South Carolina hunters will have a lower bag limit but an expanded season for turkeys starting in 2016 because of a bill that passed both houses of the S.C. General Assembly and was signed into law by Gov. Nikki Haley earlier this month. But deer hunters won’t see any changes to their seasons or bag limits for at least another year, as a bill that passed the Senate was bottled up in the House.

“The (turkey hunting) legislation establishes a statewide private-land season from March 20 through May 5, with a three- bird per person season bag limit,” said Charles Ruth, the turkey project supervisor for the S.C. Department of Natural Resources. “It also changed the annual Youth Hunt Day to a two-day Youth Hunt Weekend on the Saturday and Sunday prior to March 20.”

The legislation 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. And, it would allow SCDNR to establish emergency regulations when necessary to control the harvest of wild turkeys.

Ruth said the bill also contains a sunset clause, which directs the agency to report back in three years with data gathered on how the change in season length and bag limit has affected the statewide turkey population.

“Unless the General Assembly acts at that time, the season and bag limits would revert back to what it was before,” Ruth said. “As part of the sunset clause they asked us to be prepared to make recommendations on season dates at that time.”

Ruth said the agency will be prepared, with several  studies already under way.

“We have a large study going on right now on the timing of nesting using radio telemetry, and another on the timing of gobbling using sophisticated recording devices. We are recording gobbling on a number of study areas.”

Ruth said a number of bills had been filed to change turkey season dates and bag limits over the past 4 to 6 years because the split-season system in effect for many years invited controversy. Before the statewide season was set by the legislature this month, the season in 12 counties in the lower part of the state was March 15-May 1, while the rest of the state had an April 1-May 1 season.

“It became pretty clear to us that they were going to change the season. When the March 20-May 5 proposal came about, we supported it because of the reduction in the bag limit, which our agency and the vast majority of turkey hunters had been looking for over a number of years,” Ruth said.

While the bag limit was dropped from five to three per season, with a maximum of two per day, most of the state got a substantial increase in opportunity with the expanded season, Ruth said.

“Most avid turkey hunters are aware that turkeys have not been doing terribly well for the last decade or so in South Carolina, as well as in a lot of other states in the southeast,” Ruth said. “We really don't understand what is going on with this southeastern turkey decline, and that is the reason for this research that is under way now.”

While the turkey season bill breezed through the legislature, a bill to change how whitetail deer are managed did not make it out of a House subcommittee.

“The Deer Management Bill passed in the Senate back in March with surprisingly little debate,” Ruth said. “We are very confident with the proposal and what we had done, looking at harvest data, data from research projects and the deer fawn study at the Savannah River Site.”

Since this was the first year of a two-year session, the deer- hunting bill, which has the support of the State Chapter of the Quality Deer Management Association, will be carried over to the 2016 session, Ruth said.

The bill provides for an annual limit of four bucks and four does per hunter. Currently, 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 are no tagging requirements.

The bill, introduced by Sen. Chip Campsen of Charleston and Sen. Ross Turner of 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. Thus, four doe tags under the current system costs $5 more than four buck tags and four doe tags under the provisions of the bill.

SCDNR also strongly supported the bill, citing an estimated 35- 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 two (one has antler restrictions), Alabama three (one has antler restrictions), Mississippi three (all have antler restrictions), Louisiana three, Tennessee three, Kentucky one1, Virginia three (2 outside of the eastern dog zone) and North Carolina four (2 outside of eastern dog zone).-