Last week (Aug. 24 edition), The Advertiser reported on changes to dove harvest limits — going from 15 to 12 — for this coming season, which begins at noon on Sept. 3. As mentioned in that article, The Advertiser was made aware of these changes by State Representative Bill Hixon, Chairman of the House’s Wildlife Sub-Committee. The Advertiser noted in that article that Hixon and the legislature were not involved in the changing of the limits and further added Hixon was upset with how the changes came to be made. “I’m on the Wildlife committee in the House, and never did I have any hint, any rumor, anything, that this was happening,” Hixon told The Advertiser. Hixon was quick to point out that his displeasure was not with the Director of the Department of Natural Resources (DNR) or DNR itself but said, “I’m mad at the board and how they handled things.” In this article, The Advertiser will try to sift through some of the concerns noted by Hixon in regards to the changes to the dove limits and to try to bring a clear understanding as to who sets the limits and how they are set as well as why there are changes this season.
An understanding of the process for setting dove limits was provided by the Director of DNR, Alvin Taylor. Director Taylor began by explaining to The Advertiser that limits for migratory birds, such as mourning doves, are set by the board of DNR. This is different from other animals such as deer or turkeys, whose limits are set by the SC legislature. Also, because they are migratory, the guidelines for hunting doves, including limits, are not set until a few months before their season comes in and any changes go into effect that coming season. This, too, is different from other animals such as deer, whose changes can take years to decide and typically do not take effect until the following season. However, before they can move in any direction regarding dove limits, whether leaving them as is or changing them, the board must wait on the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, a federal agency, to set the guidelines each year. When the board receives those guidelines, the board must then submit back to U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service their ideas for the coming season. Those ideas are then published in the Federal Register where they must run for a certain amount of time. The board looks for comment on those ideas and then sets the guidelines for limits for the coming season and submits them for approval. None of what is run in the register is a guarantee until it is approved at the federal level. From there, DNR is left with about 6 months in which to get the word out to hunters, especially if there are any coming changes. “It’s a compact timeline,” Director Taylor said.
What was different this year from previous years was that a change actually occurred in the limits; limits have been set at 15 birds a day for over five years now. Capt. Robert McCullough, head of media relations for DNR, told The Advertiser that avenues to get the word out included such things as posting it on the DNR website and other internet outlets, publishing it in DNRs new rules and regulations booklet, and issuing a press release to the media. However, Capt. McCullough agreed that that news release was somewhat ambiguous in that its headline read “Successful Fall Dove Hunt Depends on Planning, Preparing Fields Now.” While the dove limit changes were mentioned in the article, there was no mention of the pending changes in the header, so some may not have known that this was the article in which changes to limits was being announced. However, DNR is releasing a second press release on the changes which is scheduled to be issued on Monday.
Understanding the process and the timeline helps explain the concern of Hixon’s with the “late hour” of changes and announcements thereof. However, those were just a few of the concerns expressed by Hixon in detailing his displeasure with the board‘s decision to change the limits. Another was the process in which the changes were presented and approved by the board. Speaking about the presentation, Dir. Taylor explained that in the fall of 2015, the board, on which Taylor does not sit but from whom he takes direction, was approached by a group of hunters from a dove club in the Orangeburg area. Those hunters, who already hunted with a self-imposed limit of 12, which The Advertiser was told is the limit within most hunt clubs, asked the board to consider changing statewide limits from 15 to 12. Those members cited concern for the dove population and the quality of their dove hunts with their stance being that a lower bag limit might allow for better hunts or an additional hunt later in the season. A vote on limits, however, could not be taken at this meeting as guidelines had not yet been received from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Thus, the board requested that a series of surveys be conducted to gain public input on the issue. They also referred the matter to their advisory board, the Wildlife and Freshwater Fisheries Advisory Committee, and obtained input from biologists. The survey, to which there were about 800 responses, was split almost evenly, only slightly leaning to leaving limits at 15. “That doesn’t sound like a good response,” Dir. Taylor said, “but it’s actually a good response.” Information from a biological stand point informed the board that changing the limit from 15 to 12 would have no real effect. To have a biological effect, limits would actually have to change to 8-10 birds. However, biological feedback conceded that, while it would not have an impact in next year’s population, a change to 12 would impact this season by allowing for an extra hunt or two. As for the Wildlife and Freshwater Advisory Committee, Dir. Taylor said they were not necessarily opposed to a change to 12. Dir. Taylor explained that their recommendation to stay at 15 was made in order to give hunters, especially those who do not hunt but once or twice a season, the “most opportunity” in their hunts. However, in the end, the board voted against the advisory board and, instead, voted in favor of the request presented by the club members. To this, Hixon said that the board “made a knee-jerk reaction to a few people.” He told The Advertiser, “I don’t mind it going back to 12,” but added, “It’s the process. I think they [the board] mishandled it.”
Speaking with The Advertiser, Chairman of the Board, Cary Chastain, said, “It is unusual to go against the advisory committee.” However, he maintained that no favoritism was shown the club members. “To my knowledge, there is no influence from any club,” Chastain said. Larry Yonce, Edgefield County’s representative on the board, echoed Chastain’s comments. “Yes, there were other opinions,” Yonce told The Advertiser, but went on to say that the board made a decision they felt was the best for the dove population and current dove hunts. “There was no ill intent against any hunter or legislator with this decision,” Yonce said.
In regards to the new limit, Chairman Chastain said, “It could be a big giant mistake,” and added, “It can change.” However, he shared that migratory birds, specifically the dove, are not coming through like they used to, and no one knows why. “Nobody is getting the number of good dove hunts they want to get.” He conceded the changes have “blindsided some folks” and that the board may have “underestimated” how the changes came across. “I don’t think we expected the public to be bothered in any way by it,” Chastain said. As for getting the word out about the change, Yonce said, “The avalanche of publicity may not have been sufficient,” and added that there has “never been a precedent set that the legislature needed or wanted to be informed about the bag limit of fowls.”
The DNR board consists of 7 members and is appointed by the Governor. Those serving on it do so voluntarily. As already pointed out, the board, by state law, has the authority to set limits on dove and other migratory birds. Of course, in what was described to The Advertiser as a “double edged sword,” the legislature also has the power to give or take away authority from the board. Of the DNR board, Chastain said, “We care dearly about our state and outdoors … and are trying to do what we think is right.” This was a sentiment shared by Yonce who added, “All of us … we thank the legislators for the things they’ve done for wildlife and stewardship of natural resources.”
At the end of the day, changes are coming, and Hixon and DNR want all hunters to be aware of them. Perhaps the lesson learned from all of this, however, is hunter — educate thyself; know what, if anything, has changed in regards to rules and regulations before heading to the fields, woods, or waters. This is especially important since, in regards to the law, ignorance is no excuse.