Two bills working their way through the Legislature this spring could drastically change deer and turkey hunting in South Carolina. Both are backed by the S.C. Department of Natural Resources, and both have broad support from hunter groups and conservation organizations.
A bill that sets a uniform statewide turkey season while lowering the season limit on gobblers has been reported favorably by a conference committee, and the Senate adopted the committee report, according to Emily Cope, SCDNR’s deputy director for wildlife and freshwater fisheries. That bill, introduced by Sen. Chip Campsen and Sen. Larry Grooms, both Republicans from Charleston, has gone to the House for final approval; the House was expected to take it up when members returned from a spring break in mid-April.
As presently worded, the bill would set the annual statewide turkey season from March 20 through May 5, with a two-gobbler limit per day, a total of three allowed for the season. An earlier version would have allowed a fourth bird to be taken with archery equipment only with a special permit, but that was deleted, Cope said.
One major change, however, expands the Youth Hunting Day on the Saturday before March 20 to an annual Youth Hunting Weekend on that Saturday and Sunday.
The bill also increases the maximum fine for illegally taking or attempting to take a wild turkey from $100 to $500 and would require a person convicted to also reimburse SCDNR up to $500 for each illegally harvested turkey. It would allow SCDNR to promulgate emergency regulations when necessary to control the harvest of wild turkeys.
If passed by the House and signed by the governor, the new law would take effect June 30.
The deer-hunting bill, which has the support of the state chapter of the Quality Deer Management Association, provides for an annual limit of four bucks and four does per hunter. Under current state law, there is no limit on bucks in the Coastal Plain area, while most counties in the Upstate have a five-buck limit, which biologists say is unenforceable because there is no tagging requirement for bucks.
The bill, introduced by Campsen and Sen. Ross Turner, a Republican from Greenville, would allow hunters to purchase their four buck tags and four doe tags for $15. Currently, hunters may only purchase doe tags for $5 each.
SCDNR also strongly supports the bill, citing an estimated 30-percent drop in the annual deer harvest in recent years as an indication the statewide population is in decline. Changes in habitat associated with commercial forestry, along with many years of extremely liberal deer harvests, are believed to be the cause of the decline, along with the growing population of coyotes that prey on deer fawns.
Advocates of the bill also point out that South Carolina is the only state in the Southeast with no limit on bucks. Limits in other states in the region include: Georgia 2 (one has antler restrictions), Alabama 3 (one has antler restrictions), Mississippi 3 (all have antler restrictions), Louisiana 3, Tennessee 3, Kentucky 1, Virginia 3 (2 outside of eastern dog zone), North Carolina 4 (2 outside of eastern dog zone), Texas varies by zone: 1, 2 or 3.
“We hunters in South Carolina as it relates to deer have been given open opportunity to harvest as many deer we choose to pull the trigger on, and yes, this bill will change that mindset, but in my opinion in a good way,” said Chip Salak, advocacy coordinator for the state advisory council of the Quality Deer Management Association. Salak said it is the responsibility of today’s hunters to protect, conserve and enhance the state’s natural resources for future hunters and sportsmen.
The bill has passed the Senate and will move on to the House, where it will be taken up by the Wildlife Subcommittee of the House Agriculture, Natural Resources and Environmental Affairs Committee when the House reconvenes in mid-April. It would take effect July 1, 2016, if the House passes it and the governor signs it.
Salak said the bill has an excellent chance of passage this year.
“From the things I have heard, everyone feels pretty good that can and should. It went through the Senate really quick,” he said.