feature By: John Flores | April, 18
James Whitaker, a biologist for the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries, turned his truck onto an oil field service road on a hot, humid August morning last summer. For years, the road was utilized by Chevron Corporation and provided access to one of the company’s well locations on Rockefeller Wildlife Refuge in Grand Chenier, Louisiana.
The company has long since removed its production equipment, where the remaining pad in the refuge’s marsh now makes an excellent capture site for banding mourning doves.
Coming to a stop a short distance from the location, Whitaker picked up his binoculars and glassed 21 walk-in traps made from vinyl-coated square wire mesh. The traps were baited just after daylight, and at the time the biologist was making his first run of the morning.
Since 2003, when the National Banding Program for doves was initiated, Louisiana, like most states in the lower 48, has participated in the effort annually during July and August. Louisiana happens to be part of the Eastern Management Unit that includes 27 states of which 19 hold annual dove seasons.
The objective, says Whitaker, with any migratory game bird is typically learning survivorship and estimating population densities of resident birds. Biologists also look at band recovery rates and their locations, which can provide them with migration patterns.
Data shows since the program’s beginning through 2017, 268,167 doves have been banded in the Eastern Management Unit, 225,912 in the Central Management Unit and 102,474 in in the Western Management Unit. Band recovery numbers over the same time period are 17,057, 12,386 and 4,317, respectively from each unit. According to Whitaker, some of the doves he has personally banded during summers have been recovered and reported from as far away as Mexico.
Both Louisiana and Mississippi are Eastern Management Unit states, where dove hunting is extremely popular. Their respective seasons typically open annually around the Labor Day weekend. And, like most states in the southeast, they generally are open on various other dates or “splits” throughout the fall and early winter.
The overwhelming majority of land in these two particular southern states is private and behind locked gates. For that reason, game departments in both states work hard to create public opportunities. One way departments accomplish this is by leasing private land for hunters. Another way is providing increased access to Wildlife Management Areas (WMAs) whenever and wherever possible.
For the 2017-2018 season, the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries planted some 555 acres on WMAs and made them available to the public at no cost. Additionally, several WMAs provide clearcuts for jump shooting dove.
One such WMA in Louisiana, called Elbow Slough, had become so popular with hunters the state had to go to a lottery system on it several years ago to reduce overcrowding. Last summer I happened to put in for this particular lottery and was successful at drawing out.
Unfortunately, for those of us who drew out, it became a near bust on opening day. What is normally a dry field surrounded by a protection levee planted in milo and brown top millet turned out to be flooded by the ravages of Hurricane Harvey. Nonetheless, some 30 hunters like myself, who did show up for opening day and were able to find a little high ground, still managed to harvest 157 doves. Or roughly five birds per hunter.
In short, the doves still wanted to be on the WMA, as they do other fields prepped and managed by game departments in both states for hunters annually. No one could have predicted the impact of Harvey and the sheer amount of water it would dump on Texas and Louisiana over the course of its rampage.
Elbow Slough biologist Chuck Bantel has worked on this particular WMA for the past 16 years. On wet years, Bantel says though the refuge is not as productive, it still comes out better than the state average for opening weekend. On dry years, he says hunters seemingly come out of the field with limit after limit, a testament to the effort his team puts into the lottery hunt.
“It’s all about the general public. We hunt this particular refuge on Wednesday, Saturday and Sunday after the opening weekend ‘lottery only’ hunt and right on up until we flood it in mid-November. After that, it becomes a waterfowl refuge, and we lock the gates,” Bantel added.
Mississippi has 12 public WMAs with fields designated and set aside for dove hunters. In all, Mississippi’s public-land dove hunters have access to some 418 acres planted with sunflowers and brown top millet.
Next door to Mississippi, Alabama has 14 WMAs. Still farther east, Georgia has literally hundreds upon hundreds of public acres planted in corn, sunflowers, millet and sorghum. Westward, in the U.S. Central Unit, the state of Texas reigns as public-access champion. With more than 180 state and federal hunting areas, plus 120 dove and small game areas leased from private landowners, there is no shortage of public opportunity.
North and west of Texas, New Mexico is flush with public land as well. Military reservation, Bureau of Land Management (BLM), National Forest and state land provide literally hundreds of thousands of acres for Land of Enchantment dove hunters.
Late last summer, the Chihuahuan desert was my personal destination for doves. There were no milo, millet or sunflowers in this arid region near Orogrande, New Mexico. But there was plenty of access to public land. My partner and I hunted doves and blue-winged teal on BLM land for three days and never saw another hunter.
There is no comparing an Eastern Unit WMA hunt to a Central Unit BLM hunt. For example, during my desert excursion, instead of food sources, we hunted water.
BLM land is typically leased by ranchers, and stock tanks, man-made earthen ponds and some natural ponds are scattered throughout the landscape. We set up a Mojo dove near the water’s edge, along with a few confidence decoys, and were able to experience 15 dove limits on very accessible public land.
Louisiana is divided into geographical regions that all participate in dove banding. Whitaker says biologists also attempt to get certain subsets of every age and sex class within each region consisting of hatch year male and female and adult hatch year male and female.
Whitaker, who is originally from Arkansas, has been banding doves on Rockefeller Refuge since 2014 and learned a number of things over the past several years.
“When I came here, I had a lot of dove banding experience from previous work, plus I enjoy doing it and know how important it is. But we know that doves are staying here year-round in this region because I’m getting a significant number of recaptures from previous years, dating back to 2014, 2015 and 2016 through trapping efforts. They also have everything they need right here on the Chenier plain of southwest Louisiana to survive. Therefore, though some do, there is little need for them to migrate,” Whitaker said.
Besides banding, dove population estimates are also determined by spring breeding bird surveys, where during the month of May, biologists and volunteers count every dove seen or heard cooing along 50 stops in a 24.5 mile-long route. Each stop is three minutes long. In Louisiana, there are 19 randomly selected routes across the state.
Other information used to complete USF&WS population studies are random hunter surveys known as the Migratory Bird Harvest Information Program (HIP). Additionally, there is an annual “wing bee,” where wings of harvested dove are counted and reviewed for sex and age.
Essentially, all of this data collecting helps wildlife managers in the development of harvest strategies to ensure the long-term conservation of mourning dove populations and minimize the frequency of regulatory changes.
As of 2017, total dove population numbers appear to be 279 million nationwide. The Eastern Management Unit mourning dove population is considered stable and to have increased over the last 51 years to approximately 62.3 million, whereas the Central and Western Management Units have declined but not for the most recent 10 years. Moreover, dove season bag limits and season lengths are set as liberal, restrictive or closed. These typically equate to a 15, 10 or zero daily bag limit over a 90-,70- or zero-day season length, respectively.
One thing Whitaker also tried to determine last year was what type of seeds doves happen to prefer. Traps were baited with either whole corn, cut corn, milo, Chinese or Japanese millet.
Whitaker said, “One year I used milo because it was significantly cheaper, but my trapping success was greatly reduced. So I put all of these different baits out in the traps to look at what doves prefer the most. It’s a way to save public tax dollars and state funding. The goal is to find a good bait that has a high success rate for capture and is economical for the department.”
As a side note, Whitaker gave Chinese and Japanese millet the nod over the other baits tested last summer.
Estimates indicate that during the 2015-2016 season, Louisiana’s 33,000 dove hunters harvested 597,300 mourning doves. One thing that Whitaker tries to emphasize to all hunters who harvest a banded dove is the need to follow up and report the band at www.reportband.gov just as they would a waterfowl band.
The National Banding Program for doves remains one of those federal and state efforts that goes on quietly behind the scenes. It’s the same where public access is concerned. Very few hunters with an affinity for wing shooting envision wildlife department officials negotiating dove leases as part of their job description.
Nonetheless, keeping vigilance and maintaining public access are high on their list of priorities. All dove hunters have to do is show up.