The story what’s behind Louisiana’s contemporary deer herd is one of sound management and conservation efforts of many individuals, including the joint efforts of landowners, researchers, wildlife resource agencies, and Bayou State sportsmen.
Each stakeholder is focused on sustaining healthy white-tailed deer populations in the Bayou State for future generations. The deer herd that today’s Louisiana hunters pursue are the genetic relics of a restocking program that, according to the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries, began in 1949 and ended in 1969.
Current estimates suggest that nearly 500,000 deer are found in Louisiana today, which is a significant improvement considering that an estimated 20,000 animals were present in the mid 1920s. With continued research, education and hands-on management, a healthy deer herd will thrive well into the future.
Louisiana’s deer herd is administered by the LDWF’s Office of Wildlife and implemented through six field offices located across the state, where biologists and technicians perform research projects, collect life history and population data, and direct deer management activities on both public and private lands.
Louisiana is made up of nine different type of habitat across the state. These habitats include pine or hardwood dominated plant communities specific to geographic regions of the state. Biologists recognize these habitats overlap, so no clear boundary between the habitats exist, but this complexity is part of what makes Louisiana one of the best deer-producing states. The 10 Deer Management Areas (DMAs) are mapped to reflect of this heterogeneity. Within these boundaries, deer biologists focus on field activities that assist the Department in establishing the state’s hunting seasons and supporting management regulations and enhancing public education on both game and non-game species.
Deer harvest regulations are based on data that examine deer breeding periods, local habitat productivity and the effects of landscape features on deer populations. Currently, Bayou State hunters are allowed a season limit of six deer, not to exceed three antlered or four antlerless deer. All deer, whether tagged on private or public land, must be validated and reported to the LDWF within seven days of harvest, via one of three methods.
First, hunters in clubs harvesting animals on Deer Management Assistance Program (DMAP) lands should follow the instructions provided by LDWF biologists. The second way hunters report deer takes place through mandatory deer check stations during managed hunts on wildlife management areas. During theses hunts, technicians and biologists are able to examine deer and collect data on important variables, such a lactation rates and browse items, as well as general health. Finally, hunters may validate deer by calling the harvest validation program’s toll free number (866-484-4805) or at www.la.wildlifelicense.com. Hunters on private land not enrolled in DMAP and hunters who use WMAs and self-clearing permits should validate deer using the phone or online systems. Harvest data from these sources, DMAP, managed hunts and phone reporting, are compiled and analyzed during the annual assessment of the state’s deer herd.
Harvest information and other data are used to develop seasons and regulations. Biologist Jonathan Bordelon, Deer Study leader, suggests, “Compliance with the reporting requirement is likely much less than 100 percent. We need Louisiana hunters to report their harvest so we are able to form an accurate picture of the population and health of the herd.”
Biologists are able to infer compliance with harvest reporting requirements is low by comparing reporting system numbers to mail survey harvest index data. During this survey, six percent of licensed hunters are mailed a form, which is filled out and mailed back to the LDWF. The harvest index modeling suggests many more deer are killed each year than what are been reported to the LDWF.
PREVIOUS SEASON TRENDS
Though the complete data set examining the 2015-1016 is still being compiled, hunters can look at historical data compiled between the 2010-2011 season and the end of the 2014-2015 season. This data was obtained from available harvest summaries, which are generally made public usually in mid to late summer following the season. The data suggests that the top deer producing parishes over the five-season time period were in DMAs 1, 2 and 6.
Though it seems deer harvest numbers have been dropping over the past few seasons, Bordelon says the total reported harvest was around 58,700 deer.
“At this point, with only self-reporting data and WMA numbers at my desk, we have seen a 21.5 percent increase in total reported harvest across the state,” said Bordelon. “This is apparent even without the state’s DMAP report. Approximately 56 percent of deer reported to the deer study were males, while 44 percent were female. Deer were reported harvested in 59 0f 64 parishes in the state. Though we did see a jump up in total harvest across the sate, and a majority of parishes reported an increase, we did see some drops in harvest numbers in places that are historically prime producers, places like West Feliciana, Allen and West Baton Rouge parishes. Also, a drop in harvest numbers was observed in St. Martin Parish in the Atchafalaya Basin.”
In addition to collecting the state’s DMAP data, Bordelon is waiting to compile the hunter survey data, which was sent out earlier in 2016.
Bordelon suggests that available habitat influences deer harvest numbers more than any other variable. Habitat that can support high numbers of deer are most common in the Mississippi Alluvial Valley and in the pine hardwood communities in the western and northwestern portions of the state.
DMA 1 is essentially the area of the state located near or between three major rivers — the Mississippi, the Ouachita and the Red rivers — containing extensive river bottoms, crop fields and CRP land, fallow fields and remaining stands of virgin bottomland hardwood forest. Productivity is high and deer are plentiful because of agriculture practices and intense management on private lands. There is lots of food for deer to eat and natural browse is supplemented by corn and beans. Deer in the Delta region thrive in the habitat that has been one of the top two producing regions, and three of the top 10 parishes from the 2014-2015 season are found in this regions.
Because DMA 1 stretches from the northeast corner of the state (East Carroll Parish) south to Concordia Parish and west into parts of Ouachita Parish and northeast Rapides Parish, public land abounds as well. Boeuf WMA also had the one of the lowest deer per hunter effort in the state. While a total of 307 deer were harvest during the 2014-2015 managed hunts, only 4.8 hunter efforts were needed to bag a deer on the refuge.
Russell Sage and Ouachita were reported separately during this time period, which produced 6.9 and 4.5 deer per hunter effort. These units were combined in 2015 and operate as a single WMA now (Russell Sage). Charles Yancey WMA produced 309 deer during the 2014-32015 but 5,264 hunter efforts (nearly more 3,400 than the next highest) forced a calculated 17.0 hunter efforts per deer.
“WMA deer herds are not managed for maximum sustained harvest and recreational opportunity, which means deer herds are kept at or below the habitats maximum carrying capacity,” said Bordelon. “In other words, hunter harvests help keep the deer herd in check so that there is always room for more deer on the landscape.”
Other productive DMA 1 WMAs include Dewey W. Wills, Bayou Macon and Big Lake. Federal lands are also available to hunt and include Tensas NWR and Lake Ophelia NWR.
DMA 2 is the largest DMA in the state, spanning the north-central and northwestern third of the state. This DMA includes the Shreveport and Alexandria areas and portions of Monroe. This region of the state is well known for pine forests, intense silviculture (think fire), and high deer harvests. Also, there is a lot of DMAP enrollment and deer management on private lands. Pine ridges, creek bottoms, timber companies with rotating pine plantations and thickets support large numbers of deer, turkey and, unfortunately, hogs. DMA 2 also hosts large numbers of hunters on many state and federal lands. Habitat, hunters, and access add up to create high harvest numbers. Union Parish, for example, is located along the state border with Arkansas to the north and has been the number one deer-producing parish for the last five seasons. For the third year in a row, four of the top five harvests occurred in parishes in DMA 2. Public lands in DMA 2 include Jackson-Bienville WMA, Bodcau WMA, Clear Creek WMA and Peason Ridge WMA, as well as public lands encompassed by the Kisatchie National Forest.
For natural resource managers across a large swath of the state, 2016 will be remembered for its flooding. The length and timing of the floods will have the greatest influence on deer herds across the floodplain. Due to late summer fawning across most of the floodplain, there is little if any direct mortality from floodwaters. However, deer living under environmental stresses will be negatively impacted due to the limited food resources available during these events. Timing and duration of environmental stresses have the potential to effect overall herd health, which will impact reproductive potential for the next year. As a result, impacts from the floods of 2015 and 2016 may be felt in future seasons.
“Though flooding will have some impacts on the deer population, it is important to recognize the flood plain supports some of the highest deer densities in the state due to the fertile soils and productive habitats,” said Bordelon.
Natural selection has favored Louisiana deer to cope with seasonal floods. Short-term setbacks can be overcome during years of better conditions. Bordelon assures that research over the past 30 years has demonstrated the strong homing tendencies of deer herds in the floodplain. Despite being displaced, deer return once waters recede. Hunters in DMA 1 and 2 will likely continue to heavily influence the harvest rates as in seasons past, and should continue to produce solid harvest numbers.
However, hunters should know that a major change has happened to the DMA boundaries this year.
“The portion of Area 9, south of I-10, and within the Atchafalaya River protection levees will be the new Area 5, and old Area 5 (formerly West Carroll Parish) has been incorporated into Area 1. New Area 5 will have the same season dates as Area 9, however, it will include a closure when Atchafalaya River levels reach a pre-determined benchmark.”
Area 9 was changed because the LDWF are incorporating some new harvest data requirements in the reporting system in addition to parish of harvest. By having a separate DMA biologists are able to monitor reported harvest within each specific DMA. Since some parishes are divided into multiple deer areas, this will allow biologists to look at total reported deer harvest in each DMA for the first time. In other words reported deer harvest will be deer area specific, which will improve harvest assessment and management.
As the 2016-2017 season opens, take full advantage of all the opportunities the Sportsmen’s Paradise has to offer. Nearly 1 million acres of state-owned public lands afford deer hunters a place to hang a stand. Hunters can use modern firearms, primitive arms and archery. Youth only and handicapped hunts are also offered on many WMAs. In addition to early archery, some WMAs offer extended hunting opportunities with a buck-only season held near or during the peak of the rut. There is no reason that 2016-17 cannot be your best season yet, even with a blaze pink vest.