TFWC to consider controversial deer hunting rule changes

In the last two years, even if it's antlers are less than 3-inches in length, this deer would have been legally defined as a "buck," and would have counted against a Tennessee hunter's season bag limit of two bucks. However the wildlife commission will soon consider changing the rule back to the old way, meaning a deer doesn't legally count as a buck unless one of its antlers is at least 3-inches in length. (Photo: Richard Simms)

The Tennessee Fish & Wildlife Commission, the governing body over the state's hunting and fishing regulations, will soon consider a change in an extremely controversial deer hunting law. At the regularly-scheduled TFWC meeting this week. Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency biologists are expected to recommend a reversal of the contentious "3-inch antler" rule defining a legal buck in Tennessee.

For years any deer that had antlers LESS than 3-inches long was not considered a legal buck in Tennessee and did not count against a hunter's season bag limit of two bucks. However TFWC changed that rule to say any deer with "hard antler protruding through the hairline" is legally a buck and counts against a hunter's season limit.

TWRA biologists declined to comment on the anticipated recommendation. TWRA Communications Manager Doug Markham said, "There is a 'red line version' [of the recommendations] out there on it. But we can't discuss it until it's been reviewed by commissioners at the upcoming meeting."

In the last two hunting seasons the new rule has been in effect, biologists have reported a significant decline in the number of does taken by hunters. Wildlife Commissioner Bill Cox says the change in the 3-inch antler rule is the reason for that.

"I was vocal about changing it last year," said Cox. "I support [going back to the 3-inch rule] or going back to something. The comments I've gotten from most every hunter I've talked to is that the unintended consequences of the rule change is that hunters are shooting fewer does and hurting our ability to control the population. I'm also afraid it is causing some hunters to not tag (report) animals or even in an extreme case, just covering it up with leaves and walking off and leaving it in the woods."

Chattanooga-area Wildlife Commissioners Tony Sanders and Bill Swan appear to be in the same boat.

"I would be leaning toward changing it back to the 3-inch rule," said Sanders. "I've never really understood the 'breaking the skin' rule."

Swan said, "I'm 100 percent in favor of changing it back. It's been an endeavor of mine to get that rule changed back. I've hunted every state in the U.S. and seen thousands of whitetail deer while hunting but honestly, I won't shoot a doe now because I'm afraid I might make a mistake [and shoot a small buck]. In my opinion it was bad rule."

Numerous wildlife commissioners have rotated off of the governing body since the new rule was passed. However Commissioner Kurt Holbert was on the TFWC at that time and voted in favor of making the change. He said his vote at that time was based upon his lack of confidence in the current tagging system.

Holbert would not say if he is for or against reverting back to the old rule. He says this time around his vote will be determined based on the feedback he hears from hunters.

"My vote will hinge on public comments," said Holbert. "That's the most important part of it, hunters need to let us know how they feel about it. Hunters don't realize we really do read their comments and take them into account."

E-mail addresses for all wildlife commissioners can be found here. Hunters are also allowed to make comments in person at TFWC meetings. Committee meetings begin at 1 pm (CDT) on Thursday at the TWRA Ray Bell Region II Building of the Ellington Agriculture Center in Nashville.

While the change will be presented to commissioners on Thursday, they will not vote formally for or against the change until their meeting May 17-18 in Nashville.

There are other changes which are likely to be discussed at this week's meeting including:

  • The legalization of "airbows" during Tennessee's archery-only deer season. An airbow is a pneumatic weapon which like a crossbow but instead is powered by compressed air. Commissioner Bill Swan said, "I think that's a good idea. Lewis & Clark carried an airgun with them on their travels. They killed game with it."
  • Outlawing natural deer urine-based attractants. Experts fear such natural attractants might be a means to transfer Chronic Wasting Disease into Tennessee.
  • Potentially changing the definition of legal firearms that can be used during the current muzzleloading-only season to include 'straight-walled cartridge primitive firearms." That rule change would allow the use of more modern versions of certain single-shot, high-powered rifles in addition to muzzleloading firearms. The Tennessee Wildlife Federation conducted a survey on hunters feeling on the measure that revealed 60 percent of 6,247 people surveyed supported the change. Commissioner Swan said, "I'm fine with it. I don't think what somebody else uses during primitive weapon season affects the quality of my hunt. I don't shoot it that far but the black powder rifle I use has been shot accurately out to 500 yards."
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