Why can you only hunt certain game in certain seasons?

By: Julia Layton
Wildlife mammal enjoying nature outdoors.
To maintain an ideal population, deer and other animals can only be hunted in specific seasons.
Kazuko Kimizuka/Taxi/Getty Images

When deer season rolls around, hunters flock to the forests wh­ere these animals congregate, many of them looking for a six-point trophy to hang above the fireplace. Others have visions of just an invigorating outing and some deer burgers in the freezer for the rest of the year. It's a big deal for sport hunters -- they don't get to hunt deer whenever they want to, after all. They have to wait for opening day.

"Hunting season" is an artificial construct. It's not just the day when deer, or turkey or quail or any other type of game, are expected to be out in the open for hunters to kill (also known as "harvesting"). Opening and closing days for all types of game are determined by departments of natural resources, or variations thereof, for each different state in the country. Hunting seasons for all types of game vary from state to state, although typically by no more than a month. In South Carolina, for example, wild turkey spring season runs from April 1 to May 1 [source: SCDNR]. In New York State, it's May 1 through May 31. Why the variation? It would probably be easier to set a nationwide season for wild turkey. Then hunters and hunting authorities could plan for each hunt well in advance.


Ease isn't the primary factor in setting hunting dates, though. It's actually kind of low down on the list of criteria considered by government natural-resources agencies. The primary goal is simple: conserve game populations at their ideal numbers. Not only do animals need protection from overhunting, but hunters also need protection from a dwindling population that will interfere with their recreation.

­The ideal population size for any animal is the number the habitat can support comfortably in terms of food sources and space. The goal is simple, but the implementation is complex. There are many factors that go into setting the dates for any given hunting season, not the least of which is getting a decent estimate of current population sizes (see How is the deer population counted? to learn about the process). And when regulators have a number to work with, that's just the beginning.

In this article, we'll check out how states determine the dates for hunting seasons. It's an interesting process that is built on a good understanding of the biology of various game animals. Let's begin with the core factor: the number of animals in a given area.


Hunting Seasons: Turn, Turn, Turn

A displaying tom.
Hunting season usually factors in the animals' breeding season. This tom is displaying for a female during mating season.
Don Johnston/All Canada Photos/Getty Images

The goal of setting hu­nting season dates is t­o manage animal populations. The factors that go into the decision all stem from there. If the population is too large, regulators will time it to give hunters a greater advantage in the harvest. If the population is shrinking, they'll set the dates to give the animals a greater survival advantage. That's the simplest way of looking at it.

There are quite a few factors that go into achieving those ends, though. The primary ones are:


  • Breeding/nesting
  • Age/gender distribution
  • Recreational concerns
  • Economic concerns

Let's start with the simplest factors: economics and recreation.

Hunting is big business. States, counties and cities sell hunting licenses, and they make a lot of money at it. Also, there are the hotels, restaurants and local outfitters who benefit from an influx of hunters into the area. Regulators have to take this into account when determining both the dates and the length of any given season. They also need to take into account what the people want. Hunting is a popular activity, and government agencies try not to disappoint. As important as these factors are, though, they're perhaps the least influential. Managing animal populations tops the list of priorities.

Using biological data on factors, primarily based on an understanding of breeding and incubation periods, managers manipulate season dates to expand or shrink populations. For instance, wild turkeys go through three primary phases in producing offspring: gobbling (attracting mates), mating and nesting. If the wild turkey population is too large in a particular area, the government might set the opening date of hunting season to coincide with the height of the gobbling period. During this time, turkeys are out and about, so more of them will be killed by hunters. If there are not enough turkeys, the opening date might be moved back to coincide with the breeding or nesting periods, when females will be less available and most males have already had a chance to mate with as many females as they can.

Since the timing of breeding periods for all game (and between different types of game), as well as population densities varies by region, different states set different season dates.

Gender distribution within a population is a big deal in animal management. In the case of deer, the government might put limits on the types of males that can be harvested. If they put into effect a rule that only deer with at least four points (the number of points extending from the antlers on at least one side) can be harvested, fewer males will be hunted. This means hunters need to go for more females, which will ultimately reduce the number of offspring produced in a given population.

It's not an exact science by any means. First, population numbers are only estimates, as are the different stages of breeding and incubation periods. But hunters are still legally bound to follow the regulations of whatever area they happen to be in.

What happens if they don't? Say someone kills a three-point buck against regulations, or a hunter takes out a turkey before the season's opening dates? The penalties vary by area, but they typically involve a fine and revocation of hunting licenses for a day, a season or a number of years, depending on the severity of the offense.

Aside from the financial and recreational consequences, hunting out of season can anger fellow hunters, partly because they're put at a disadvantage for following the rules and partly because most hunters are pretty concerned with maintaining animal populations. So it doesn't make much sense to break these rules. According to most enthusiasts, it only hurts the sport.

For more information on hunting and hunting seasons, look over the links on the next page.


Lots More Information

Re­l­ated HowStuffWorks Articles

More Great Links

  • Abagiu, Catalin. "Changes proposed for deer hunting season look to limit herd, please hunters." Dec. 29, 2007. Missourian.http://www.columbiamissourian.com/stories/2007/12/29/changes-proposed-deer-hunting-season-look-preserve/
  • Dailey, Tom. "Review of Missouri's Quail Hunting Season Dates." The Cover Headquarters Volume 5 Issue 3 Fall 2006.http://www.qu.org/content/news/mdc/article.cfm?id=148
  • Setting of Spring Gobbler Season. West Virginia Department of Natural Resources. http://www.wvdnr.gov/Hunting/SpringTurkReg.shtm
  • Setting Spring Hunting Seasons by Timing Peak Gobbling, Peak Breeding and Peak Nesting. South Carolina Department of Natural Resources. www.dnr.sc.gov/wildlife/turkey/SpringSeasons06.pdf
  • Shackleton, David M. "Wild Sheep and Goats and Their Relatives." International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources Species Survival Commission, Caprinae Specialist Group.http://books.google.com/books?id=hJBodAXB9eoC&pg=PA368&lpg=PA368&dq=hunting+season+factors+mating&source=web&ots=u1UwXuyUvs&sig=-6kIq8bMzhe3ajaPg7CdF7pPYHw&hl=en&sa=X&oi=book_result&resnum=3&ct=result
  • Why Georgia Doesn't Have a Fall Turkey Hunting Season. Georgia Department of Natural Resources.http://georgiawildlife.dnr.state.ga.us/documentdetail.aspx?docid=607&pageid=1&category=hunting