Last season’s deer harvest was much higher than the previous season’s harvest, but still well below the 10-year average.
Not all regions of the state had uniform increases, though. Some experienced severe decreases while others experienced big increases.
North Carolina deer hunters reported harvesting 162,558 deer during the 2015-16 hunting season. That is 5.8 percent higher than the lackluster harvest of 153,629 during the 2014-15 hunting season, but 3.9 percent below the 10-year average annual harvest. It is down significantly from the 2013-14 record deer harvest of 188,130, but also well above the low-point harvest of 144,315 of 2005-06.
Jonathan Shaw, the N.C. Wildlife Commission’s Deer Biologist, said the increase over the 2014-15 hunting season was due to several factors. The most significant may be expansion of Sunday hunting on private lands to include hunting with firearms. Sunday harvest was 7.3 percent of the total harvest, compared to the 2014-15 season, when Sunday hunting contributed just 1.9 percent of the total harvest.
“The 2015-2016 Piedmont Region harvest increased in all districts, including a 16.3 percent increase in both of districts 3 and 5, where high levels of hemorrhagic disease activity contributed to a depressed harvest during the 2014-2015 season,” Shaw said. “The Mountain Region saw a harvest increase in 2015-2016, compared to 2014-2015 in all districts, as high as 33 percent in District 9. Mast in 2014-15 was the second highest ever observed in our mast survey. Therefore, in the piedmont and mountains, some of the 2015-16 harvest increase may have been due to a decrease in mast that resulted in more deer movement. An emerging deer herd with improved habitat on private lands may have also contributed to the increase.”
Shaw said the harvest increase in the piedmont and mountains was offset by a decline across all coastal districts, with the worst decline in District 1, which had an 8.4 percent decrease.
“The decline in the coastal harvest may be a result of a declining deer herd,” he said. “The coastal herd has been around longer than the piedmont and mountain herds. The declines on the coast could be attributable to antlerless deer harvest, changes in habitat quality and predation. Hunter effort and selectivity are probably factors, but exactly how they relate to harvest is not well understood.”
Epizootic hemorrhagic disease (EHD), the most virulent strain of hemorrhagic disease, has been a concern for four years throughout the Southeast, along the Mississippi Valley and up into the Midwest. Blue tongue is the other hemorrhagic disease in deer, but it usually does not produce mortality rates as high as EHD. Together, biologists call them HD, or hemorrhagic disease. The recent outbreak of the deadlier strain may have reduced the deer population in some parts of North Carolina as much as 30 percent or more and officials say it was the worst outbreak in terms of reduction of deer numbers the state has experienced.
The hardest hit areas are usually the areas that do not have the midges that spread the disease during years with normal weather. The deer in those areas do not develop immunity to the same degree as deer in areas where the disease lingers perpetually.
Since midges are most abundant along the coast and are ever-present, the deer herds of the piedmont and mountain regions tend to suffer the most severe declines in population whenever there has been a disease outbreak. Therefore, they also experience longer recovery periods. Hot, dry summers followed by unusually wet autumns create the best breeding conditions for midges.
Now that the weather has returned to normal (and if it remains so), the deer population should continue its recovery statewide.
In the coastal region, the deer harvest from the 2014-15 hunting season to the 2015-16 hunting season dropped dramatically. District 1 had a harvest decline of 8.4 percent, District 2 had a harvest decline of 1.9 percent and District 4 had a harvest decline of 5.0 percent.
In the piedmont region, the deer harvest in District 3 increased 16.3 percent, and in District 5 it increased 16.3 percent as well. In District 6, the increase was 2.2 percent. In the mountain region, the deer harvest in District 7 increased 6.4 percent, in District 8, it increased by 9.2 percent and in District 9, it increased by 33.0 percent.
Of interest is that, although the statewide harvest year-over-year increased by 5.8 percent, the game land harvest as an overall percentage of the district harvests decreased by 5.1 percent. Game land harvests declined 17.6 percent in District 1, declined 11.6 percent in District 2, increased 9.0 percent in District 3, declined 22.3 percent in District 4, increased 0.2 percent in District 5, deceased 9.7 percent in District 6, decreased 5.5 percent in District 7, decreased 1.6 percent in District 8, and increased 6.1 percent in District 9.
Statewide, the antlered buck harvest was 82,144, an increase of 8,705, or 11.8 percent above the 2014-15 harvest of 73,439. The button buck harvest was 10,084, a decrease of 237, or 0.02 percent, from the 2014-15 harvest of 10,321. The doe harvest was 70,330, an increase of 461, or 0.01 percent over the 2014-15 harvest of 69,869.
Antlered bucks made up 50.5 percent of the harvest; button bucks, 6.2 percent; and does, 43.2 percent.
In comparison, during the 2014-15 season, antlered bucks were 47.8 percent of the harvest, button bucks 6.7 percent, and does 45.5 percent.
These percentages are about the same as the percentages of ages and sexes in the harvest over the past several seasons. They have varied little since the implementation of liberalized either-sex seasons in most areas of the state and the two-buck limit in the mountain region and four-buck limit in the coastal region went into effect.
The top 10 counties for total deer harvest during the 2015-16 hunting season were: Northampton, 4,499; Halifax, 4,151; Anson, 3,766; Bertie, 3,652; Randolph, 3,423; Wilkes, 3,402; Rockingham, 3,252; Ashe, 2,891; Moore, 2,869; and Edgecombe, 2,832.
During the 2014-15 season, Bladen, Union and Union made the top 10, but they were replaced in 2015-16 by Ashe, Moore and Edgecombe.
A more accurate measure than the total deer harvest for determining the best counties for hunter success is the harvest per square mile of huntable habitat statistic. This includes those areas that have a deer population that is subject to hunting. For example, the manageable 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, .ncwildlife.org). Huntable habitat area is re-calculated every five years and represents places where hunting regulations are most effective at generating deer harvest data.
The number of deer harvested per square mile of huntable habitat statistics give 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 Halifax may produce a high harvest simply because it has an extensive landmass. However, a smaller county like Alleghany or Ashe may actually offer greater odds for bagging a deer because it has better habitat.
Another consideration is that a county that receives a lot of hunting pressure because of its high human population may also produce a higher harvest of deer per square mile of huntable habitat because of increased hunter effort.
This effect was evident in a cluster of counties in the southern foothills — Mecklenburg, Gaston, Lincoln and Cabarrus, where the Charlotte-Gastonia-Lincolnton and the Concord-Kannapolis urban areas send thousands of hunters into the woods each season. Forsyth County is another example, with Winston-Salem occupying a good portion of the county.
Anson County is a persistent top-10 County because it has a balance of both excellent habitat and nearby cities that supply avid hunters. The only coastal county that made the top 10 was Northampton and the only mountain counties were Alleghany and Ashe.
The top 10 counties in terms of deer harvested per square mile of huntable habitat were: Mecklenburg, 11.0; Alleghany, 10.6; Forsyth, 9.6; Ashe, 9.1; Northampton, 9.1; Vance, 8.2; Cabarrus, 8.2; Gaston, 8.0; Lincoln, 8.0; and Anson, 7.8.
During 2014-15, Stanly, Union and Alamance counties made the top 10, but they were replaced during 2015-16 by Ashe, Vance and Lincoln.
The top two counties in each district for deer harvested per square mile of huntable habitat were: District 1, Hertford, 6.0 and Bertie, 5.7; District 2, Craven, 4.4 and Pitt, 4.3; District 3, Northampton, 9.1 and Vance, 8.2; District 4, Harnett, 3.2 and Bladen, 3.0; District 5, Guilford, 7.2 and Alamance, 7.2; District 6, Mecklenburg, 11.0 and Cabarrus, 8.2; District 7, Alleghany, 10.6 and Forsyth, 9.6; District 8, Gaston, 8.0 and Lincoln, 8.0; and District 9, Polk, 5.2 and Madison, 2.6.
As always, hunters using modern firearms took the most deer, harvesting 127,544 deer, or 78.5 percent of the total harvest. Hunters using muzzleloaders took 16,773 deer, or 10.3 percent; bowhunters took 11,471 deer, or 7.0 percent; crossbow users took 6,770, or 4.2 percent.
The previous season, modern gun hunters took 119,315 deer, or 77.7 percent of the total harvest; muzzleloader hunters took 17,709 deer, or 11.5 percent; bowhunters took 11,003 deer, or 7.2 percent; and crossbow hunters took 5,602 deer, or 3.6 percent, so the percentages were about the same.
Hunters using dogs in 2015-16 took 18,615 deer, or 11.4 percent of the harvest, compared to 20,188 deer, or 13.1 percent of the harvest, in 2014-15. Top counties for deer harvest with hounds included Warren, 1,057; Halifax, 937; Northampton, 819; and Gates, 898. In Warren, hound-hunting accounted for 53.6 percent of the harvest of 1,970. In Northampton, hound-hunting took 19.8 percent of the harvest of 4,499. In Halifax, hound-hunting took 22.6 percent of the harvest of 4,151. And in Gates hound-hunting took 53.2 percent of the harvest of 1,689.
The expansion of the Urban Archery Season from 51 municipalities in 2014-15 to 59 municipalities in 2015-16 accounted for 197 deer — 54 bucks, 24 button bucks and 119 does. In the 2014-15 Urban Archery season the harvest was 191 deer — 42 bucks, 25 button bucks and 124 does. While the number of participating cities is increasing, the number of deer that the special January season adds to the total deer harvest has not been significant.
In the 2013-14 survey, 258,409 hunters hunted deer on 3,671,258 days. Deer hunters hunted an average of 14 days and 49 percent of them harvested deer, with 24 percent harvesting one, 13 percent harvesting two, and 6 percent harvesting three or more.
In the 2014-15 survey, 233,581 hunters hunted 3,727,939 days. Deer hunters hunted an average of 16 days and 54 percent of them harvested deer, with 24 percent harvesting one deer, 12 percent harvesting two, 5 percent harvesting three, and 11 percent harvesting 3 more.
As Shaw pointed out, the relationship of hunter effort and success rates and harvest is poorly understood but may become clearer in the future after several more years of hunter surveys may establish some trends. However, with the 2013-14 harvest having set the state record harvest and the average number of deer taken per hunter nearly the same across all of the age and sex categories, evidence for the higher harvest during that season appears to point to the higher number of hunters and hunter-days as one of the biggest reasons.
Once the Commission makes the data from the 2015-16 hunter harvest survey available, it may show that hunter effort is indeed a factor, with more deer hunters putting more days in the field than in 2014-15 but less than 2013-14. Any increases or decreases in harvest from bellwether year of 2013-14 could come be viewed in retrospect as impacted significantly by hunter effort. During the present economic conditions, a falling unemployment rate, especially among construction and other trades that have a preponderance of hunters in their ranks, can reduce hunter effort because people working longer hours have less time to hunt.