House Bill 1147 would allow private landowners to hunt and trap the two species throughout the entire year, instead of during a set four-month hunting season. It also allows the Department of Natural Resources to change the season’s length on public lands if deemed necessary.
The proposal already passed the House chamber and was voted out of committee in the Senate on Tuesday.
Proponents of the bill cite a declining wild turkey population at the hands of the two predators, which rummage their nests for eggs.
State Rep. Trey Rhodes, a Greensboro Republican and the sponsor of the bill, argues the measure gives the birds a little extra cushion to rebound in population.
“Bottom line, we’ve got an overpopulation right now of raccoons and possums,” he said. “They’re very adaptive animals, they can live in a lot of places and they’ve really taken off. They’re really taking a toll on our nesting game birds.”
Georgia has seen about a 30% decline in turkey harvest by hunters, according to the Department of Natural Resources. The state has already taken steps to address the issue such as shortening the turkey hunting season and limiting the number of turkeys per hunter.
But as House Speaker David Ralston joked when the proposal was in his chamber, critics don’t see it as a pro-turkey win, but an “anti-raccoon” effort.
Mike Worley, president of the Georgia Wildlife Federation, argued that there’s no tangible evidence to suggest that eliminating predators like raccoons and opossums will have a substantial impact on bird populations.
“We actually have a hard time determining what the possum and raccoon populations are in this state because we simply don’t hunt them like we used to and we don’t trap them like we used to,” he said.
But beyond the shaky science, Worley said hunting animals during the rearing season is an unethical form of wildlife management.
“If you shoot a mama possum, even though those animals are in her pouch, the joeys will die,” he told lawmakers. “And if you shoot or trap a mom raccoon, those kits will die. And so it’s the optics and the ethics.”
Sierra Club President Mark Woodall also testedified that the bill was an inhumane way to address the problem.
“We don’t think it’s ethical to kill baby possums,” he said. “We think it will be an embarrassment to Georgia. We need to keep our reputation for ethical hunting and fishing.”
Critics also argued that private landowners are already able to submit requests to DNR for more aggressive species management on their properties.
A change to the original bill dictates that only private landowners would be allowed to adhere to the new year-round rules, but hunting on public lands would still be limited to the four-month season.
The proposal gives authority to the DNR to adjust the season as necessary through decisions made during board meetings.
Emily Rushton, a biologist with the DNR, testedified that the turkey population drop has been accelerated by development in more metro areas.
“A lot of places where our turkey populations have decreased the most are in the Piedmont-Central region of Georgia, where we’ve seen a lot of development and those are the kind of habitats that raccoons and possums really thrive,” she said. “But turkeys do not nest as successfully in those types of habitats. So it sort of created a perfect storm.”
DNR representatives said the bill would give them another tool to help try to boost the state’s birds.