North Carolina Deer Hunting Forecast for 2014

North Carolina Deer Hunting Forecast for 2014

NC Logo.inddNorth Carolina's deer hunters killed a record 188,130 deer during the 2013-14 hunting season. That record was quite a surprise because it followed an outbreak of the most deadly hemorrhagic disease in the state's history in 2012.

Evin Stanford, the state's deer biologist, said the strain of disease was epizootic hemorrhagic disease, the most virulent type and not blue tongue, which is typically not as lethal.

"I really wasn't predicting a new record last season," Stanford said. "The harvest had been relatively stable over the past few years, so it was a little bit of a surprise. The jump in harvest was not by magnitudes of order, but just over the cyclic stability we had been seeing for a while. With populations rebounding, I think hunters were itching to pull the trigger in areas hit by hemorrhagic disease during the prior year. Cooler weather in late fall and winter may have also had deer moving and lots of people said they saw a poor mast crop. Deer are more susceptible to hunters who use bait or hunt over agricultural crops (in years with poor mast crops)."

The 2013-14 deer harvest was 12.5 percent higher than the 2012-13 harvest of 167,249. It was also 6.7 percent higher than the previous record harvest of 176,297 set in 2008-09. The annual harvest from 2007-08 through 2012-13 had been relatively stable, averaging around 172,250 deer, with a low of 167,249 in 2012-13 and a high of 176,297 in 2008-09.

The districts that had the biggest harvest increases compared to the 2012-13 season were District 5, which experienced a 20.4 percent increase, District 7 with a 22.7 percent increase, and District 8 with 15.8 percent increase. These were also the districts with the highest incidence of hemorrhagic disease in 2012. Compared to the 2011-12 season (before the disease outbreak occurred), the 2013-14 harvest in District 5 increased 17.1 percent, in District 7 harvest decreased by 0.1 percent and District 8 harvest in increased by 9.2 percent.

Last year more deer were killed in all nine districts than were taken the year before. In District 1, the harvest increased 5.1 percent, District 2 increased 3.3 percent, District 3 increased 11.6 percent, District 4 increased 10.6 percent, District 5 increased 20.4 percent, District 6 increased 12.7 percent, District 7 increased 22.7 percent, District 8 increased 15.8 percent and District 9 increased 6.8 percent.

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Harvests from game lands made up 3.1 percent of the total harvest from all districts combined, from a low of 0.5 percent of the harvest in District 7 to high of 17.3 percent of the harvest in District 9.

"Comparing this past season's harvest with the harvest from two seasons ago, prior to the 2012 hemorrhagic disease outbreak, we have all indications that populations are recovering in these counties and the harvest has returned to or exceeded levels we observed prior to that event," Stanford said. "Our annual deer harvest has been around 170,000. With liberalized deer hunting seasons and regulations, we experienced a leveling of the deer population from about 1993 through 2001, when the population was around 1.1 million. Then it jumped up around 1.35 million from 2003 to around 2005 and it has remained at about that level, although there may be places that have experienced localized declines."

Stanford said three things likely resulted in the harvest increase: Cool weather, a low incidence of natural foods, and hunting pressure. Another thing that may have been responsible is a rapid rebound in the deer population, driven in part by that hunters being conservative about pulling the trigger the year before.

"Hunters that backed off in 2012-13 may have been more eager to harvest deer in 2013-14," he said. "It is really interesting that those areas hit hardest by hemorrhagic disease in Districts 5, 7 and 8 also had the largest increase in harvest. Hunters may have wanted to fill their freezers. There was a high incidence of 1410_G202_NC1.inddhemorrhagic disease in those districts that resulted in some of the worst mortality we have ever seen in some counties. A lot of hunters were highly concerned that herds would take a long time to recover. But, in just one hunting season, the harvest meets or exceeds what it was before. We generally say it takes from three to five years for a herd to recover from an outbreak of hemorrhagic disease, and this time I was concerned that it would take that long. However, recovery happened much quicker than that. When you have a dramatic population decrease with fewer deer across the landscape, there are fewer mouths to feed and therefore more resources to go around. The body condition of individual animals is better and the recruitment, or fawns born per doe, is higher, so recovery can occur quickly."

Despite rapid recovery of the deer population, Stanford said hunter behavior probably played the biggest role. Hunters in areas that have seen the effects of hemorrhagic disease have concerns about the potential for eating infected deer, despite the fact that it does not pose any danger to humans.

"Wilkes County and other individual counties in the disease impacted area have not quite recovered fully," he said. "But in many of those counties, the numbers were excessively high before the disease outbreak. Deer numbers are robust enough that hunters realized any fear of excessive doe harvest was unwarranted."

Other factors may also have played a role. During economically depressed times, construction workers and others who are unemployed tend to hunt more because they have more leisure time. The price of beef hitting an all-time high may have also acted as an incentive for hunters to harvest more deer.

The antlered buck harvest was 86,588, an increase of 5,725, or 7.1 percent over the 2012-13 harvest of 80,883. The button buck harvest was 16,094, an increase of 1,225 or 8.2 percent over the 2012-13 harvest of 14,869, and the doe harvest was 85,478, an increase of 13,981, or 19.6 percent over the 2012-13 harvest of 71,497.

1410_G201_NC1.inddAntlered bucks had made up 46.0 percent of the 2013-14 harvest, button bucks, 8.6 percent and does, 45.4 percent. In the 2012-13 harvest antlered bucks made up 48.4 percent of the harvest, button bucks, 8.9 percent and does, 42.7 percent. The harvest increase included deer in all age and sex categories. The buck harvest was notable because it had stabilized at around 80,000 over the previous four seasons. Time will tell if further reductions beyond the two-buck rule for the western counties and four-buck rule in the eastern "dog hunting" counties will occur.

During the 2013-14 season, the top 10 counties for total deer harvest were: Northampton, 5,723; Halifax, 5,533; Bertie, 4,482; Anson, 3,843; Rockingham, 3,567; Franklin, 3,554; Wilkes, 3,512; Bladen, 3,314; Wake, 3,279 and Chatham, 3,252. These top 10 counties are all across the coastal plain and piedmont, but in the mountain region, only Wilkes County made the top 10.

However, a more accurate measure than the total harvest for determining the best counties in which to bag a deer is the harvest per square mile of huntable habitat. "huntable habitat" includes areas where there is a deer population and that deer population is subject to hunting. For example, the huntable habitat acreage calculation omits large water bodies, towns and cities, and state and federal parks. (N.C. Deer Density maps are available on the Commission's website, www.ncwildlife.org). The huntable habitat area is re-calculated every five years and represents places where hunting regulations are most effective at generating harvest data.

The number of deer harvested per square mile of huntable habitat numbers gives a better picture of a county's potential for deer harvest than the total number of deer harvested from that particular county. For example, a large county such as Bertie may produce a high harvest simply because it has a big landmass. However, a smaller county may actually offer greater odds for bagging deer because it has better habitat. Another consideration is that a county with a lot of hunting pressure because of its high human population, such as Mecklenburg or Wake, may also produce a higher number of deer per square mile of huntable habitat because of increased hunter efforts on the smaller acreage. That situation can occur on habitat near cities such as Charlotte and Raleigh, which have lots of hunters.

The top 10 counties in terms of deer harvested per square mile of huntable habitat were: Vance, 11.21; Northampton, 10.93; Alleghany,  10.53; Mecklenburg, 8.90; Forsyth, 8.68; Halifax, 8.03; Wake, 7.75; Stokes, 7.56; Gaston, 7.55 and Person, 7.53.

The top two counties in each district in terms of deer harvested per square mile of huntable habitat were: District 1, Hertford, 7.01 and Bertie, 6.56; District 2, GAFP_1410_G204_NC1Craven, 4.68 and Pitt, 4.47; District 3, Vance, 11.21 and Northampton, 10.93; District 4, Bladen, 3.87 and Harnett, 3.33; District 5, Person 7.53, and Alamance, 7.52; District 6, Mecklenburg, 8.90 and Anson, 10.53; District 7, Alleghany, 10.53 and Forsyth, 8.68; District 8, Gaston, 7.55 and Lincoln, 7.03; District 9, Polk, 5.43 and Madison, 1.68.

As is always, firearms hunters took the most deer, killing 145,396 deer or 77.3 percent of the total harvest. Muzzleloader hunters took 21,113 deer, or 11.2 percent of the total. Bowhunters took 11,542 deer, or 7.8 percent, and crossbow hunters took 6,999 or 3.7 percent. The previous season, gun hunters took 79.3 percent, muzzleloader hunters 11.1 percent, bowhunters 6.9 percent, and crossbow hunters 2.7 percent. The percentage of deer harvested with muzzleloaders was unchanged.

It is interesting that the number of deer taken by gun hunters decreased by 2 percent and the number of deer taken by handheld bows and crossbows increased by 1 percent each. It is possible that the opportunity for Sunday hunting with archery gear is causing this result because individual hunters tend to harvest the same number of deer over the course of the entire season without regard to the various types of weapons they may use.

Hunters using dogs took 23,882 deer, or 12.6 percent of the harvest, compared to 23,531 deer or 14.1 percent of the harvest in 2012-13 and 27,322 deer, or 15.7 percent, during 2011-12. Top counties for deer harvest with hounds included Warren, 1,597, Halifax, 1,348 and Northampton, 1,241. In Warren County, hound hunting accounted for 44.6 percent of the deer harvest; in Halifax, 45.2 percent; and in Northampton, 44.1 percent.

The continued expansion of the Urban Archery Season into 47 municipalities accounted for 151 deer, including 31 bucks, 20 button bucks and 100 does. The previous season's harvest was 82 deer, including 17 bucks, 17 button bucks and 48 does. While the number of participating areas is increasing, the number of deer the special January season adds to the total state-wide deer harvest is statistically insignificant.

The last time the Commission compiled a hunter survey was 2012. At that time, 243,500 hunters reported that they hunted deer over a total of 3,478,000 days. The average hunter hunted 14 days and 50 percent of them harvested deer, with 23 percent harvesting one, 12 percent harvesting two and 15 percent harvesting three or more.

"Seventy percent of the hunters harvested no does, Stanford said. "That means we are relying on only 30 percent of hunters to control our deer population. Seventeen percent harvested one doe, 8 percent harvested two does and 5 percent harvested three or more does. Sixty-six percent harvested antlered bucks, including 24 percent who harvested one, 8 percent who harvested two and 2 percent that harvested three or four."

In the previous survey conducted in 2001, only 45 percent of deer hunters harvested deer, with 21 percent harvesting one, 11 percent harvesting two and 13 percent harvesting three or more. Seventy-four percent harvested no does, 16 percent harvested one doe and 7 percent harvested three or more does. Sixty-four percent harvested no bucks, 23 percent one buck, 9 percent two bucks and 4 percent harvested three or more.

The biggest change shown by comparing these two surveys is that over the last decade more hunters are taking at least one deer. Five percent more of the state's individual hunters took deer than before.

Stanford may have called it "hunter behavior," but by whatever name you want to call success, it is the lynchpin of a record harvest.

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