The weather is still hot, but deer season is upon us. Depending on what part of the state you’re in, you already may be archery hunting, or you may be impatiently waiting for opening day. This year shouldn’t be significantly different from last year, biologists say, but there are a few areas that should have better hunting than others.
“We’re seeing the continuation of a steady deer population at the state level,” said Cory Morea, the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission’s (FWC’s) Deer Management Program Coordinator. “In some areas of the state, we would like to see the numbers of deer come up, based on hunter desires and preferences. And there are other parts of the state where we’d like to get the population down a little bit to deal with deer depredation issues.”
Overall, Morea said, the deer herd is in good shape statewide. “We haven’t detected CWD in the state,” Morea said. “Our major disease impacts in the state usually are EHD (epizootic hemorrhagic disease) and bluetongue, and those have been relatively minor in recent years. So, numbers are good, we had decent rainfall last year, and reproduction seemed to be good. The deer herd is in pretty good shape.”
One area where biologists would like to see more deer taken is the Panhandle. In this region, where large swaths of agriculture still exist, so-called “deer conflicts” result in growers wanting fewer deer browsing on crops. “These conflicts are particularly in the western Panhandle, in Escambia, Walton and Santa Rosa counties,” Morea said. This area is primarily in Deer Management Unit (DMU) D2, which is north of Interstate 10 in Zone D.
st harvests from hunters, and we want to see that trend continue,” Morea said. “We’ve provided some extra opportunities to harvest antlerless deer there, both through the antlerless deer permit program and by issuing antlerless deer permits on some Wildlife Management Areas.”
At the other end of the spectrum, biologists would like to see deer numbers increase in DMU units D1, C3 (the Big Bend region), and in Zone A (south Florida) in general. “Several years ago, when we implemented the deer management units, we also implemented changes to antlerless deer harvest opportunities,” Morea said. “That included adjusting the number of days available to harvest antlerless deer, based on deer densities and hunter preferences. Some areas have fewer days, and that includes Zone A.” The three DMUs in Zone A have a more restrictive antlerless deer harvest than the rest of the state.
“Deer densities and reproduction in Zone A are challenged, and we want to give those herds the best shot at increasing as much as possible,” Morea said. Several other areas, including most of Zone C and DMU D1 also have fewer days for antlerless harvest than the counties in unit D2.
“The hope is to stabilize to slightly increase the population in those units,” Morea said. “Units D2 and C5 have more robust populations, so there’s more harvest opportunity of antlerless deer there to help keep those populations stable and to minimize negative impacts.”
Although CWD and hemorrhagic diseases have not been of particular concern for the past couple years, Morea said biologists always watch the weather. “A big factor in recruitment in Florida is the weather, in particular rainfall throughout the year,” he said. “Any time we have severe drought situations, it can impact recruitment. In south Florida, if there’s too much rain at the wrong time of year, that can really impact recruitment.”
Last year, Morea said, most of the state received good rainfall, and recruitment appears to have benefitted from that. “In south Florida, however, water levels were pretty high,” he said. “As a result, recruitment rates there were negatively impacted.”
The September hurricane last year did have some local effects, but nothing that affected the deer herd in widespread fashion. “Besides washing out some hunts and causing some management areas throughout the state to be closed until they could be inspected by staff and cleared for public use, the impacts were minimal to deer in general,” Morea said. “In fact, we have some radio collared deer in south Florida that are part of our south Florida study, and it was pretty interesting to see how they moved in relation to the hurricane. The eye passed almost over the study area. The deer moved out into the real open areas and got away from the trees when the weather was really bad, and then sought cover when the storm passed.”
As this story was being prepared, weather patterns so far in the year appeared normal.
“It’s too early for EHD or bluetongue,” Morea said. “That doesn’t happen until late summer and early fall. Right now, everything looks pretty good for the fall of 2018.”
Although there are no major rule changes for 2018, Morea said, hunters need to be aware of coming changes that will take effect in the fall of 2019. “We are considering a number of rule changes statewide for deer,” he said. “These changes will help us manage deer at a better level, and will let us respond to hunter requests for changes. We developed proposals from a staff action team; those proposals then went stakeholder groups who reviewed them and made suggestions. We’re vetting those rule changes internally right now (in May), and will probably be releasing them for public input in July.”
These rule changes will not impact the 2018 season, Morea said, but would affect the 2019 season if they’re passed. “We had no rule changes this year except for a few WMA regulations changes,” he said. “But on a statewide scale, there are no changes that would affect the 2018-2019 season.”
Morea offered a few hints of what hunters should look for during the 2019 season.
“Hunters have asked us to look into the possibility of season bag limits,” he said. “We’re also looking at our antlerless deer permit program to see how that program could be updated to match current conditions and improve our ability to manage deer.”
The changes in the antler rules that went into effect a couple years ago have impacted the deer herd in ways that biologists expected. “We have seen an increase in the average number of antler points on harvested bucks,” Morea said. “That’s not surprising, but it is an indication that hunters are taking fewer year-and-a-half-old bucks and harvesting a higher proportion of 2 1/2-year-and older bucks. That was the goal of the antler point regulations that were implemented three years ago in Zones A, B, and C and four years ago in Zone D. So, it’s a positive sign to see that.”
Overall, the deer harvest has declined over the past several years, due to fewer hunters participating. “We’re working on that,” Morea said. “We have an R3 program: recruitment, retention and re-activation. There’s national interest in R3 efforts, and we have dedicated staff within FWC to work toward R3 efforts in the future. We have been offering youth hunts and Becoming An Outdoors Woman events for years now to help promote hunting, and we’re looking for more ways to get kids involved in the outdoors and help replace our aging hunters.”
The fieldwork portion of the south Florida deer study will be ending in December. “This is the fifth year of that study, and we have a lot of good data and information from that study,” Morea said. “That will really help us make management decisions regarding deer in south Florida, particularly in Zone A.”
DEER HUNTING WITH DOGS
Several years ago, the FWC started requiring deer hunters using dogs to register their dogs with the commission, and encouraging hunters to use smaller dogs than they have used in the past. “We’ve seen increased effort in the dog hunting community to maintain the sport,” Morea said. “They have taken measures even beyond those implemented by the FWC to help ensure that their dogs stay where they’re supposed to stay. They’re being more active in the community in organizing fund-raising events and helping local management agencies with pick up trash days and things like that.”
Morea continued, “We’ve seen several groups of dog hunters really step up and take matters into their own hands and really push to improve their situation. With their self-motivation, along with current regulations, we have seen a steady decline in deer dog conflicts. We still have little pockets here and there, and we continue to work on issues that come up related to deer dogs, but they certainly seem to be in the best place they have been in, in years.”