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Macon Telegraph: Midstate Public Hunting Areas Survive Cuts

This article originally appeared in Macon Telegraph, Wednesday May 13, 2009

Because of state budget cuts, two state public hunting areas will be closed and one and a half more will no longer be managed by state wildlife experts, the Georgia Department of Natural Resources has announced.

But Middle Georgia wildlife management areas, including Cedar Creek, Oaky Woods and Ocmulgee, dodged the bullet.

The DNR manages wildlife management areas to improve hunting and wildlife habitat. It also maintains roads and enforces laws there. Although some are owned by the state, many are leased to the DNR by private landowners such as timber companies.

Last fall, state officials indicated that they planned to close some WMAs on federal lands, including Cedar Creek WMA, which is part of Oconee National Forest in Jones County.

State leaders also had indicated Oaky Woods in Houston County might be a candidate for closure because at $12.50 an acre, it is the state's most expensive lease. The area is owned by Houston County developers who plan to build 30,000 homes there eventually.

The state has opted instead to close Rayonier and King Tract WMAs, both near Waycross, and Lake Burton WMA, which is part of the Chattahoochee National Forest. In addition, it will close half of the Blue Ridge WMA. Both those north Georgia tracts will remain open to public hunting but won't be managed by the state.

Altogether, about 50,000 acres are being removed from wildlife management areas, said Mark Whitney, chief of game management for the Georgia DNR.

Some of this is being offset by the addition of 1,700 more acres to a state-owned WMA in Seminole County and 7,000 acres in Long and McIntosh counties.

Whitney said the state considered many factors in picking which WMAs to close, including the amount of hunting that occurs on each, the distance to other WMAs, the quality of the harvest from the WMA, the DNR's relationship with the owners and the department's ability to effectively manage the land for wildlife.

"The average hunter hunts roughly two WMAs, and they're very loyal," Whitney said. "We're talking about hard decisions here that are going to impact a lot of people."

High usage and the few number of WMAs within a certain land and population base were factors that weighed in favor of keeping Oaky Woods, Whitney said.

"One of our decision points for Oaky Woods was how important that area is to that black bear population," he said.

Whitney said the annual WMA leases are in the process of being renewed for 2010, but Oaky Woods owners have expressed interest in continuing the lease.

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