The Oklahoma Wildlife Conservation Commission met Feb. 5 and voted to approve a slate of hunting and fishing related rule changes to go into effect this year. Some of the Commission's most notable actions at its meeting included unanimously withdrawing a proposal to change the structure of the antlered deer harvest limit, rejecting a proposal to lower the age limit on youth deer and turkey season participation, creating a new fall turkey hunting opportunity for youth and amending a proposal to change rules regarding the transportation of bait.
The actions taken by the Commission come after a wave of feedback received during a public comment period held by the Oklahoma Department of Wildlife Conservation from Dec. 3 to Jan. 11. The Wildlife Department received thousands of comments on the list of law change proposals up for consideration this year. Officials confirmed that input from the public always plays an important role in the decision-making process, but this year sportsmen were especially vocal on certain issues.
"People in Oklahoma take their hunting and fishing very seriously," said Alan Peoples, chief of wildlife for the Oklahoma Department of Wildlife Conservation. "And they're passionate, and we heard them."
Every year, feedback collected during the official public comment period plays an important role in the process. This year, one proposal was withdrawn that, had it been approved, would have restricted hunters' annual antlered deer limit to one buck during muzzleloader and gun seasons combined.
With no changes made to the current rules, hunters will continue to be allowed two bucks as part of their combined season limit that spans archery, muzzleloader and gun seasons.
By rejecting the proposal to lower the current age requirements for youth deer and turkey seasons, youth seasons will remain open to those under 18 years of age. Additionally, youth will now be able to harvest a turkey during the youth deer gun season if hunting in a county that is open to rifle hunting during the fall turkey gun season. Turkeys harvested during this season are not "bonus" turkeys and do count toward the youth hunters' fall turkey season harvest limit.
Another proposal that would have prohibited the transport of live bait from any body of water was amended to specify no transport of bait only from reservoirs known to have silver and bighead carp. These non-native, invasive fish can be difficult to distinguish from shad when castnetting for bait, and they can outcompete native species for resources and wreak havoc on fisheries when established in a body of water. The revised language will allow the Wildlife Department to modify and update the list of applicable lakes each year in the Oklahoma Fishing Guide. The rule only applies to "waters of the state" and does not include private waters and farm ponds.
"In so doing, we can make it possible for anglers to transport bait from lakes where there currently aren't any known infestations of bighead or silver carp, but if we discover any then we can update the list of lakes from which transporting bait is prohibited," said Barry Bolton, chief of fisheries for the Wildlife Department.
Bolton said nearly 400 comments were received on the bait transportation proposal alone during the public comment period, and that the amendment was made after "careful consideration of all the comments and biological considerations."
While complete details will be available in the next Oklahoma Hunting and Fishing Guides, a listing of the changes approved by the Commission at its February meeting will be made available online at wildlifedepartment.com.
In other business, the Commission heard a presentation on the Wildlife Department's new scholastic shooting sports program, which is being added to a suite of other outdoor education programs currently offered to schools by the Department. Through the program, educators and instructors at certain schools and FFA organizations will be trained and certified by the Wildlife Department's Shotgun Training and Education Program (STEP) to implement the program in their schools. Students who receive the training will have the opportunity to learn safe gun handling as well as recreational and competitive shotgun shooting.
The shooting sports program will initially be piloted in 20 pre-selected schools that already participate in either FFA shooting sports or the Department's outdoor education suite, which includes the Archery in the Schools, Hunter Education, Explore Bowhunting and Fishing in the Schools programs.
Participating schools will receive a grant to help purchase equipment for the program, thanks to a partnership with the Oklahoma Station Chapter of Safari Club International, which donated $20,000 to kick off the pilot program.
"Through this program we are hoping to build camaraderie like students would in any other school sport, as well as build outdoor skills and foster appreciation for the outdoors in our youth," said Damon Springer, STEP coordinator for the Wildlife Department.
According to Springer, another goal of the program will be continuing to provide support for the FFA sporting clays program.
Early surveys of educators involved in the Department's outdoor education programs indicate interest in the scholastic shooting sports program is high among schools, and the Department plans to expand the program after the pilot year.
The Department's other education programs have enjoyed significant growth and expansion into schools in recent years, such as the Archery in the Schools Program which has grown over a 10-year period from its original 10 pilot schools to about 400 schools across the state that participate today. The Hunter Education program, which has educated tens of thousands of sportsmen over the years and is credited for a reduction in hunting-related accidents in recent decades, has been and continues to be used widely as in-class curriculum in Oklahoma schools, and the Explore Bowhunting program builds on the Archery in the Schools program by focusing on the hunting aspect of the sport of archery. Also, the Fishing in the Schools program implements the Wildlife Department Aquatic Resource Education program to teach students in schools about fishing for recreation and conservation.
To learn more about how educators and schools can become involved with the Wildlife Department's outdoor education suite, contact Colin Berg, education supervisor for the Wildlife Department, at (918) 299-2334.
The Commission also heard a presentation from Richard Hatcher, director of the Wildlife Department, recognizing Lt. Frank Huebert, game warden supervisor stationed in Major Co., for 35 years of service to the Wildlife Department, and Charmion Rose, payroll and benefits specialist for the Department, for 20 years of service.
The Wildlife Conservation Commission is the eight-member governing board of the Oklahoma Department of Wildlife Conservation. The Wildlife Commission establishes state hunting and fishing regulations, sets policy for the Wildlife Department and indirectly oversees all state fish and wildlife conservation activities. Commission members are appointed by the governor and confirmed by the Senate.
The next scheduled Commission meeting is set for 9 a.m. March 4, at the Oklahoma Department of Wildlife Conservation headquarters (auditorium), located at the southwest corner of 18th and North Lincoln, Oklahoma City.