Completing a course in Alabama history is a requirement for every fourth grade student in the state. From Native American settlements to rockets manufactured in Huntsville that propelled men and women into space, there is much to learn from our history. However, one historical fact is routinely omitted. It is one of the greatest conservation stories never told. How hunters brought back wildlife in Alabama.
Let this sink in.
Before the 1940s deer and turkey were seen in less than a dozen state counties. According to the Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources, in 1940 there were only 16,000 deer statewide. You couldn’t find deer in 57 of the state’s 67 counties. To put it bluntly, they were nearly extinct in the state. Today, after eight decades of conservation work, we have nearly two million deer.
Likewise, wild turkeys were nearly gone from the Yellowhammer state in the mid-20th century. The number of wild turkey had dropped to as low as 11,000 in 1940. Today, the beautiful bird that Ben Franklin lobbied to make our national symbol, instead of the bald eagle, has a population of over 500,000.
In the following three-part series, Bham Now will examine how we nearly lost all of our wildlife; how hunters and anglers banded together to regulate and tax themselves to pay for the recovery of deer, turkey and fishing resources; and what the future looks like for Alabama’s fish and wildlife in the age of computer screens and smartphones.
On the brink of extinction in Alabama
If not for efforts by a host of wildlife groups and many dedicated individuals, deer in Alabama were going the way of the buffalo in the American West.
Corky Pugh, former head of Alabama’s Wildlife and Fisheries and now director of the Hunting Heritage Foundation, described what the landscape looked like almost a century ago.
“Leading up to about the 1920s, wildlife resources were being hammered. There were no hunting regulations. There was year round hunting. Tremendous habitat loss was occurring. During that era, starving sharecroppers on every 40 acres were trying to put protein on the table. It is a wonder anything was left.”
In Alabama state history, the founding of the Alabama Wildlife Federation (AWF) in 1935 was a turning point.
The first citizen conservation organization of its kind in the state, AWF advocated for range and stock laws that prevented cattle from roaming and indiscriminately, damaging a neighbor’s property and wildlife habitat. They helped establish regulations to ensure abundant wildlife and instituted anti-poaching laws. And most importantly, they made sure the Department of Conservation and Natural Resources had enough monies to fulfill their mission and enforce the conservation laws, even if that meant raising funds through hunting and fishing licenses.
“People with a lot of foresight decided if their children and grandchildren were going to enjoy wildlife resources, some things were going to have to happen,” added Pugh.
The great awakening for conservation
Alabama Wildlife Federation director Tim Gothard calls the 1930s the “great awakening” for the conservation movement. Only a year after AWF was established, the National Wildlife Federation was created in 1936. Several Alabama federation members had a hand in forming the national group.
The following year, on the strength of a new national movement, Congress passed the Pittman-Robertson Act. This law is considered one of the most successful federal/state arrangements in U.S. history. In a nutshell, the federal law applies a tax on firearms and ammunition, which is then used to match 3 to 1 local hunting license sales to support state game and fish departments nationwide. By hunters “taxing” themselves, they were able to support not only the emerging wildlife science field but also law enforcement in the field who could protect wildlife by enforcing the laws.
With financial resources, Alabama started its decades long struggle to successfully bring back deer and turkey. Key to its success was the Fred T. Stimpson Wildlife Sanctuary in Clarke County, which was a main source for re-stocking deer and turkey throughout the state.
The great comeback
By the early 1970s people began seeing deer in places they had not seen in half a century. Same thing with turkeys.
Gothard tells a story about how sightings of deer in his home community was extremely rare and how that has changed today.
“I live here in the Millbrook area (a small town a few miles from Prattville).. I was in the 10th or 11th grade when a friend of mine in high school around 1980 or 81 came to school and said, “man, I was out traveling by the airport when a deer ran across the road.” That was the first time I ever heard of a deer being seen in this local area where I grew up. Now, when I work at the AWF headquarters at Lanark , they (deer) come out in the front yard nearly every evening. Lanark is only 6 miles from where I grew up in Millbrook.”
Benefiting the environment and economy
Besides the historic restoration of deer and turkey the state has benefited both ecologically and economically.
Habitat for several species such as songbirds has increased dramatically. A financially healthy Wildlife and Freshwater Fisheries Division at the Alabama’s Department of Conservation and Natural Resources has enabled the state to go beyond game species. It has launched efforts to bring back the bald eagle in the 1980s and more recently the endangered Red Cockaded Woodpecker.
Economically, according to numerous studies, hunting has become a $1.8 billion dollar industry in Alabama. The Department of Interior’s latest National Survey of Fishing, Hunting, and Wildlife Associated Recreation lists the number of hunters in Alabama at 535,110. Imagine filling up the University of Alabama’s Bryant-Denny Stadium (capacity 102,000) five times. That’s how much hunting is ingrained in the state. It’s an economic engine.
You won’t find chapters written in a 4th grade Alabama history book about deer and turkey nearly disappearing and the heroic steps that were taken to bring them back. Steps, policy-wise that in today’s political environment would be unthinkable, like licenses, new taxes and regulations. But that was the key to the comeback. Wildlife supporters and hunters put their money into action.
Perhaps Corky Pugh summed it up best. Everyone made a contribution.
“My grandfather would be utterly amazed at the deer and turkeys and other resources that we have now. He never got to see that. However I still got (have) his last hunting license. I’ve still got the first one he ever bought and the last one. Like so many Alabamians and people from other states across the country, he was making a contribution to restore wildlife resources.”
In part two of our series, we will examine how our wildlife programs and Wildlife Management Areas are funded and why programs such as Forever Wild play an important role.