IT’S ALL ABOUT THE small GAME
Some LDWF Wildlife Management Areas Offer Hunters Better Small Game Emphasis Opportunities
story by TRey Iles, LDWF Public Information
Louisiana’s rabbit and squirrel seasons seem fairly long, starting the first Saturday of October and extending to the last day of February. The spread between these two dates would appear to be ample opportunity to hunt those two species. Then, add in a spring squirrel season that lasts three weeks in May, and you’d figure there would be few missed opportunities for those hunters.
But time isn’t the issue when it comes to small game hunting, which also includes the pursuit of quail and woodcock, in the Bayou State. It is the dwindling amount of land in which small game enthusiasts can take aim at their pursuits.
Because it’s the most popular hunting sport in Louisiana, deer hunting has consumed much of the hunting activity on private land where squirrel and rabbit can also be pursued. Deer hunting leases in Louisiana take up a sizable chunk of prime private hunting ground and on many of these areas, deer hunters would prefer not to have their small game hunting brethren in the area while they’re in the woods.
Even on the wildlife management areas (WMAs) overseen by the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries, hunting deer remains the most popular hunting activity. From 2013-16, deer hunting accounted for 39 percent of all hunting use on WMAs (110,000 user days annually). During that same time frame, small game hunting made up only 18 percent (50,000 user days annually).
The drop in squirrel and rabbit hunting has been on a continuous decline through the last 26 years, according to LDWF’s hunter harvest survey. In the 1990-91 season, squirrel hunters recorded approximately 290,000 days afield. For the 2015-16 season, that number had fallen to about 75,000. In the 1991-92, rabbit hunters registered approximately 700,000 days afield and by the 2015-16 season, only about 210,000.
Seeing the decline and hearing from various small game hunters and associated interest groups, LDWF administrators looked to identify ways to increase small game hunting opportunity and access in our state. One answer, they believed, was on the WMAs.
In 2014, LDWF created specific sectors on several WMAs called small game emphasis areas. These areas allow for small game hunting with dogs at additional times than what is typically provided during the hunting seasons. They also allow for training of bird, rabbit and squirrel dogs at certain times during the summer months.
“It gives folks who small game hunt, especially with dogs, more opportunity to do so,’’ said Cody Cedotal, LDWF’s Small Game and Turkey Program Manager. “Most hunting clubs have rules that restrict rabbit and squirrel hunting with dogs until after deer season. This takes a long season, from October through February, and reduces it down to what amounts to just February. Hunters, of course, have a choice of whether or not they want to be in that particular club, but the list of clubs that do allow small game hunting during deer season is very, very short. We feel that any additional opportunity we can provide on our WMAs is beneficial to small game hunters.’’
Though LDWF doesn’t collect specific statistics to quantify how much use the small game emphasis areas receive, anecdotal evidence suggests they are popular with small game hunters.
“I can say that they have been well received by the public,’’ said LDWF Operations Program Manager Steve Smith, whose job includes managing the non-coastal WMAs. “So far, they’re proving to be compatible between both deer hunters and (squirrel and rabbit) dog hunters. We’re not seeing any incompatibility issues or conflicts between user groups associated with that dog running activity. People continuously express appreciation for the extra opportunities that these areas provide.’’
A Place of Their Own
LDWF originally designated 11 WMAs around the state for the small game emphasis area program, including Big Colewa Bayou, Bayou Macon, Bayou Pierre, Boeuf, Dewey W. Wills, Marsh Bayou, Richard K. Yancey, Russell Sage, Sandy Hollow, Sherburne and Walnut Hill WMAs.
This year, LDWF added Pomme de Terre to the roster and is considering additional WMAs, perhaps in the southeast part of the state, for 2018. As it stands, 23,000 acres (2.2 percent of WMA land) are designated as small game emphasis areas.
LDWF biologists have worked to make sure the areas selected are of the proper habitat supporting small game, Cedotal said. For instance, 1,967 acres have been designated in Sherburne WMA, located in the Morganza Floodway system of the Atchafalaya Basin in the lower and upper portions of Pointe Coupee, St. Martin and Iberville parishes. The small game emphasis land is situated along the Atchafalaya River and contains a large percentage of early-successional habitat that is good for rabbit.
On the Richard K. Yancey WMA located in lower Concordia Parish, 11,221 small game emphasis acres have been designated primarily along the Mississippi River. It contains a mixture of early-successional habitat and pecan ridges that benefits both rabbit and squirrel.
With so much lush vegetation and forage opportunity found along those rivers, it makes for the perfect home for small game.
Kenny Ribbeck, Chief of LDWF’s Wildlife Division, said department biologists are continually evaluating the habitat of the small game emphasis areas to ensure they’re the best available.
“As time goes along and we see how this progresses, we may change small game emphasis areas so that we can follow appropriate habitat conditions,’’ Ribbeck said.
As the small game emphasis areas have grown in popularity, LDWF will expand the available days on two WMAs. For the 2017-18 hunting season, nine additional days have been added to the areas on Sherburne WMA and 21 days on Richard K. Yancey WMA.
“Each area is a little different depending on the dates,’’ Cedotal said. “Some of the areas allow hunting with dogs early in October, which typically is not permitted except for the small game emphasis areas. This year we’ve added days around Thanksgiving and early December for them to hunt with dogs.’’
In addition to extra hunting opportunities, these designated areas provide training opportunities for small game hunters’ dogs during the summer months. The small game emphasis areas in all 12 of the WMAs are available to train bird, rabbit and squirrel dogs from June 1 through Aug. 31. Ribbeck said that this is an equally important component of the small game emphasis areas.
“We provided focused areas that allowed small game hunters to come in early in the season,’’ Ribbeck said. “But we also wanted them to have an area where they could train their dogs, like rabbit dogs, outside of the season. That’s what they were requesting—additional area on public lands because their opportunity on private land was being hampered so much.’’
The Social Component
Though their numbers have diminished through the years, small game hunters are no less passionate about their sport than deer or duck hunters. The Bayou State Rabbit Hunters Federation, for example, has more than 3,000 members and works with LDWF on various issues involving small game hunting.
Cedotal, himself a small game hunter, believes these user groups enjoy the fellowship of the hunt as much as harvesting game.
“That’s especially true with folks who hunt with dogs,’’ Cedotal said. “This is more of a social type hunt, more so than still deer hunting. The social aspect of this type of hunting helps recruit and retain hunters.
“We’re pleased that we’ve been able to help this group of hunters and, from what I hear, it has been well received. I’ve seen firsthand how opportunity has diminished through the years. We always welcome feedback on these areas, allowing us to make adjustments for improvements and possible expansion.”
Growing Small Game Hunting
One of LDWF’s primary objectives is to grow the sport of hunting. Louisiana’s 49 WMAs are a valuable tool in doing so. Through lengthy small game seasons, lottery and youth hunts on WMAs, LDWF has long encouraged Louisiana residents to take part in arguably one of the Bayou State’s favorite pastimes.
The small game emphasis areas can assist in these efforts. Ribbeck said these areas provide great opportunities for young hunters to be introduced to and recruited into the sport. But, he said, adults who may be interested in hunting would find these beneficial too.
“Many people, who may be looking for an enjoyable hobby, would certainly appreciate small game hunting,’’ Ribbeck said. “These small game emphasis areas would be the perfect platform for them to get introduced to the sport, either on their own or through tagging along with another experienced hunter to show the way. The great benefit of this hobby can be the delicious meals prepared at the end of the day, after a successful hunt on the WMA.’’
For more information on LDWF’s WMA small game emphasis areas contact:
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