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2002 Hunting Forecast

A decade ago, probably only a handful of people outside the scientific community were familiar with El Niño. Today the effects of this warming of Southern Pacific waters on Texas weather and hunting are common knowledge. During an El Niño episode, most of Texas is likely to be hotter and drier than normal from spring through early fall, though the following winter may be very wet. Lack of rain and the food it produces during the birthing and growing season can reduce wildlife populations and inhibit body and antler growth. That's the bad news. The good news is that a shortage of natural foods means game animals have to move more to fill their bellies and are therefore easier to hunt.

Edited by Larry D. Hodge

Texas Parks and Wildlife Department biologists are acutely aware of the effects of weather on game populations - they see the good, the bad and the ugly daily. Knowing that an El Niño seems to be in the making, all were conservative when predicting hunting conditions for the coming season. Still, most feel the 2002 season will be average or slightly above average, because all but the western and far northern parts of the state received good rains in late 2001 and early 2002. However, in a state that arguably offers some of the best deer, turkey, dove, quail and waterfowl hunting in the nation, an average season can still furnish plenty of excitement. And with just a little rain at the right times, the experts say, the season could be very good in most parts of the state.

Region by region, here's what TPWD biologists had to say after gazing into their crystal balls.

District 1

Trans-Pecos

Mike Hobson, District Biologist

Mule deer. The mule deer population reached a low of approximately 95,000 animals in 1999 but increased to 99,790 during 2000. Population census surveys during 2001 indicated a 36.2 percent increase in the Trans-Pecos population, for a total of 135,918 animals.

There's more good news. In addition to there being more mule deer on the ground, the buck-to-doe ratio is one buck to every 1.58 does. Landowner emphasis on harvesting only mature bucks has contributed significantly to the excellent buck-to-doe ratio. Harvest data for last season indicated that 57 percent of all mule deer taken were 5½ years old or older. Because the Trans-Pecos has such good age structure in the buck segment of the deer herd, areas supporting low numbers of deer that receive rainfall this year will produce quality mule deer acceptable to most hunters.

White-tailed deer. Antler drop occurs in West Texas during March and April, and new antlers begin to grow almost immediately. Rainfall received during the spring and summer months affects the quality of antler development. Summer thundershowers are common on the east side of the district, but if the Trans-Pecos does not receive its summer and fall rains, then we can expect no better than an average hunting season for whitetails.

Pronghorns. Like mule deer, Trans-Pecos pronghorns reached their highest population level - more than 17,000 animals - during the three wet years in the mid-1980s. Since that time, pronghorns have suffered a long-term decline in numbers. By 2001, antelope numbered only 5,061 animals. The antelope population has not been this low in West Texas since 1964.

In the mixed prairies of West Texas, antelope live on forbs and browse. "This year, pronghorn antelope are facing some very tough times," says Misty Sumner, TPWD biologist at Kent. "The higher pronghorn density areas are still extremely dry, with the vegetation seeming almost transparent." Mike Sullins in Marfa says, "Antelope numbers remain low in District 1, and permit issuance probably will not increase substantially for the fall 2002 season. The good news is that 2001 had a good fawn crop compared to the two previous years. A decent number of older bucks seen last year should produce some quality trophies for the 2002 season."

Ground-nesting birds. If Mother Nature does her part, 2002 could be a good year for quail and turkeys. Some areas have an abundance of birds, and the stage is set for a better season than last year, weather permitting.

Scaled quail are located in the majority of the district. Gambel's quail can be found along the Rio Grande and adjacent drainages from Presidio to El Paso. Bobwhites occur in the northeastern portion of the district around the Midland/Odessa/Crane area. Rio Grande turkeys live primarily in southeast Pecos and Terrell counties. Adequate numbers of mature gobblers should be present in these areas.

Doves. Dove hunting will be spotty this year in many areas of the Trans-Pecos. Winter moisture sufficient for enhanced production of forb and grass seeds has been lacking. "At times there are lots of doves in District 1, but they tend to move on quickly for whatever reason," says Tim Bone. "Generally, weather during September and October dictates how many birds hang around." Philip Dickerson, TPWD biologist at Midland, predicts dove numbers will be excellent around that area.

Javelinas. Javelinas remain an untapped resource in most areas of the Trans-Pecos. Javelinas can be found from the lower Chihuahuan Desert up to mountain elevations around 4,000 feet.

District 2

Panhandle

Danny Swepston, District Biologist

Mule deer and white-tailed deer. The ranges of these species overlap in much of the Panhandle, and both deer continue to expand their range. Whitetails in varying densities are now found in many of the High Plains counties because of cover provided by Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) lands. Mule deer have been reported moving eastward along the drainages to almost the Wichita Falls area.

The 2001-2002 season produced a number of excellent trophies for hunters, even though range conditions were only average in many areas because of low rainfall. However, even with the current dry conditions, it is expected that the majority of deer over-wintered in fair to good condition, because most have access to agricultural areas that supply food. No significant changes in population and antler quality are anticipated for the upcoming season.

Pronghorns. Pronghorn populations have remained stable over most of the Panhandle in the last few years. The past two seasons have not produced the horn quality of previous years, but this may be due to heavy hunter harvest of older bucks in some herd units. As with the deer herds, access to winter wheat and other agricultural crops helps offset poor range conditions in many areas. The population and horn quality in the upcoming season should be similar to the 2001 season.

Bobwhite and scaled quail. Bobwhite quail populations in the Panhandle dropped in 2001 to one of the lowest levels recorded since 1977. Range conditions were good until early June, when rainfall declined rapidly and temperatures rose. Chick survival was poor, and this was reflected in the low hunter success last fall. Unless significant rains are received in April and May to improve ground cover and insect populations, it is expected that hunter success will be poor again this year.

Scaled quail reproduction in 2001 surprised many people. Good to excellent populations occurred in the southern counties and on the northern plains of the Panhandle. Since the population cycles of this species in the Panhandle can vary widely from year to year, it is very difficult to predict hunting prospects for the coming season. However, if poor range conditions continue, the populations should be below the 2001 level.

Rio Grande turkeys. Turkey reproduction in 2001 was good to excellent. This was especially encouraging, since reproduction in many of the southeastern counties had been poor for several years. Even if the hatch is poor in 2002, there should be an adequate carryover of toms to provide good hunting in the coming season.

Lesser prairie chickens. Prairie chicken populations remain low and, if the dry weather continues, hatching success will be severely impacted.

Ring-necked pheasants. Along with weather, changes in farming practices continue to affect pheasant populations negatively throughout the Panhandle. The 2001-2002 season was fair to poor, depending on location. Prospects are similar for the coming season.

District 3

Possum Kingdom

Ralph Suarez, Biologist

White-tailed deer. The large number of fawns produced during the summer of 2001 means there will be many young bucks on the range during 2002. Landowners and hunters seeking to improve the age structure of their deer herd should be selective when harvesting bucks. The 2000-2001 and 2001-2002 deer seasons saw fewer deer than normal harvested on most deer ranges. Many deer did not visit corn feeders on a regular basis because of the availability of native forage; consequently, many deer in all age classes moved into the next older age class. Tag the older bucks and give the young ones time to grow.

In general, deer should be in good body condition, especially if it continues to rain. Antler development should be average on most deer ranges with the exception of properly managed properties, where above-average antler development may be seen. Properties under intense deer management programs should be able to produce some large-antlered deer this season.

Rio Grande turkeys. Drier-than-normal conditions have kept turkey reproduction well below average in much of the district since 1997. However, this was not the case during the spring and summer of 2001. Abundant fall and winter rains of 2000 and improved nesting conditions during the spring of 2001 set the stage for one of the largest turkey hatches in recent times.

The large number of turkeys hatched during 2001 has resulted in a very large breeding population this year. With favorable nesting conditions this spring, we again can expect a reasonably good hatch during 2002. Hunters should have plenty of turkeys to hunt this season; however, there may be fewer older birds to harvest until young recruits make it into the older age groups.

Doves. Mourning dove hunting is very popular in this part of the state and can be very productive in areas with adequate food sources and watering holes. In addition, white-winged doves are now nesting in cities, small towns and some rural areas and are increasing. It is recommended that dove hunters purchase a white-winged dove stamp or Super Combo license when hunting in this part of the state, as whitewings are likely to be part of the bag.

Adequate rainfall during last fall and winter has the potential to create better-than-average early fall dove habitat across most of the district. In some areas, the winter wheat crop is grazed only by livestock and not harvested during the spring, resulting in a food source for doves during late summer and early fall. Some of the best dove hunting is traditionally in mature sunflower fields. Stock ponds and small lakes are also good hunting locations when other sources of water become scarce.

Bobwhite and scaled quail. Quail populations are difficult to predict, even on ranges that are managed with the intent of increasing quail populations. Quail numbers were up slightly during the fall of 2001. The western part of the district reported a large hatch of blue quail during 2001. Hunters reported fair to good quail hunting this winter in the central and western portions of the region. Mild winter conditions have the potential to allow for more quail broodstock to be on the ground for this year's breeding season. If favorable nesting conditions occur during the early part of summer, there is the potential for a good quail hatch for 2002. With a few good rains and some insects for young quail chicks to feed on, quail hunters may be treated to one of the better seasons in recent years.

District 4

Edwards Plateau

Max Traweek, District Biologist

White-tailed deer. Adult buck antler quality and body condition should be about average this fall, depending on how the spring and summer weather plays out. The question is whether the wetter-than-normal final months of 2001 laid an adequate foundation for better-than-average antler quality for the 2002 hunting season. My guess is that the dry conditions experienced during the first part of 2002 will result in no better-than-average antlers this fall. Body condition during the hunting season will depend entirely on what happens weatherwise during the spring and summer months.

Deer hunting success during the 2002-2003 hunting season will hinge heavily on range conditions just prior to and during the October through January seasons. Many hunters and landowners reported tough hunting last year due to the good fall green-up resulting from widespread and ample rainfall received from late August all the way through December. A good supply of native groceries, in the form of fresh greens and/or a heavy acorn crop, always means tougher hunting here in the Hill Country.

Rio Grande turkeys. Turkey production was excellent throughout the Hill Country last summer, due mainly to the wet spring we enjoyed. Unfortunately, 2002 started off much drier than last year. Unless conditions improve considerably during spring and early summer, I would not expect much of a turkey hatch in 2002. Even so, adequate numbers of adults from the previous year will be available during the 2002 hunting season.

Bobwhite and scaled quail. Although not known as a big quail area, the Hill Country is home to moderate populations of bobwhites in the north-central counties and scaled quail in the western counties. The 2002-predicted quail hatch and resulting bird availability during the hunting season looks to be about normal at this stage in the game. As with turkeys, though, if rainfall picks up on into the warm months we could be looking at a decent hatch and fall survival.

Doves. Dove hunting is usually very spotty in our area, and availability of birds hinges heavily on production in other regions of the state and country. The best hunting will be around feeding and watering sites.

District 5

Post Oak Savannah

Kevin Herriman, District Biologist

White-tailed deer. Preliminary reports indicate that the total deer harvest for the 2001 hunting season in the Post Oak Savannah may have been down slightly from previous years. Plenty of native forage and mild weather conditions made life easier on the deer than on the hunters.

Population data suggest that deer densities across the Post Oak Savannah have remained stable for the past 10 years. Harvest data collected during the 2001-2002 deer season indicated yearling bucks (18 months old) comprised about 39 percent of the total harvest. Also, harvest data from the past few years suggest a trend of increasing numbers of 2½-year-old bucks in the annual harvest. Antler measurements and body weights for yearling bucks in the Post Oak Savannah have been increasing over the past 10 to 20 years; however, there were slight declines in 2001. These health indices probably will rebound in 2002, because the yearling bucks of this coming season were born during the 2001 growing season, when good range conditions prevailed throughout most of the spring and summer.

Eastern turkeys. Our best eastern turkey populations are located in the northern counties of the Post Oak Savannah. The 2001 turkey hatch was above average and should provide ample hunting opportunity for the 2002-2003 seasons.

Doves. Good dove hunting opportunities in the district probably will be scattered, with the best hunts located where food, water and cover are in close proximity. A little preseason scouting will improve your chances for dove hunting success.

Squirrels. Squirrel hunting opportunities for the 2002 season should be better than those experienced in 2001, primarily due to the consistently good acorn crop we saw throughout the Post Oak Savannah in the fall of 2001. Years of good mast production typically are followed by years of good squirrel reproduction.

Waterfowl. As always, duck hunting in East Texas depends on having water at the right time along with an abundance of preferred foods such as acorns and aquatic plants. When winter rains fill our East Texas bottomland forests and wetlands, duck hunting opportunities increase. Get ahead of the game by indulging in some preseason scouting while squirrel hunting.

District 6

Pineywoods

Gary Calkins, Biologist

White-tailed deer. Hunters reported having a hard time locating deer during the 2001-2002 season, resulting in a deer harvest somewhat lower than in the previous few years. All indications are that the deer herd is doing well throughout the Pineywoods and increasing slightly in some areas. The low harvest last year should mean there will be additional deer in the woods this year, if habitat conditions are good enough to carry them through the summer.

Harvest of 1½-year-old bucks jumped slightly during the 2001-2002 season, while harvest of 2½ and 3½-year-old deer remained fairly constant. This probably will limit the number of 2½-year-old deer in the woods but should still give hunters the opportunity to look for that wall hanger. Antler size and body weights for deer harvested in 2001-2002 dropped somewhat, but this appears to be an anomaly and should rebound given the good habitat conditions of the past winter.

Squirrels and small game. Squirrel hunters should expect a good year, due to the fairly abundant acorn crop through most of the district in 2001.

The public lands available in East Texas offer hunters good opportunities for hunting a variety of small game in the fall. Different areas offer better chances for different species based on the habitat available. Everything from rabbits to woodcock challenges the Pineywoods hunter.

Waterfowl. Waterfowl hunting is very weather-dependent. Hunters were able to locate birds in the northern portion of the Pineywoods this past year, but those hunting farther south found it a bit more challenging. The habitat is here if cold weather will push the birds down to us. Scout to find locations with water and duck foods and watch for northers cold enough to make birds move south.

Eastern turkeys. Public hunting, both on United States Forest Service property and land in the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department public hunting lands program, should provide hunters with good opportunities for a hunt for eastern turkeys next spring. This past year, weather conditions should have allowed for a good reproductive effort and minimal loss of adult birds.

District 7

Coastal Prairies & Marshes

There are big changes in store for deer hunters in Austin, Colorado, Fayette, Lavaca, Lee and Washington counties. Due to heavy hunting pressure on 1½-year-old bucks, a three-year experimental regulation regarding buck harvest was adopted by the Texas Parks and Wildlife Commission in April. Hunters need to be aware of the new definition of a legal buck (see "That Eight-Pointer May Not be Legal," page 11.) During August and September, TPWD will be holding training sessions on judging legal deer within the six experimental counties. Hunters and land managers are encouraged to contact their local TPWD biologist or the District 7 Wildlife office at (979) 968-6591 for the dates and times of training sessions. Or check the Oak-Prairie Wildlife Management, .

In brief, the regulation defines a legal buck deer in Austin, Colorado, Fayette, Lavaca, Lee and Washington counties as a deer having: (1) a hardened antler protruding through the skin and at least one unbranched antler; or (2) a deer having one antler with six or more points; or (3) a deer having an inside spread between the main beams of 13 inches or greater. In these counties the average spread of a 3½-year-old buck is 13 inches, and the approximate distance between the tips of a buck deer's ears, when in the alert position, is 13 inches. This should aid hunters in judging the spread on bucks.

The purpose of the new regulation is to improve the age structure of the deer herd by protecting the better-quality 1½- and 2½-year-old bucks and harvesting the poorer-quality 1½-year-old bucks. Harvest data indicate heavy hunting pressure in most counties within the district on 1½- and 2½-year-old bucks and a lack of bucks in older age classes. Research on white-tailed deer has shown that a deer herd dominated by young bucks does not function properly.

White-tailed deer. Excellent winter and spring rains during 2001 provided good forage, browse and fawning cover for deer. The good habitat conditions led to very high fawn survival during 2001. This equates to a large number of 1½-year-old bucks available during the 2002 season. Protecting this generation from overharvest as outlined above means hunters will take fewer bucks this season, but the quality of bucks available in future years should improve considerably.

Eastern turkeys. Turkey numbers appeared to be up last year due to excellent habitat conditions afforded by rains received during the winter and spring of 2001. Landowners reported seeing turkeys in areas where they had been absent for three or more years. An exciting addition to the turkey season in 2003 will be the opening of a spring eastern turkey season in Fort Bend, Brazoria, Matagorda and Wharton counties. Check the 2002-2003 Outdoor Annual for details.

Bobwhite quail. A large portion of the district no longer supports large quail populations due to habitat loss. Most of the remaining quail habitat is found in the southern part of the district including Refugio, Victoria and Goliad counties. The fall quail population is directly related to annual recruitment, as this game bird has a high turnover rate from year to year. Reproductive success is dependent upon habitat quality and climatic conditions. In this area reproductive success is often adversely affected by too much rain rather than too little. Assuming favorable weather conditions, the areas that had a good carryover of brood stock should have decent populations this fall.

Alligators and waterfowl. James Sutherlin, project leader for the Upper Coast Wetlands Ecosystems Project, and Matt Nelson, wildlife biologist on the Central Coast Wetlands Ecosystems Project, report that the winter 2001 rains put the coastal marshes in good condition. Alligator numbers should be about the same as they were last year.

Waterfowl hunting will depend once again on winter temperatures. Coastal marsh hunters will be dependent on cold weather, forcing the birds out of the rice prairies farther north.

District 8

South Texas

White-tailed deer. Most deer hunters this fall will find average to above-average numbers of mature deer in the field. Fawns born during the summer of 1997 enjoyed a diversity of forage and excellent habitat conditions. In 2002, these deer will move into the 5½-year-old age class.

Rains in early fall 2001 provided lots of green forage for deer and created problems for hunters. Lush conditions, muddy ranch roads and warm weather did not promote good hunting. As a result, there was a good carryover of 1997 fawns into the 5½-year age class. In addition, those few bucks that survived the poor fawn crops of 1995 and 1996 and hunting seasons since will provide hunters with good numbers of mature bucks 5 to 7 years old with above-average antler quality in 2002.

Bobwhite and scaled quail. Quail numbers remain fair to good in South Texas. Roadside surveys indicate the best hatch in five years. Hunting prospects, though, will vary from one part of the district to another. Areas with quality quail habitat and on properly managed sites will offer hunters better opportunity in 2002, despite continuing dry conditions.

The early fall rains of 2001 prolonged nesting into October and early November in deep South Texas. It would be difficult to determine, though, how many of these late-hatching birds survived over the winter. There appears to be sufficient nesting habitat on better-managed ranches with a good carryover of adult birds. Look for a fair to good hatch in South Texas except for the southwestern and western portions of the district. Quail hunting prospects look fair to good in those areas of the district with a sufficient carryover of birds from 2001 and a decent hatch in 2002.

Scaled quail tolerate more arid habitat conditions, and survey trends indicate that they are on the increase in the southwestern and western portions of the district.

Rio Grande turkeys. Like quail, turkeys are ground nesters and require ground moisture and cover along with rainfall to promote insect production. Turkey production in 2001 was the third best in the last 10 years. There will be many jakes available to spring turkey hunters in 2003. South Texas had poor hatches from 1998 through 2000. Consequently, there will be fewer "boss gobblers" available to hunters in 2002-2003, but Rio Grande turkey numbers remain stable, and turkey hunting in South Texas should be good to excellent despite past poor production and continuing drought.

Doves. Mourning dove numbers remain stable in South Texas, while white-winged dove numbers continue to increase. Hunters will find doves in areas that have plenty of food, water and roosting sites. Invariably, hunters in South Texas are disappointed when early fall weather patterns coinciding with the later-opening south zone season scatter the birds by either pushing them farther south or providing standing water in almost any depression on the ground. Hunters in South Texas should take advantage of migratory doves arriving later in the season.

Javelinas. One of the few species of game animals minimally affected by continued drought conditions is the collared peccary, better known as the javelina. Hunters will find javelinas anywhere they find prickly pear cactus, a preferred food choice. Interest in hunting javelinas remains low except from hunters outside of South Texas or from out of state.

High-Tech Hunting

Whether you're a deep-sea fisher or seasoned deer hunter, a variety of "new and improved" gadgets and gizmos exist to assist you in almost every realm of outdoor activities. One of the most beneficial is the Global Positioning System (GPS). GPS uses satellites to determine locations and elevations of almost any geographic area. With the help of computerized Geographic Information Systems (GIS) for mapping and navigation, locations and elevations can be viewed, color-coded and manipulated to fit the needs of the user. Instead of just having a paper map, the computer interprets data collected by the satellite to create color-enhanced aerial photography and topography maps that are far more detailed, accurate and geographically correct than their hand-drawn predecessors.

GPS devices have been available to the general public for only about 10 years, during which time they have become more user-friendly, mainstream and increasingly popular among a variety of sportsmen.

"You can purchase one of the hand-held GPS units for about $100," says Stephen Lange, a Texas Parks and Wildlife Department wildlife technician at Old Sabine Bottom Wildlife Management Area. Lange has created specialized aerial and topography maps for roughly half of the WMAs in East Texas. Although most WMA maps are not available for public distribution at this time, they usually are found on display at the on-site field offices. "Using basic latitude and longitude coordinates, you can mark hunting blinds and game trails, and offshore rigs and reefs for fishing and diving. And whether you're going out on a boat or on foot, you can mark your starting location so you'll always know how to get back."

But even sportsmen who do not own a GPS device can benefit from using GIS-generated maps like the ones available at the Old Sabine Bottom WMA headquarters. "We can tailor the maps to fit almost any specific need," explains Lange. "In the fall, for example, a lot of deer hunters come out to the WMA trying to find the oak bottoms, and duck hunters scout for available water sources. The hunting compartment maps we've created can exactly pinpoint those key habitat areas."

GIS mapping techniques are also a helpful tool for private landowners. "If a landowner has a hand-drawn map of his property, I can pull up a GIS aerial map on the computer, draw in their property boundaries, and actually get a fairly good calculation of the acreage and types of habitats that exist within that acreage," Lange explains.

In support of the East Texas Wetlands Project, a cooperative program supporting waterfowl and wetland conservation on private lands in Texas, the Tyler Junior College GIS Department in conjunction with Texas Ducks Unlimited recently assisted in the production of wetland development plans for more than 20 private properties in East Texas. Maps have been produced by TJC for each project determining site vicinity, site location, wetland enhancement and habitat characteristics.

To request information about map availability in other East Texas WMAs, contact Lange at (903) 881-8233.

- Erica H. Brasseux

Deer Permits for East Texas Landowners

In 1993, Texas Parks and Wildlife Department established the Landowner Assisted Management Permitting System (LAMPS). An average of 50 East Texas counties participate in this program each year, the intent of which is to issue antlerless deer (doe) permits to assist East Texas managers whose goal is to manage deer effectively on their properties. Maintaining the deer herd at healthy levels regarding habitat and buck-to-doe ratios is a vital part of any deer management program. LAMPS provides managers an additional tool to attempt to achieve higher-quality deer herds. Harvest of antlerless deer is an important ingredient of any management program to control the numbers of deer coming into the herd on an annual basis.

Keeping deer numbers near the carrying capacity (a healthy level for the habitat) is necessary for any deer management program. If there are more deer on the property than the habitat can carry, they will overuse the plant species they use as food. Over time, too much use of a given plant species may cause it to disappear.

If does aren't harvested, deer may overpopulate the range and damage the habitat. Less forage means fewer deer - and other wildlife species - in the future. So LAMPS creates a means for landowners to manage their herds for overall wildlife management.

Individual properties generate different results. In Red River and neighboring counties, LAMPS managers reported after this past hunting season that the deer population on their property is now dropping to a more sustainable number. Earlier this year, agents near Leon and Cherokee counties expressed alarm at their doe-to-buck ratio, but the population of does still seems to be rising quickly. One possible reason: harvesting only trophy bucks and not using the LAMPS permits issued to them.

Any landowner (or designated agent of the legal landowner) may apply for LAMPS permits where available. However, applying does not guarantee permits. To qualify for an application, the property must: 1) be in a county in which LAMPS is implemented and 2) meet minimum acreage qualifications. Then, the habitat must meet with established guidelines for maintaining quality herds for that area. The application will include questions about habitat, location and ownership, and will be strictly confidential. Accurate information on the estimated amount and types of habitat on the property is critical in determining permit issuance rates.

The application for general season is Sept. 1 to guarantee a response before the first day of hunting season. For other deadlines and more information, call the LAMPS hotline at (409) 489-0823 or visit the General Information about LAMPS.

- Danell Reilly

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