Georgia WRD Stays Busy After Deer Season
Six WRD employees outline what their work days look like once deer season ends.
The long 2022 Georgia deer hunting season is now just a memory. The hunters have retreated to the comfort of their homes for a much-needed break. There will be months before they begin serious preparations for the 2023 deer season.
Some might wonder. Once the deer season ends, do WRD biologists, technicians and other personnel pack it up and head to the house, too?
Wildlife management is not a part-time job. It’s a year-round process involving personnel with many different skills and talents. Those who purchase Georgia hunting licenses almost never see the work being done in the off-season. They just enjoy the finished product.
There are set chores to be done every year, but at any moment, things can come out of nowhere to completely derail plans.
Here’s a sampling of six WRD personnel and what they do.
Stephen Giles is a Level 3 technician and land manager for Region 2. He works on four WMAs in that region.
“As soon as the deer season ends, it’s time to service all the equipment,” he said. “We have three tractors, a skid steer, three 4-wheelers and a side-by-side. They get a full service. They have to be ready because we use them throughout the spring, summer and fall.
“Right after the deer season is also when we do wood duck boxes. We record the eggs that hatched and the ones that didn’t. We repair any boxes that need it. We remove the old shavings and replace them with new shavings. We compile that data. That takes a few days.”
Control burning is a major part of wildlife management on all WMAs. Personnel must be ready to spring into action when the weather conditions are perfect.
“Right after deer season is also when we start getting ready for burn season,” he said. “We start with the firebreaks. We use a dozier for that. We lay out and flag where the old firebreaks were. We must do that before we burn. We also look for, and remove, any snags that fire can use to jump the firebreak. When the firebreaks are done, it’s time to hope for good weather. We burn right up to turkey season.”
When deer hunters leave the WMAs at the end of the season, they often leave behind roads in terrible shape. When they return for the next season, those roads are in good shape. That doesn’t just happen.
“Once we’re done burning, we do road assessment on the state-owned WMAs,” Stephen said. “We scrape all the roads before turkey season. The roads get in bad shape, especially during a wet winter. Some of them must be scraped three to four times a year. That takes a few weeks each time.”
Dove season is far from any hunter’s mind in April, but that’s when work begins on the WMAs.
“In mid-to-late April, we begin our transition to working on our dove fields,” he said. “We’ll have 30 acres of dove fields in our region each season.
“We also plant a lot of wildlife openings on our WMAs in late April throughout May. We work on 70 to 100 acres in spring. We’ll plant a mix of iron-clay peas and sunflowers.”
While the start of summer signals the start of vacation season for most, it is work as usual on the WMAs.
“June is when we start spot-spraying non-native evasive species like privet and Johnson grass,” Stephen said. “They’ll take over the wildlife openings if you don’t stay on top of that. We spend a lot of tractor time mowing those wildlife openings.
“June is also when we go full-force on the pigs. We have three WMAs with pig issues in our region. People hunting them doesn’t get it done. We have two traps. We trap them in June, July and August.”
The start of August means the dove season is on the horizon.
“August is when we get on the dove fields again,” he said. “We manipulate the crops. We spray and mow them weekly. We also mow the new growth in the wildlife openings then.
“Once the first weekend of dove season ends, it’s full force into the crazy-busy months. We’ll plant wildlife openings up to the first day of bow season. We then do CWD sampling. We work with Georgia DOT removing road-kills and checking them for CWD. We also work the hunts on our WMAs.”
You are undoubtedly familiar with the old cliché of the best laid plans of mice and men. WRD personnel are not immune. There is always a monkey wrench coming out of left field that ruins plans.
“Something always pops up you don’t plan for,” Stephen said. “We sometimes have to install new gates because people tear them down. In October, we had water pipes to burst on Lake Russell WMA.
“Public safety is number one for us. We can be on a tractor plowing and get a call that there is a rabid raccoon in a parking lot or backyard.
“In summer months, people will find fawns beside the road and take them to their house. We get a lot of nuisance calls. Calls from farmers that have bears eating their crops. Homeowners that have bears in their backyards eating out of their bird feeders. We may to have to relocate a bear.
“You have to get off the tractor or whatever we are doing and go.”
He says he’s not complaining. He loves the job.
“It’s an interesting job that is always changing. You never know what will pop up. A hurricane, tornado or ice storm may come through. We do debris removal all over the state. We become the first responders for the power company. We have to remove trees where they can get in.”
It would not be accurate to call anyone who works on WMAs a specialist, he said.
“We’re a jack of all trades,” he said. “We spent three weeks in our shops last year building six gates. We must have extras ready in case we need them. We all know how to weld. We know how to use plasma cutters.
“We don’t contract anything out. We had to put a roof on our check station at Lake Russell. We do our own electrical, plumbing and construction.
“And in all that, we do bear surveys, mast crop surveys, turkey poult surveys and grouse drumming surveys.”
If you are unaware of the details, Blaine Tyler appears to have the cushiest job in the world. He is paid to live on a Georgia barrier island.
Before you imagine yourself with that job and sitting on the beach, you had better look closer. Blaine is the manager of Sapelo WMA. A day of work with him might crush your vision of living in paradise.
The island once owned by tobacco magnate R. J. Reynolds was sold to the state of Georgia in 1969. A 9,000-acre WMA was created on the island, and it was eventually opened to quota hunts for deer, hog hunting and small game hunting.
It was a nice addition to the state’s WMA system, but the WMA had gone the better part of 50 years without any wildlife management. It was so badly overgrown that the deer could barely negotiate the property. And there were wild hogs and coyotes.
Seven years ago, Blaine was brought in and given the task of making it a viable WMA. Not only that, he inherited the job of keeping the island’s roads in good shape for the multitude of other users who visit the island year-round.
“During the spring and summer, we have tour buses bringing in birders and other groups,” he said. “The Georgia Marine Institute uses the island. Researchers from all across the U.S. come in to do marsh research. We have people come in to study redfish and others studying the diets of feral swine. There are always college classes coming in to do habitat research.”
Blaine’s main weapon for improving wildlife habitat on the island is fire. The control burns are used to reduce the non-beneficial growth and other debris. That has provided a clean ground for the tender grasses that benefit all the wildlife.
“Our goal is to control burn about 3,000 acres a year,” he said.
Maintaining a WMA on an island presents several challenges. There are no Home Depots right down the street. Nor can you drive a broken tractor onto a trailer and take it somewhere to be fixed.
“Anything big coming here or leaving here has to be put onto a barge,” he said. “If you would have to put a tractor on a barge to take it to get fixed, it might take two months to get it back. We have to fix everything here.”
The positive changes to the wildlife habitat on the island are evident. No longer is the island overgrown. The understory of the forest is now open. A tractor-pulled roller mows the thick areas creating debris that will burn. There are now food plots planted with clover, oats, chicory and rape. The average weight of deer taken by hunters has jumped from 40 to 60 pounds to 100 to 120 pounds in recent years.
Other openings have been worked to attract bugs and insects that feeds doves and other birds. Wild hogs have been hunted, trapped and removed. The USDA shoots hogs from helicopters on the island. The feral swine population is now very low.
The 35-acre South Duck Pond was rebuilt by Blaine and his workers and is attracting several species of ducks and wood storks. The 90-acre North Duck Pond is currently being restored. When finished, it will have adjustable water levels.
IB Parnell is a biologist in Region 3 in east-central Georgia. That region covers a 28-county area. While he avoids changing oil in tractors and greasing gearboxes, he’s plenty busy preparing for the burn season.
“The vast majority of the burning is done from late December to early April,” he said. “About 90% of that is done in that window. As for me, I am busy completing maps of where the prescribed burns should take place.
“I also do a lot of deer antler measuring. I am an official scorer for Boone & Crockett. There is a 60-day drying period before a buck can be measured for Boone & Crockett. The deer season has ended, so that time is coming up. I measure for GON’s Truck-Buck and a lot of other things.
“I also stay busy after the season compiling deer data and doing WMA summaries the public can view. I also compile the data from managed deer hunting on WMAs.”
Deer season may be over, but not all the hunting seasons end then. People are hunting squirrels, rabbits, waterfowl, hogs and other things. He says he is constantly answering calls from the public about those seasons.
He says public meetings where people can comment on any proposed changes to hunting regulations is also part of his work.
Caleb Eubanks is a wildlife technician and supervisor in Region 4. He oversees a team that works on several WMAs.
“There is always stuff to do,” he said. “It never ends. Imagine a county-managed dirt road with a lot of traffic. On top of that, imagine the river flooding in our area. Our main roads are in flood zones and the small-game hunters and duck hunters want us to get them back open as soon as possible.
“I’ve seen the roads on Big Hammock WMA be underwater for seven months straight. Now imagine trying to repair and maintain a road that has been underwater for seven months. We have spent millions of dollars on that one road.
“We get a lot of customer complaints when those roads aren’t open. All I can tell them is that it is in God’s hands.”
Clay says contractors are now preparing to reconstruct 17 miles of roads on Bullard Creek WMA and 12 miles of roads on Big Hammock WMA.
What hunters don’t see, Clay said, is how WRD personnel must drop what they are doing and help the general public when natural disasters hit.
‘We have debris-removal teams,” he said. “A couple of Fridays ago, we were burning when the tornadoes hit. The governor wants us to respond to natural disasters, so we stopped burning and took off with our chainsaws and other equipment.”
Caleb says his team also participates in an ongoing study to trap and band wild turkeys. The purpose is to better understand a turkey’s life and why turkey populations are declining.
One of the most time-consuming parts of his job that hunters never see is dealing with nuisance and injured wildlife, he said.
“We get calls throughout the year,” he said. “Deer searching for food along the highways get hit by cars. The ones that survive have to be caught and taken to rehabilitation facilities. We have to do crop depredation permits for farmers who have their crops eaten by deer.”
Cliff Rushton is a wildlife technician on B.F. Grant WMA and Little River WMAs.
“There’s so many things that we do that the public never sees,” he said. “We do deer camera surveys and pig-trapping, and we have to compile that data.
“Once the deer season ends, we immediately jump on the boundary lines of the WMAs. That’s the best time to do it when there are no leaves on the trees, and you can see the old boundary markers and signs. The paint on the trees fade, as do the signs. We repaint the trees with an oil base paint that can be easily seen. We put up new signs when they are needed.
“Hunters on the WMAs need to know where the boundaries are so they can stay off other properties.”
Cliff is a member of one of DNR’s Strike Teams that responds to natural disasters. When severe storms hit, he must drop everything and respond.
“We recently got called to Griffin when the tornadoes hit,” he said. “We’re the first to enter because it is our job to clear the roads from white line to white line so others can get in. We go in with the power company so they can identify which of the powerlines tangled in trees are live and which ones are not. We have to do that so we can get our skid steers and tractors in.
“We get pulled off of WMA work multiple times a year.”
A lot of what Cliff and his crew do is time consuming and never seen by the public.
“We trap and band doves and ducks so we can pattern their movement and the periods when they migrate.”
Kara Nitschke probably has the most unusual title of all WRD personnel. She is the migratory bird and alligator specialist for the entire state. She is headquartered at the Social Circle office. She said her job may have the most unusual mix of all DNR jobs.
“DNR usually deals with wildlife that spends their entire lives in the state,” she said. “About half of my job is dealing with wildlife that comes and goes in the state.
“I deal with doves, woodcock and waterfowl. I spend a lot of time in the summer in wetlands banding wood ducks and whistling ducks. That data is placed into a national, federal register so when a hunter takes a bird with a band somewhere down the line, we can document that bird’s history. We get hits on birds we have banded from Canada to Florida.
“Twice annually, I’m part of those who attend the Atlantic Flyway Council where we create the framework for bag limits and seasons.”
The other half of Kara’s job is not for the faint of heart. Alligator surveys are done at night. Boats travel on 19 pre-determined routes and alligators are counted. The process is repeated several times as to get accurate numbers. Those numbers are compiled so trends in alligator populations can be observed.
The other part of Kara’s alligator job is even scarier. She must deal with nuisance alligators which must be captured, tagged and relocated. She said that part of the job is fascinating.
“We started doing this five years ago,” she said. “It helps us to learn where these alligators are going. We had one alligator that was removed from a pond and taken miles away and released. It showed up on the same pond two years later.”
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