were (legally) taking a doe that turned out to be a small buck. That deer counted against their annual limit of two bucks.

Many hunters commented and lobbied hard to change the rule back to the previous definition. However biologists recommended staying with the current regulation and commissioners took no action to overturn the measure.

Biologists reported that 12 percent of the recent season's buck harvest had antlers less than 3 inches long, increased from 7.5 percent the year before.

James Kelly, TWRA Deer Management Program Leader, said, "If reducing the harvest of deer with antlers less than 3-inches was the objective, you would have expected it to go down. Our results show that it did the opposite. Whether that is biologically significant, we don't know."

Commissioner Jeff Cook said, and biologists agreed, "Just one year is not enough to make a determination."

Commission Chairperson Jamie Woodson ended the discussion saying, "This issue has been discussed very much. We appreciate thoughtful comments and we will surely continue the discussion in the future."

Although he didn’t speak publicly and made no motion to amend the rule, after the meeting Commissioner Bill Swan from Sequatchie County said he is against the new rule.

"I've deer hunted in dozens of states. I'm probably one of the most qualified hunters there is in determining a buck from a doe," said Swan. "But this year, because of the new rule, I was afraid to shoot a doe. I'm sure there are a lot of hunters who shot small bucks they thought was a doe, and when they walked up on it, it ruined the entire hunting experience. That's not what we should be doing. We're going to have to give it two years but I guarantee we'll be looking at it closely next year."

BEAR HUNTING SEASONS

There were no changes in Tennessee's bear hunting season, except for establishing consistent opening dates. However Commissioner Chad Baker expressed strongly, with some support from other commissioners, he believes seasons should be extended to include weekends (many bear hunts are held only Monday thru Friday). Baker specifically wanted the season to include the weekend when kids are already in the woods on the special "Juveniles Only" deer hunting weekend.

Biologists said seasons are set in part specifically to avoid potential conflict between deer hunting and bear hunting. A representative from the U.S. Forest Service also told commissioners that on the Cherokee National Forest (where the majority of bear hunts occur), there are numerous non-consumptive users (campers, hikers, etc.) on weekends. They clearly prefer that bear hunting be excluded to avoid or lessen conflicts with those non-consumptive users.

The president of the Tennessee Bear Hunters Association spoke and said, "We need to wait at least a year or two before we think about Saturday opening dates."

Commissioners made no motions for changes, but made it clear they expect to revisit the issue.

TWO TURKEYS PER DAY

There was also a motion made by Commissioner Kurt Holbert to change the regulation and allow Spring turkey hunters to take up to two gobblers per day. Currently hunters are allowed to take four gobblers per season, but can only take one bird per day.

Commissioner Bill Cox made another motion to close Fall hunting season for hens statewide, saying, "If we killed 1,000 hens we could have removed 10,000 turkeys from the population for the coming years."

Joy Sweaney, TWRA Wild Turkey Program Leader, said she could not say if the changes would impact the overall harvest or population. However Sweaney did express grave concern that such changes could potentially impact an ongoing scientific research project on Tennessee turkeys.

Sweaney is heading up a $1 million, five-year research project in five Middle Tennessee counties that she says will provide a massive amount of very significant data about turkey populations and hunting. The project, which began in 2016, was approved by commissioners and Sweaney said at that time, commissioners knew the hope was to have a minimum two years of consistent turkey hunting regulations. She said any changes to seasons and bag limits could introduce a variable that might negatively impact that study. It was her hope that regulations stay consistent throughout the 5-year research project, but that they have a minimum two years with no changes.

In the end, both Holbert and Cox withdrew their motions - but again, it seemed clear the subjects will come up again in the future.

HUNTING COYOTES AT NIGHT

Commissioner Chad Baker discussed the potential of allowing coyote hunting at night - using shotguns only, outside of any big game seasons. Baker made it clear he was in favor of such action.

Currently predator hunting at night in Tennessee is illegal. However coyotes are largely nocturnal. Many hunters argue that an increasing population of coyotes is negatively impacting deer and turkey populations and have lobbied for nighttime hunting so they can remove more of the predators from the population.

Col. Darren Rider, TWRA Law Enforcement Chief, discouraged commissioners from taking any prompt action, pointing out there are numerous details that would have to be considered for such a measure. Baker directed Col. Rider to bring back more information or a proposal for allowing coyote hunting at night.

After the meeting ended Col. Rider indicated he is opposed to such a measure saying it creates difficult enforcement issues, as well as safety issues. He said he knew of one occasion when a wildlife officer (in another state) was accidentally shot and killed on a nighttime patrol. Rider said the officer raised his binoculars that a hunter mistook for gleaming eyes, shooting the officer in the head with a rifle.

NEW TRAPS ALLOWED

Due to removal of some language in a state law, the commission will now have more authority in determining the type, placement and inspection of traps utilized in furbearer trapping. Wildlife commissioners did approve that new proclamation which allows the use of certain traps that have not been allowed previously. Trappers say they are more effective and humane.

Col. Rider said all changes were based upon the "Trapping Best Management Practices" as developed and approved by the Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies (formerly the International Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies).

NEW BIG GAME TAGGING SYSTEM

Some slight changes were made requiring hunters to check in their big game animals prior to gifting an animal to another person and prior to a big game animal leaving Tennessee. While there was no other action, commissioners discussed at length the potential need to return to some sort of "paper tagging system" for big game animals, particularly deer. Commissioner Bill Cox expressed concern that the current means of electronic check-in of harvested deer allowed greater opportunity for abuse, potentially impacting harvest figures.

TWRA Executive Director Ed Carter told commissioners that based upon previous discussions, the Agency has studied the issue extensively and brought alternatives to commission, including the associated costs.

"We've beat this issue to death inside the Agency," said Carter. "We've spent a tremendous amount of man-hours on this already."

Commissioner Jeff Cook said, "The best way to gather data (paper tags) is also the most expensive. I think it's a big problem, it just really comes down to a budget issue."

EXTRA BOATING MONEY

Chris Richardson, TWRA Legislative Liaison, shared good news of additional funding coming to TWRA as a result of the new gas tax passed by Gov. Bill Haslam.

The major proponent of the bill, State Senator Mike Bell (R, Dist. 9 - Bradley, McMinn, Meigs, Monroe and Polk counties) said, "When you buy gas on the water you're paying road taxes. Why should you have to do that? My bill would provide all of that money for use on better water access."

Initially Sen. Bell gave the bill slim chance of passage, but said, “it came through in the final hour."

Richardson said he expects TWRA will ultimately glean about $2 million annually that will primarily be used for improved access to Tennessee waterways.

OBSERVATIONS

It was the first meeting for newly-appointed Dist. 4 Commissioner Tony Sanders (from Chattanooga). After the meeting, asked what was the single-most thing that stood out, Sanders said, "When I was appointed I had lots of people tell me, 'We're glad there is finally someone who hunts and fishes on the commission. Well, from what I've seen and learned, nearly every one of the commissioners are avid hunters and/or fishermen, and they're very passionate about it. I'm certainly not alone in that."

Based upon these two days of commission meetings, it was clear to observers that Commissioners Chad Baker (TFWC Dist. 1) and Bill Cox (TFWC Dist. 9) are the most vocal among the 13 members - at least this week.

Cox and Baker routinely questioned TWRA staff members on numerous issues. Not everyone agreed and no doubt every commissioner serves his or her public well. It was most obvious, however, that these two will never rubber stamp anything TWRA staffers bring before them.

VOICE VOTES

When it comes time for the TFWC to vote on any given measure, the overwhelming majority of the time the chairperson calls for a "Voice Vote," in which every commissioner is asked to say out loud, all at once, either "Yea" or "Nay." It is absolutely impossible for observers to see or document exactly who voted "Yea" and who voted "Nay," or who just sat there hush-mouthed and said absolutely nothing.

When asked about the issue, TFWC Chairperson Jamie Woodson (a former state representative and senator) said, “That’s a reasonable question. Part might come from my days in the Legislature when we were voting on dozens of bills in a day and we had to work fast just to get the work done.”

While the chairperson calls for the vote, any of the 13 commissioners has the authority to request a "Roll Call Vote," in which each member is asked one at time to declare "Yea," or "Nay," allowing the public to know exactly where each commissioner stands on the issue.

However it is a rare, rare occasion when that happens. The majority of the time a bunch of them yell out "Yea," and the others are embarrassed to say "Nay" out loud... especially if they're on the losing end of the stick. They just sit quietly, effectively abstaining from the vote.... but the records and reports will reflect a "unanimous decision by the commission."

Commissioner Swan admitted that was the case for him when the initial vote on the new buck definition came up in 2015.

“There probably would have been a couple of ‘No’ votes, including me,” said Swan at that time. “But it was clear the measure was going to pass. I did not say ‘Nay,’ I just didn’t vote.”

In this writer's opinion, it is wrong. Critical votes on widely debated or controversial issues on the wildlife commission should ALWAYS be voted on by Roll Call.

The sportsmen and women of Tennessee deserve to know exactly how their wildlife commission representatives came down on such issues. It is the public's right and should be wildlife commissioners' obligation. As the system works now, it almost never happens.

That should change.

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