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According to Alan Peoples, chief of wildlife for the Wildlife Department, the new properties would include land never previously available to the public, including several sections of the Mountain Fork River and the Little River that would benefit both hunters and anglers. The land is located east of Smithville near Watson.
The Honobia Creek and Three Rivers WMAs provide access to thousands of acres of privately owned timberlands in southeast Oklahoma through lease agreements between the Wildlife Department and the timber companies that own the land, currently including Weyerhaeuser, Hancock, Rayonier and Molpus. Sportsmen fund the lease agreements through their purchase of the land access permit required of most residents and all non-residents who hunt or fish on the areas. The cost of the land access permit is $40 for residents and $85 for non-residents and provides access to over 300,000 acres of land for hunting and fishing.
The Commission also heard a presentation from Dr. Tim Patton, associate professor for the Department of Biological Sciences at Southeastern Oklahoma State University, on the status of freshwater turtles in eastern Oklahoma.
Freshwater turtles are in decline worldwide, yet there is still a high demand for turtle meat in commercial markets.
"This has actually been identified as perhaps one of if not the most imperiled groups of vertebrates right now," Patton said.
Fifty-five percent of all of the turtle species worldwide are currently considered threatened. Two major reasons for the declines include habitat loss and harvesting for meat and the pet trade.
Turtle populations are more abundant and diverse in the United States and Oklahoma than other regions. However, Patton notes that areas with high demand for turtle meat look to the U.S. for that food supply. According to Patton, 32 million turtles were exported from the U.S. to Asia from 2002 through 2005.
In May 2008, the Commission implemented a temporary ban on commercial turtle harvest in most public waters of Oklahoma and partnered with SEOSU and OSU to conduct population studies.
The research was conducted in the eastern third of Oklahoma and, in order to establish comparable data, was modeled after research done in the late 1990s.
Patton said it is impossible to accurately estimate the actual number of turtles in Oklahoma, so instead a measurement called "catch per unit effort" is used as an indication of abundance. Similar efforts used by biologists in Oklahoma to understand trends in abundance of wildlife populations without providing exact counts include deer spotlight surveys, roadside quail calling counts and electrofishing surveys.
The research showed declines in catch per unit effort at 80 percent of the locations used in the 1990s, and there was a 64 percent reduction overall in the catch. Additionally, while aquatic turtle license sales increased in Oklahoma from 2001 to 2007 just prior to the ban, total reported harvest still declined by about 55,000 turtles per year.
"Harvest has gone down despite an increase in license sales," Patton said.
The current ban, which does allows turtle trapping in private waters, expires in 2013. Patton and his research team have recommended permanently prohibiting commercial turtle harvest in most public waters while still allowing private harvest and removal of turtles from private farm ponds and property. The proposal is expected to be presented at public hearings in January. Before the ban, the Wildlife Department sold less than 100 aquatic turtle licenses per year.
"We have a great working relationship with Dr. Patton that goes back years, and we appreciate their important research efforts on this topic," said Barry Bolton, chief of fisheries for the Wildlife Department.
In other business, Wildlife Department Director Richard Hatcher recognized Tom Wolf, fisheries biologist, for 35 years of service to the Department and sportsmen of the state.
The Wildlife Conservation Commission is the eight-member governing board of the Oklahoma Department of Wildlife Conservation. The Wildlife Commission establishes state hunting and fishing regulations, sets policy for the Wildlife Department and indirectly oversees all state fish and wildlife conservation activities. Commission members are appointed by the governor and confirmed by the Senate.
The next scheduled Commission meeting is set for Nov. 5, at the Oklahoma Department of Wildlife Conservation headquarters (auditorium), located at the southwest corner of 18th and North Lincoln, Oklahoma City.
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