The State Of Natural State Whitetails

Reports from biologists around the state indicate that this should be a good year for deer hunters in Arkansas. (July 2007)

Photo by Grady Harrison.

"My fellow Americans -- "


That's how the President often starts the State of the Union address, so I thought it might be appropriate here -- or not. Maybe I should start with "my fellow Arkansans," or, better yet, "my fellow Arkansas deer hunters." This is, after all, a state of the deer address, which I'm sure at least a few Natural State outdoorsmen consider as important as the presidential variety. I'm probably one of those myself.

So, my fellow Arkansas deer hunters, here is the state of your whitetails.


During my youth, back in the 1960s and '70s, I spent a lot of time hunting far fewer deer than we have today. As an example, statistics compiled by the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission tell me that in 1968, the first year I ever ventured afield, there were a total of only 20,063 deer killed statewide. When you consider that overall hunter numbers weren't much lower back then than they are today (250,000 or thereabouts), that doesn't figure out to be a very high success ratio (.08 percent).


And those weren't the toughest times. As hard as it may be for "youngsters" to believe today, the whitetail was once virtually extinct here in Arkansas, following the sad trail into oblivion already taken by the elk and the buffalo. Along about 1932, AGFC officials estimated that fewer than 500 animals (that's total) inhabited the entire state! That's about as close to extinct as you can get.

A lot of factors created that state of affairs, the foremost two probably being the heavy market hunting that took place during the first part of the 20th century and the extensive land clearing that occurred as more and more settlers moved into the area. In addition, an incredible flood covered most of the eastern half of the state in 1927, pushing the deer there onto small spots of high ground, where they were slaughtered by the hundreds.

But as we all know, humans are themselves funny animals. For no sooner had we done virtually everything we could to destroy the whitetails than we raised a great cry to bring them back!

In reality, the process had already begun. As early as 1927 national refuges were being formed throughout the state, and within these strictly protected areas the last remnants of the native herd could reproduce and multiply in relative safety. These federal "sanctuaries" were so successful that state-controlled areas were formed shortly thereafter, and by 1945, some 250,000 acres were in the overall program.

As numbers gradually increased, a massive restocking program was begun. Native deer were transplanted from state refuges into other areas, and non-native whitetails were transported here from other states --Wisconsin and Louisiana, primarily. (I often contemplate what the thick-haired Northern deer released here must have thought about Southern temperatures and humidity.)

With the help of established and enforced hunting seasons, bucks-only harvest, and increased habitat gained through modern timber-harvesting methods, the herd steadily grew. The year 1960 is somewhat of a milestone, for by then there were more than 200,000 animals roaming the hills and flatlands, and deer had returned to virtually every part of the state. That growth trend continues even today, when it is generally accepted that the state's population is somewhere around 1,000,000 animals!

What's the purpose of this little history lesson? The events I 've just outlined make it easier to understand the mindset of both hunters and management during most of the 20th century. To those of us who grew up in a time when there were few or no deer, more deer was certainly the desired goal.

The AGFC, which remember until 1996 was totally funded by hunters (through license sales and taxes on outdoor equipment), merely gave its customers what they wanted. Quantity deer management was the order of the day.

But during the 1990s, with a new century looming on the horizon, things began to change.

In 1994 the AGFC enacted an antler restriction in the form of the "3-point rule," which required that at selected state wildlife management areas, a buck had to have at least 3 points on one side, including the tip of the main beam, to be legal. The idea behind the move was that, as most male deer don't have 3 points as yearlings, and as 70 percent of the annual buck kill prior to that date consisted of 1 1/2-year-old deer, this would allow more young bucks to move into older age classes.

That single act is noteworthy, because it was the first step ever taken by our state game agency designed strictly to promote and improve buck quality.

Then, in 1997, a group down around Stuttgart formed the Arkansas County Deer Management Association. The ACDMA lobbied for, and received, a special county designation to operate under the same 3-point guideline that had been instituted three years earlier on those WMAs.

Soon hunters from other parts of the state began to query the commissioners about enacting similar guidelines in their areas. So in the spring of 1998 a survey was conducted to see just how many hunters really supported this "new" approach to deer management. It probably surprised most of those concerned when over 70 percent of those polled stated that they favored "quality" deer management as opposed to "quantity."

With the input from that survey likely playing a major role in their decision, the commissioners voted in April of that same year for a statewide 3-point rule! The statement "If you kill a buck at 1 1/2, he will never be a trophy at 4 or 5" also came into vogue. In addition, but with far less fanfare, the commission also initiated a vastly increased doe harvest.

That's all fine, you might say, but what about today? Well, let's take a look at the state of the herd in different parts of the state.

SOUTHWEST

The area the AGFC terms the southwest region is made up of the extreme southern edge of the Ouachita Mountains, along with the most westerly parts of the Gulf Coastal Plain (GCP). That means that the region contains a mixture of leased timber-company land, public land in the form of the Ouachita National Forest, and tracts of private land of varous sizes.

Gregg Mathis, the regional AGFC biologist, has lived in this part of the state for more than 30 years. A couple of years back Gregg used Hempstead County as an example of the trends taking p

lace there.

"When I first came here deer kill in Hempstead was something around 600 animals a year," Gregg said, "but today that figure is annually somewhere around 2,500. That is pretty much indicative of how numbers have grown throughout this entire region."

"As far as disease, we have seen only minor flareups of epizoÖtic hemorrhagic disease, and the effects of the ice storm that took place back in 2000 are slowly disappearing. Mast is always important as far as herd health is concerned, and we've had two years of good oak production. With a mild winter and wet spring and summer, we should have a good season next fall."

However, changes that bode ill for the future of hunting in this part of the state are taking place. Many of the timber companies either are or have sold off their properties within the region, and hunters are often finding that the new owners have no plans to continue the lease agreements some clubs have had for decades. In other instances the prices to lease the property have gone up to the point where the clubs simply cannot afford to pay them. In either instance the changes may effect hunting there in the future.

SOUTH-CENTRAL

The south-central region consists almost entirely of the Ouachita Mountains, which includes the vast Ouachita National Forest. It is an increasingly important area for hunters in this day and time, since it includes huge amounts of open public hunting. With the lease prices mentioned above steadily rising, that has to be a consideration for many today.

Ricky Chastain, stationed in Hot Springs, is the longtime AGFC regional supervisor for the area.

"I believe that here in the Ouachitas our deer numbers bottomed out some years back," Ricky said recently. "We saw a decline in numbers then, but in the past few years we've seen our numbers start to rebound. The zone quota doe permits have been a big help in turning things around here."

As far as problems facing the region's herd, Ricky mentioned only a few. "The ice storm of 2000 still has its lingering effects here," he said, "and we still have problems in some areas with the red oak borer. But in at least some cases, even those disasters created openings which are now sprouting new growth.

"We have seen no indications of widespread disease here, we had a good mast crop last fall, and we have now had 2 or 3 mild summers in a row. All of those factors added together bode well for increased numbers in the Ouachitas in the future."

SOUTHEAST

Cory Gray, stationed down in Monticello, is the deer project leader for the AGFC, so I queried him about the status of the deer herd not only in the southeast region, but statewide as well. The southeast region, which lies mostly within the GCP, includes such counties as Ashley, Bradley and Drew, where the state's highest kill normally occurs. Occasionally a really good buck is taken there too.

"At this point nothing we have seen indicates a problem where either numbers or overall health of the herd is concerned." Cory said. "However, just like in other parts of the state, one thing that probably does effect hunter success has been the rising lease costs. Many clubs, particularly the smaller ones, try to solve that by taking in more members. In those instances hunter success is going to go down, but it's merely because of the increased pressure.

"There are no major disease problems. We occasionally have spotty dieoffs from EHD, and have even seen a few deer with arterial worms, which causes 'lumpy jaw disease.' But overall our deer are in good shape."

NORTHEAST

Merely thinking about the Arkansas delta, where big bucks supposedly hide behind every tree, makes every trophy hunter's heart beat just a little faster. Robert Zachary, the AGFC regional supervisor from Jonesboro, says that this region, particularly zones 4 and 5, continues to be in good shape.

"Our conservative harvest strategy has stabilized our deer herd numbers, and I feel that we probably have the healthiest deer herd in the entire state. The short gun season, with a pair of two-day shotgun or muzzleloader seasons along Crowley's Ridge, have kept kill there low, and in parts of the region our buck:doe ratio is close to being 1:2 . . . or better."

Naturally the unlimited food source, in addition to the generally older age class of the bucks within this area, are the key factors that make the entire delta the state's top "trophy" region. If you've ever traveled throughout the region you've seen the endless row crops that pump nutrition and minerals into the deer that feed on them, and from a quality viewpoint it doesn't hurt that most of the land there is private. While frustrating to "outsiders," this combination of food source and limited access virtually guarantees bigger deer.

As did most of the other supervisors I talked to, Robert mentioned that he annually finds a few deer that have died from EHD (more commonly known as "blue tongue") but considers that to be almost natural mortality.

"In years when we have a hot, dry summer with strong southern winds, the midges which carry the EHD can be bad. In such years, mortality increases, and hunters will from time to time find dead deer. They naturally become alarmed, but for the most part we have seen no reason for concern."

NORTH-CENTRAL AND NORTHWEST

Bob McAnally, the AGFC regional director from Russellville, has pretty much spent his entire life working and living within the Ozark Mountains. His knowledge of the region is virtually endless.

"There are certainly problems in the Ozarks when compared to other areas, but those are not one-year problems," Bob stated recently. "If you look at a soil fertility graph, you will see that the farther you get away from the bottomlands along the Arkansas River Valley, the poorer the quality of your food sources become. This naturally hurts fawn production and retainment to some degree, but it's nothing really unusual.

"The one-buck limit we had for a couple of years seems to have had a positive effect on buck quality within the Ozarks. I have never seen more 'good' bucks than I saw during this past season. The zone quota doe harvest has also helped our overall numbers rebound in recent years.

"We've seen some EHD," he continued, "but it has been spotty for the most part. I occasionally find dead deer around water, which is one of the indicators, and we see sloughed hooves now and then on deer which are checked. These are indicators that they have survived the disease in the past."

When I asked about problems for the coming season, Bob shook his head. "Weather is always a factor," he noted, "and drought during late summer can have an effect on that year's antler size. But we've now had several good mast crops in a row, along with mild winter temperatures. Nothing sticks out at this time."

Statewide,

one statement made by Cory Gray pretty much sums up the outlook for the future.

"There are spots within the state where deer numbers are lower than they should be," Cory said, "but they're aren't many, and overall the health of our herd is good. In addition, in many areas we have seen a rise in antler quality in recent years, particularly on private lands, which receive help through our Deer Management Assistance Program. So all in all, and unless we have a severe drought this summer, things look good for 2007-08 and beyond."

I suppose that I take the layman's approach to how hunters in our state feel about how the current deer management is going.

A few years back there was much turmoil within the Arkansas deer hunting community. Deer harvest was down, and the AGFC input meetings held in January were packed with hunters all interested in what was taking place with the state's most popular game animal.

This year most of those meetings were unattended, and virtually quiet. That is the most positive indicator that deer hunters today are satisfied with the direction our management is taking!

Find more about Arkansas fishing and hunting at: ArkansasSportsmanMag.com

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