North Carolina's 2010 Deer Outlook -- Part 1

North Carolina's 2010 Deer Outlook -- Part 1

Here's a region-by-region forecast of where to get your deer based on the latest data from state biologists.

Biologists have been telling North Carolina hunters that the recent string of year-over-year increases in the state's annual deer harvest would eventually be coming to an end. The 2009-10 whitetail deer harvest of 169,273, which is still the third highest on record, could finally be a confirmation of that prediction.

North Carolina hunters had set four record deer harvests in a row with the all-time record of 176,297 established during the 2008-09 hunting season. The previous harvest record of 171,986, set during the 2007-08 season, was a whopping 11.5 percent above the 2006-07 record of 154,273. The 2005-06 record harvest was 144,315. Even then, future back-to-back record-setting seasons were considered highly unusual because the state's deer herd was thought to be stabilizing.

Looking back at the previous deer harvests, the 2001-02 total deer harvest of 142,847, which set a harvest record for all years since harvest report records had been kept. Then, in 2002-03, the harvest declined precipitously to 118,174. But steady harvest growth occurred after that, beginning in 2003-04 when the harvest rebounded to 134,507. In 2004-05, the harvest increased again to 140,311. The upward trend continued through the string of new record setting years beginning with the 2005-06 harvest of 144,315.

The 4-percent drop in deer harvest from the 2008-09 to the 2009-10 hunting season was nowhere near the 17-percent drop that occurred between 2001-02 season and 2002-03 season. Going back to the previous trend therefore can only provide a few clues as to causes and affects of last year's dip in the harvest.

The 17-percent harvest decrease between the 2001-02 and 2002-03 hunting seasons was caused by a number of factors, a couple of which did not affect last year's harvest. Epizootic Hemorrhagic Disease, or EHD, hit the deer herd in the northeastern counties in District 1 hard over 2002-03 hunting season and the disease did not flare up again during the 2009-10 season. Also, the direct hit from Hurricane Isabel in the District 1 counties in 2002-03 made it difficult for hunters to get around in the woods and swamps.

The third reason for the decline in 2002-03 was an excellent mast crop across the state. Hunting success plummets during a good mast year when deer are feeding on acorns rather than on corn, sweet potatoes and food plots planted with winter forage such as wheat, rye and clover. While baiting is not allowed on game lands, the use of bait on private property is widespread. A heavy mast year allows deer to feed on natural foods, rather than expose themselves to hunters by feeding in baited areas and food plots. Even where there is no baiting, a wide-spread and heavy mast crop means deer don't have to move as much or as far for food.

During the 2009-10 season, many hunters across the coastal region said it was a banner year for mast production and so they believed deer were feeding in the forests where they were difficult to hunt. There was also a dry fall and winter, which kept the acorns in the swamp forests from being covered by water, which meant deer could easily find them.

Even when considering the excellent coastal mast year in 2009-10, the 4-percent drop in harvest could be nothing more than a statistical anomaly. Still, there are a couple of other things that could have made a small difference in the harvest.

A change in the bonus antlerless harvest report card program is one theory, because it may have hidden some harvest numbers. While the Commission always intended to charge a fee for the bonus harvest report cards, the fee could not be implemented for logistical reasons until the 2009-10 season. Until then, they were free of charge. However, during the 2009-10 season, a $10 fee was charged for each bonus antlerless harvest report card, which allows the harvest of two antlerless deer in addition to the regular season bag limit of six deer. This may have caused a few hunters either not to harvest bonus antlerless deer or not report any additional antlerless harvests above the regular bag limit because they did not want to pay the new fee for something they had previously been getting for free.

While any type of illegal underreporting is at odds with the ethics of the majority of hunters, it should be considered that a small percentage of the recent record harvests were thought to be based in part on the reporting of deer harvests that had previously gone unreported until the bonus antlerless harvest report card program was implemented. Therefore, the reverse, in theory, could be true.

Evin Stanford is the North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission's Surveys and Research Biologist for Deer, Turkey and Boar. He tracks harvest data and therefore has a better handle on the pulse of the deer herd and deer hunting effort than anyone else.

He discounts the $10 fee for bonus harvest report cards as having a measurable impact on the total reported harvest.

"The ratio of bucks to does in the harvest remained essentially the same," Stanford said. "If the fee for bonus antlerless harvest report cards had an impact, the ratio of bucks to does would likely have changed. The difference between buck and doe harvest from 2008-09 to 2009-10 was essentially the same in the coastal districts that experienced harvest declines. In District 1 the buck harvest dropped 13.5 percent and the doe harvest dropped 12.7 percent. In District 2, the buck harvest dropped 8.8 percent and the doe harvest dropped 6.7 percent. Districts 3 and 4 showed similar outcomes."

Nevertheless, just 4,053 bonus harvest report cards were issued in 2009-10 compared to 20,870 in 2008-09. Bonus antlerless harvest report cards allow the harvest of two deer, which could double either number, which makes the use, or non-use of bonus antlerless harvest report cards even more significant. However, Stanford said very few hunters harvest more than their six-deer regular bag limit and that many hunters who had obtained the cards "just in case" they had an extra antlerless harvest opportunity in the previous years did not want to pay the new fee.

An interesting aspect of the deer harvest data shows the harvest declined significantly from the 2008-09 to 2009-10 only in the four eastern districts, districts 1 through 4, while the harvest in the five western districts increased. The increase in t

he western districts was obviously not enough to offset the declines in the eastern districts.

Mike Marsh took this doe with a .410 shotgun, using a Winchester shell with 5 pellets of 000 buckshot, a good load in close cover and at close range. The deer was taken in Pender County, one of the top deer counties in District 2. Photo by Mike Marsh.

In District 1, the harvest decreased by 13.5 percent, District 2 by 8.2 percent, District 3 by 8.9 percent and District 4 by 13.5 percent. The District 1 harvest was 19,926, District 2, 22,816, District 3, 31,355, and District 4, 138,986.

In District 5, the harvest increased by 0.6 percent, District 6 by 8.1 percent, District 7 by 4.8 percent, District 8 by 5.2 percent and District 9 by 2.0 percent. The District 5 harvest was 9,776, District 6, 9,080, District 7, 23,383, District 8, 11,361, and District 9, 3,366.

The antlerless deer harvest of 87,990, including 12,611 button bucks and 75,379 does, exceeded the antlered buck harvest of 81,283. This is a decrease from the 91,246 antlered bucks during 2009-10. A decline in antlered buck harvest and an increase in antlerless deer harvest held true for a third season. In previous years, antlerless deer had comprised approximately 40 percent of the harvest. In 2007-08, antlerless deer comprised 51.3 percent of the harvest, in 2008-09, 51.8 percent, and in 2009-10, 51.9 percent.

Statewide, antlered bucks comprised 48 percent of the harvest, button bucks, 7.5 percent, and does, 44.5 percent. The increasing hunter preference for antlerless deer likely due to a combination of factors, including the Commission's regulation changes aimed at stabilizing the deer herd. These regulations have included increases in the lengths of antlerless deer seasons, allowing bonus antlerless harvest report cards to be used on some public lands and restricting antlered buck harvests through the 2-buck regulation in the west and the 4-buck limit in the east. Many hunters are also implementing their goals of quality deer management on private lands by harvesting more antlerless deer.

As always, conventional firearms hunters took the preponderance of deer, with a harvest of 141,724, or 83.7 percent of the total harvest. Muzzleloader hunters took 14,445 deer, or 8.6 percent of the total harvest. Bowhunters took 13,104, or 7.7 percent of the total harvest.

While the archery harvest increased, it was not enough to offset the decline in harvest by hunters using modern guns and muzzleloaders. The trends in the harvest percentages by weapon have remained nearly the same during all years in which harvest records have been kept. However, for the second year in a row, there was a small jump in the percentage of deer harvested by bowhunters. Two seasons ago, the percentage of deer taken by bowhunters was only 7.0 percent.

Justin Marsh took this doe during the eastern region muzzleloader season last October using a Savage 110 MLS, a modern inline that shoots either smokeless or black powder and worked well in the rain. Photo by Mike Marsh.

Time will tell if increased deer harvest by bowhunters is a trend.

From 2008-09 to 2009-10, the game land deer harvest declined slightly to 6,727 from 6,843. The percentage of harvest coming from game lands was 5.5 percent in District 1, 3.9 percent in District 2, 2.7 percent in District 3, 5.7 percent in District 4, 4.3 percent in District 5, 3.6 percent in District 6, 0.7 percent in District 7, 3.8 percent in District 8, and 24.1 percent in District 9. These percentages were not substantially changed from 2008-09.

"The 4-percent harvest decline is within our benchmark variation of 5 percent so it's not beyond what we would expect," Stanford said. "It's interesting that the declines were in the coastal districts, while in the piedmont and mountains the harvests were stabile or increased."

Stanford said anecdotal information plus his own observations confirmed that there was a bumper crop of acorns in the coastal plain. He said it could have been responsible for some of the harvest decline. The commission doesn't track coastal mast production, though it tracks it in the mountains where it a big mast year is known to result in a harvest decline.

"The most important factor was probably the economy," he said. "Many hunters travel from other regions to the coast for deer hunting. Travel costs increased and unemployment was high and many hunters could have stayed closer to home rather than heading to the coastal districts."

Stanford said several years of extensive antlerless harvests in districts 1-4 could also be resulting in a declining deer herd: but herd population control was the intent of liberalized doe harvests. The district 1-4 harvests were up from 8 to 18 percent 2007-08 and 2008-09, but decreased in the piedmont and mountains.

During the 2009-10 hunting season, most of the top 10 counties for total deer harvest were in Districts 1, 2 and 3, showing the importance of coastal counties when it comes to deer harvest. The two counties located farther inland are Wilkes and Anson, which are typically among the top deer producers.

But a more precise measure than county boundaries for determining the best place to bag a deer is a county's harvest in terms of deer per square mile of habitat. For example, a large county can simply have a high total harvest due to its landmass. But a smaller county with better deer habitat may actually have offer greater odds for bagging a deer. The statewide average in terms of deer harvested per square mile for 2009-10 declined to 4.8 from 5.0 in 2008-09.

Some counties stand out, especially those along the Virginia border that continue to be top deer producers. They have a good mixture of habitats, including agricultural lands, forestland and the river bottoms. In the mountains, Alleghany is always a top deer producer. Other top deer producing counties along the Virginia border in the piedmont and coastal plain include Alamance, Caswell, Vance, Northampton, and Bertie.

In the central coastal plain, Pitt County has an abundance of paper company lands and farmland. In the southern coastal plain, Pender County has an abundance of land in timber production and river floodplain. Bladen and Harnett counties are largely rural and undeveloped, with lots of river bottoms and farmland.

Rowan and Stanly county deer benefit from large tracts of forestland and Yadkin River bottomlands. Gaston and Lincoln counties have power company properties and parks, along with patchwork landscapes of small farms and timber holdings.

"W

e've been saying our deer harvests can't keep setting records forever," Stanford said. "Only time will tell if the harvest is actually stabilizing by establishing a trend. Barring bad weather or a disease outbreak though, deer hunters should expect a harvest similar to last year's."

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