South Carolina Deer Hunting Forecast for 2014

South Carolina Deer Hunting Forecast for 2014

SC Logo.inddMany hunters around the state said that the 2013 deer season seemed to be better in terms of seeing and harvesting more deer. Numerous hunters noted that they harvested more deer last year than in the past several years and were hopeful it was a statewide trend. Another plus was many hunters added they saw more deer and were more selective on what they harvested. That's certainly a good sign.

There was an upward trend statewide in the deer harvest but not a huge leap forward. Since the harvest figures had been hovering up and down in recent years it was a positive sign to see them swing upward again

According to Charles Ruth, Deer and Turkey Project Supervisor for the South Carolina Department of Natural Resources (SCDNR), the higher harvest figures are encouraging and are representative of a reasonably stable population of deer in the state.

"During the 2013 deer season it's estimated based on our surveys that a total of 124,482 bucks and 101,324 does were harvested for a statewide total of 225,806 deer," Ruth said. "This figure represents a 3.6-percent increase in harvest from 2012 when hunters harvested 217,854 deer, but is 29.5 percent below the record harvest established in 2002 when 319,902 deer were harvested. But a lot of changes have occurred in habitat and to the predator/prey relationship during that time."

Ruth said that the past few years of harvest data do indicate the overall herd population is more balanced after several years of steady decline. He said harvest data indicated a slight upswing in harvest in the 2011 season over 2010. The 2012 deer season harvest declined slightly from 2011. But now the 2013 figures are slightly up from 2012. Ruth said these small up and down swings are within normal parameters for a balanced deer herd.

"After many years of rapid increase during the 1970's and 1980's, the deer population in South Carolina exhibited relative stability between 1995 and 2002," Ruth said.

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"Beginning after 2002 the population has trended down until recently becoming more stabilized. The overall reduction in harvest seen since 2002 can likely be attributable to a number of factors, including habitat change. Although timber management activities stimulated significant growth in South Carolina's deer population in the 1970's and 1980's, considerable acreage is currently in even-aged pine stands that are greater than 10 years old, a situation that does not support deer densities at the same level as younger stands in which food and cover is more available."

Ruth says there's another piece to the deer population puzzle that now has to be figured into the equation: coyotes. He notes that coyotes are a recent addition to the landscape and are something biologists and hunters will have to deal with in the future.

"SCDNR has recently completed a major study with researchers at the Savannah River Site investigating the affects coyotes are having on the survival of deer fawns," Ruth said. "Cumulative data through the first 3 years of the study indicated approximately 70 percent total fawn mortality with coyotes being responsible for approximately 80 percent of these mortalities. If these findings even moderately represent a statewide situation, this "new mortality factor" is clearly involved in the reduction in deer numbers. This is especially true when combined with extremely liberal deer harvests that have been the norm in South Carolina. This is 1410_G232_SC1.inddnow something that deer hunters as well as biologists must consider as we move forward in deer management."

Ruth said the last 3 years of the study were for the purpose of determining if reducing coyote density through trapping increases fawn survival.

"It seems logical that if coyotes are preying on fawns, then significantly reducing coyote densities should increase fawn survival," he said. "Over the course of the 3 year coyote 'control' phase, 474 coyotes were trapped/killed on the study areas. Overall, results showed only modest increases in fawn survival following these efforts, with an overall average of about 39 percent increase in survival. Also, trapping seemed to help in some years but have little effect on predation in others. This "year" effect may have something to do with the availability of coyote food sources that may change in abundance annually. Given these results and the difficulty and high cost of coyote control, it seems apparent that making adjustments to how we manage deer, particularly female deer, is more important now than prior to the colonization of the state by coyotes."

Looking forward to 2014, there is data from statewide harvest figures that can help hunters see exactly where deer harvest is highest and expanding. This is a great benefit for planning hunting strategy for the 2014 season. Hunt where the most deer are being harvested and you'll likely improve your odds of success.

Ruth says comparisons can be made between deer harvests from the various counties in South Carolina if a harvest per unit area is established. He said harvest per unit area standardizes the harvest rate among counties regardless of the size of individual counties. One measure of harvest rate is the number of deer taken per square mile.

"When considering the estimated deer habitat that is available in South Carolina, the deer harvest rate on a statewide basis in 2013 was 10.7 deer per square mile," he said. "Although the deer population in the state has declined since 2002, this harvest rate should be considered good in comparison with most other states."

Regionally within the state, there are a couple of very interesting and important trends in both the top counties by total harvest and the top counties by harvest-per-square mile.

1410_G231_SC1.inddOne trend is that there is some overlap: Several counties make both lists and that is very revealing about the excellent deer hunting in those counties. These counties include Union, Spartanburg and Newberry counties in the upper part of the state and Orangeburg County in the lower sector of the state.

But in addition to the overlap there is a definite pattern to both types of harvest rates in that there are clusters of counties near or adjacent to one another that form regional hotspots.

In the Harvest per unit area list, the top counties are in two distinct areas. In the upstate the top counties, in order of harvest, are Union, Spartanburg, Newberry, Anderson, Cherokee and Abbeville counties. Four of these counties border another top county and the other two, Anderson and Abbeville, border one another and are located on the Savannah River drainage. All of the top counties are close to each other.

In the lower sector of the state, again in order of harvest, are Bamberg, Allendale, Calhoun and Orangeburg counties, all of which border at least one of the other top counties and thus form a block of excellent hunting. Allendale is on the Savannah River drainage but all these counties have smaller rivers and creek bottoms and these waterways create ideal deer habitat as they course through the areas.

Now we'll look at the data from a county-by-county perspective, which narrows the focus even further, enabling hunters to determine exactly where the most deer are being killed.

According to the data from the SCDNR, the top 10 counties for harvest per unit area in 2013 were led by Bamberg with 18.7 deer per square mile. Here, the harvest was down 2.6 percent from 2012, but was still good enough to lead the state. In second was Union County with 17.9 deer per square mile. Union County jumped up by 15.2 percent in harvest over the previous year.

In third was Allendale County with 16.9 deer per square mile. Just as noteworthy was the fact that Allendale's 2013 harvest was 16.1 percent higher than the 2012 harvest.

Spartanburg County was fourth with 16.5 deer per square mile harvest rate and enjoyed an 11.7 percent jump over the 2012 harvest.

Rounding out the top five was Calhoun County with 16.4 deer per square mile representing a whopping 23.5 percent increase in harvest over the 2012 season.

In sixth was Newberry County with 16.2 deer harvested per square mile (a 10.3 percent increase in harvest over the previous year). Anderson County was seventh with a 15.2 deer harvested per square mile rate but in 2013 there was a 7.8 percent decrease from the previous year's harvest. In eighth place was Cherokee County with a 14.9 deer per square mile harvest rate that was 8.8 percent higher than the 2012 harvest. Coming in ninth was Orangeburg County, also with a harvest rate of 14.9 deer per square mile, but another form of comparison, acres per deer harvested, indicated that overall it was slightly less productive than Cherokee County. The harvest in Orangeburg County was up 6.9 percent from the 2012 harvest.

Rounding out the top 10 was Abbeville County with a 14.7 deer per square mile harvest rate. The deer kill here was nearly unchanged year over year.

Ruth said that total deer harvest by county is not comparable among counties because counties vary in size and are not directly comparable.

"It has become customary to rank the counties based on number of deer harvested, he said. "The top 10 counties for strictly numbers of deer harvested during 2013 were Orangeburg, Newberry, Colleton, Fairfield, Williamsburg, Hampton, Union, Spartanburg, Laurens and Clarendon counties."

While the per unit comparison is certainly the best way to analyze in a strict comparison mode, the pure harvest numbers are revealing in terms of simply finding areas where there are a lot of deer.

When to hunt deer is another aspect of good planning for getting your deer, especially if you have limited time. If you can hunt nearly every day, that's not a concern. But many hunters must make choices about  when they can go. Choosing successfully is another key to a good season.

Based on the harvest data, the top two months are October and November. Ruth said that the 2013 Deer Hunter Survey asked hunters to provide information on the month of kill for deer taken in the 2013 season.

"Although South Carolina is noted to have the longest firearms deer season in the country, the relationship between season length and deer harvest is often misunderstood," he said. "Deer naturally increase their movements during the breeding season, or rut, making them more susceptible to being seen and harvested by hunters. In contrast, outside of the breeding season deer movements are reduced (and) therefore the chances of hunters seeing and harvesting deer are reduced.

"Deer harvest by month of season demonstrates this phenomenon," he said. "Although firearms seasons are not open in all parts of the state in late August and early September, relatively few deer are harvested during that time where the season is open. On the other hand, a disproportionately high number of deer are taken during October and November. October and November encompass the majority of the breeding season in South Carolina with over 80 percent of does conceiving during that period. Ultimately, timing of the season is a more important factor in determining deer harvest and quality hunting than the length of the season. Although South Carolina offers early opening seasons, there may be negative consequences as it relates to deer harvest. Hunters should understand that hunting pressure that builds prior to the breeding season can suppress daytime movements of deer during the breeding season when deer movements and hunter harvests should be greatest.

"With a stabilized herd, the prospects for 2014 are encouraging in terms of harvest," Ruth said. "I think we'll be close again to what was harvested in 2013, depending on external factors that can influence harvest. One is hunter effort and that can be a result of having good or poor weather for hunting on opening weeks of the various seasons and during the rut. In addition local land management activities and amount of predation by coyotes are other factors for localized hunter success."

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