North Carolina's 2009 Deer Outlook Part 1: Our Top Hunting Areas

North Carolina's 2009 Deer Outlook Part 1: Our Top Hunting Areas

Here's a region-by-region forecast of the best places to get your deer in North Carolina. (October 2009)

Although state biologists have warned that the steady increase in deer harvests in North Carolina cannot continue forever, hunters nevertheless set another record during the 2008-09 hunting season, killing 176,297 deer. The previous harvest record of 171,986 was set the previous season. And that 2007-08 season itself represented an unprecedented increase of 11.5 percent harvest above the previous record, which was set the preceding season in 2006-07. Back-to-back-to-back record-setting seasons were considered highly unusual, because the state's deer herd was thought to be stabilizing. But then, along comes 2008-09 to make four record seasons in a row.

In 2001-02, the total deer harvest was 142,847, setting a harvest record for all years since harvest report records have been kept. In 2002-03, the harvest dipped to 118,174. In 2003-04, it rebounded to 134,507. In 2004-05, the harvest increased again to 140,311.

Then, in 2005-06, the deer harvest set a record of 144,315 followed by another record of 154,273 in 2006-07. The 2006-07 deer harvest was an increase of 7 percent above the previous year. Then 2007-08 surprised everyone with another 11.5 percent increase. Another 2.5 percent increase for 2008-09 proves that for Tar Heel State deer hunters, the "good old days" are occurring here and now.

Evin Stanford is the North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission's Surveys and Research Biologist for Deer, Turkey and Boar.

"We really can't point to any one factor for another increase in deer harvest," Stanford said. "There has to be a combination of factors coming into play. Good weather during the deer-hunting season likely plays a big role. We had another relatively mild winter, which typically helps the harvest in the Western and Northwestern deer regions where the firearms season is relatively short. A week of cold weather at the wrong time can really hurt harvests in those regions."

Another reason for increased hunter success could be attributed to changes in the either-sex regulations and reporting. The 2007-08 season was the first time hunters in areas with maximum-length, either-sex deer seasons could use bonus antlerless deer harvest report cards to harvest additional antlerless deer above the bag limit of six deer without having to enroll their properties in the Deer Management Assistance Program. Bonus antlerless harvest report cards applied only to private lands.

Although the statewide harvest was a record last year, harvest increases did not occur in all parts of the state. In fact, hunters killed more deer last year than the year before in just four of the nine wildlife districts in the state.

For districts in which the harvest increased, the percentage of change was 5.7 percent in District 1, 5.8 percent in District 2, 10.9 percent in District 3, 2.3 percent in District 7 and 16.8 percent in District 9. For districts in which the harvest decreased, the percentage of decrease was 4.5 percent in District 4, 1.5 percent in District 5, 7.0 percent in District 6, and 1.1 percent in District 8.

Obviously the increases outweighed the decreases, but the fact that even with good hunting conditions and weather the harvest went down in about as many districts as it went up adds credibility to biologists' predictions that stabilization of the deer harvest statewide is on the horizon.

In some counties, changes in regulations have expanded the either-sex deer season dates. These have typically occurred in an east-to-west pattern, as those with moderate either-sex seasons have moved into maximum either-sex seasons. This expansion is multiplied exponentially by other factors besides extended dates, through such mechanisms as allowing the use of bonus-antlerless harvest report cards in maximum either-sex season areas.

"I'm not really sure what's going on in District 3, which includes Wake Halifax and Northampton counties," Stanford said. "The harvest in District 3 was on par with all the other districts in 2006-08. But the District 3 harvest increase was several percentage points lower than in the surrounding districts for the 2007-08 season. Now for the 2008-09, season it has jumped again."

District 3 has always had a substantially higher harvest than other districts. It has excellent deer habitat and high hunter effort. Therefore, what happens in District 3 will always have substantial bearing on the statewide deer harvest. Watching that particular district may prove to hold the key to predicting statewide deer harvest trends.

The 2008-09 game land harvest was virtually unchanged, with 6,843 deer compared with 6,845 in 2007-08.

Each district's game land harvest as a percentage of the district's total harvest was as follows: 4.3 percent in District 1, 4.0 percent in District 2, 3.0 percent in District 3, 3.7 percent in District 4, 4.4 percent in District 5, 4.0 percent in District 6, 0.9 percent in District 7, 4.3 percent in District 8, and 23.9 percent in District 9.

In 2007, there was an outbreak of hemorrhagic disease in the western part of the state, causing harvests in districts 8 and 9 to suffer. The deer population's recovery from hemorrhagic disease probably led to a substantial increase in the mountain regions' game lands deer harvest in 2008-09. Nevertheless, these districts have been historically erratic in terms of deer harvest. The deer population density in these districts is also typically much lower than in some other parts of the state, so these districts do not contribute significantly to the statewide harvest.

By far the preponderance of the harvest came from the modern firearms season, during which 148,929 deer -- 84.4 percent of the total harvest -- were killed. The total deer harvest taken by muzzleloader hunters was 15,076, or 8.6 percent of the total. The deer harvest taken by bowhunters was 12,292, or 7.0 percent of the total. These trends in the harvest percentages by weapon have essentially stayed the same during all years in which harvest records have been kept.

But there was an interesting jump in the percentage of bowhunter harvest of nearly 1 percent. Time will tell if increased bowhunter harvest becomes a trend.

The antlerless deer harvest of 91,246, including 13,359 button bucks and 77,887 does, exceeded the antlered buck harvest of 85,051. The antlered buck harvest last season was an increase from the 83,665 antlered bucks killed during 2007-08, but not quite to the level of 85,458 taken during 2006-07. A decline in antlered buck harvest and increase in antlerless deer harvest held true for a second season and is a significant departure when compared with all previous years.

In

the past, antlerless deer consisted of approximately 40 percent of the harvest. But in 2007-08, antlerless deer comprised 51.3 percent of the harvest and in 2008-09, comprised 51.8 percent of the harvest. A small percentage of the increase may be because of the use of bonus antlerless harvest report cards, which may have resulted in some people reporting antlerless deer harvests that were unreported in the past.

"We've been trying through regulations and rules changes to increase doe harvest to control our deer populations," Stanford said. "With two consecutive years of higher harvests, we are optimistic that these trends in doe harvests will remain high over the long term.

We're sure that the bonus antlerless tags increased our reported either-sex deer harvest. But we will be evaluating that program further to see if we can tell how many of those who used bonus antlerless report cards also used all of the tags on their regular licenses. Our doe harvest has been increasing over the long term anyway, but the bonus antlerless program could have affected the actual reporting rate for antlerless deer. A guy in the Coastal Plain may have been hesitant to report a third doe if he wanted to save one of his four buck tags. Situations like that may now be encouraging a higher reported harvest of doe deer through the bonus antlerless report cards."

North Carolina's total deer population is estimated at 1.25 million animals. When plugged into population models, three successive increases in deer harvests could result in an increase in computer-generated population models. However, the deer herd could in reality be stabilized or shrinking due to a decrease in available habitat with the conversion of farms and forests to urbanized settings.

One alarming situation that could severely and adversely affect North Carolina's deer herd in the future would be the introduction of chronic wasting disease or CWD. In 2003, the state conducted a study of 1,400 deer to see if there was any indication of the disease in North Carolina. In 2007-08, biologists sampled another 1,400 deer. Currently, the closest area with CWD in deer is in West Virginia.

CWD has never been documented in North Carolina. The disease is always fatal. If an outbreak occurred, the commission would try to control and eliminate the disease through testing large numbers of deer and trying to bring deer densities down to stop the spread of the disease, and this would have severe consequences for future North Carolina deer hunting. The commission adopted rules banning the importation of certain carcass parts from areas with CWD. Hunters can do their part by reading these rules in the regulations digest before hunting in other states.

Another potential cause of a high harvest rate last year may have been the economy. High prices are on the minds of everyone, including hunters. The price of meat has risen rapidly along with the price of other foods, which could cause some hunters to kill more does, for example, than they would have been willing to do in the past. But Stanford said an increased desire to fill the freezer with venison was probably offset by other factors.

"A small part of the increase in deer harvest could have resulted from those hunters who looked at the food value of venison," Stanford said. "But that would probably be more than offset by the price of fuel and travel to get to a hunting area."

Another factor that may have resulted in increased hunter effort is a dip in the economy. Unemployed workers in the construction industry often spend more time hunting. But again, last fall the price of gas was high enough that an increase in hunting effort by some hunters may have been offset by a decrease in effort by other hunters.

A tiny part of the increase in harvest can be attributed to the Urban Archery season, which was first opened in January 2008; hunters in the program that year killed a modest 53 deer. During the January 2009 urban archery season, 10 areas participated and the total harvest was 83 deer.

"Towns, parts of towns and other areas participating in the Urban Archery season included Elkin, Locust, Middlesex, Midland, Morganton, Smithfield, Stanfield, Stokesdale, Summerfield and the Washington Airport," Stanford said. We anticipate other municipalities will take advantage of this opportunity to control deer numbers in the future."

During the 2008-09 hunting season, the top 10 counties for total deer harvest were: Halifax, 6,276; Northampton, 6,212; Bertie, 5,777; Pender, 4,152; Wilkes, 4,135; Franklin, 3,525; Duplin, 3,458; Beaufort, 3,388; Anson, 3,339 and Edgecombe, 3,318. Most of these counties are in districts 1, 2 and 3, showing the importance of coastal counties when it comes to deer harvest. The two more inland counties are Wilkes and Anson, which are typically top deer producers.

But for a more precise measure than county boundaries when it comes to determining the best place to bag a deer is the county's harvest in terms of deer per square mile. For example, a large county can simply have a high total harvest because of its landmass or greater number of hunters. But a smaller county with a higher deer density may actually offer greater odds for bagging a deer. The statewide average in terms of deer harvested per square mile for 2008-09 was 5.0 deer per square mile compared with 4.9 in 2007-08.

The top 10 counties in terms of deer harvested per square mile were: Alleghany, 20.20; Vance, 13.18; Northampton, 13.76; Halifax, 11.01; Alamance, 10.35; Franklin, 9.94; Hertford, 9.54; Bertie, 9.36, Rowan, 8.97 and Granville, 8.73.

Some counties really stand out from the others, with several counties along the Virginia border continuing to be top deer producers year after year. The mountain counties of Ashe and Alleghany always have high harvest levels. They have a good mixture of habitats, including agriculture and forestland, which accounts for high deer densities and harvests. The same is true of the other top counties along the Virginia border in the Piedmont and Coastal Plain, including Alamance, Granville, Vance, Northampton, Hertford and Bertie. River floodplains along the Roanoke and Chowan also contribute excellent deer habitat and hunting opportunities.

In the central Coastal Plain, Pitt and Greene counties have an abundance of paper company lands, private forests and farmland. In the southern Coastal Plain, Pender County has an abundance of undeveloped land, mostly in timber production and river floodplain. Bladen and Columbus counties are largely rural and undeveloped, with lots of river floodplain, forestland and patchwork landscapes of small farms.

Rowan and Stanly counties deer and hunters benefit from large tracts of undeveloped forestland. The Yadkin River, with its associated bottomlands, is a key factor in high deer densities. Catawba and Lincoln counties have some extensive power company properties and parks, along with patchwork landscapes of small farms and timber holdings. The river drainages also grow lots of deer in these counties.

Asked for his predictions for the upcoming deer-hunting season, Stanford hesitated to make any because there are too many variables in the equation. But he said any significant decline i

n the harvest would have an environmental cause, such as a severe winter occurring in the mountains, a hurricane striking the coast or Piedmont, or an outbreak of hemorrhagic disease.

"Barring an environmental event, we should have what has become over the several years our 'typical' season," he said. "Considering the 2008-09 harvest was not as profound an increase as the previous season, I think we will see the harvest leveling off."

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