North Carolina’s deer biologist, Evin Stanford, has been telling hunters that year-over-year increases in the deer harvest would eventually end. That prediction appears to have come true because the last few years have shown dips and valleys in harvest numbers.
The 2010-11 deer-hunting season’s harvest was 175,157, an increase of 5,884, or 3.5 percent over the 2009-10 harvest of 169,273. The 2009-10 harvest was the third highest on record. Now the 2010-11 harvest has taken over second place, bumping the 2009-10 harvest back to fourth place.
To put harvest trends in perspective, it helps to look at the last 10 years.
The statewide deer harvest was 132,235 in the 2000-01 season. It increased to 142,887 in 2001-02, but dropped down to 118,174 in 2002-03. In 2003-04, however, it bounced back up to 134,507.
In 2004-05, it rose again to 140,311 and rose again to 144,315 in 2005-06. In 2006-07 it set yet another record in by rising to 154,273. Another record of 171,986 came in 2007-08.
In 2008-09 North Carolina’s largest recorded kill of whitetails in history occurred: 176,297 whitetails.
Then, in 2009-10 the harvest declined slightly to 169,273; in 2010 the harvest increased to slightly below the record: to 175,157 deer.
In other words, North Carolina hunters set four record harvests in a row, culminating with the all-time record of 176,297 in 2008-09. The previous harvest record of 171,986, set during the 2007-08 season, was 11.5 percent above the 2006-07 record of 154,273, which followed the 2005-06 record harvest of 144,315. Even back then, back-to-back record-setting seasons were considered unusual because the state’s deer population was thought to be stabilizing. Now along comes the 2010-11, barely missing the top spot by 1,140 deer: a miniscule, and statistically insignificant, 0.6 percent.
Looking at the two biggest declines in deer harvests helps shed light on bumps in the road that did, and still could, blindside the state’s amazing harvest trajectory. The 2001-02 total deer harvest of 142,847 set a harvest record at that time for all years since harvest report records had been kept. Then the following season, in 2002-03, the harvest declined precipitously to 118,174. The deer population recovered with steady harvest increases starting 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 17-percent harvest decrease between the 2001-02 and 2002-03 hunting seasons was caused by a number of factors. Northeastern counties were hard-hit by Epizootic Hemorrhagic Disease. Also, the direct hit from Hurricane Isabel in District 1 made it physically difficult for hunters to get around in the woods or even to hunt at all in some cases.
Following tropical storms and hurricanes, coastal residents spend their time attending to other problems associated with hurricane damage rather than hunting. Strong winds and floodwaters create a more urgent need for repairing hunting camps, clearing trees from access roads and repairing permanent tree stands than for actually going hunting. District 1 always tops the deer harvest list, so any decline significantly affects the statewide harvest.
Banner mast production in the coastal districts likely also had an impact, keeping deer in the woods rather than coming to bait stations and food plots.
During the 2009-10 season, many hunters across the coastal region again reported a banner year for mast production. Since Districts 1-4 contribute a large percentage of the statewide harvest, this probably created the 4-percent harvest dip in the statewide harvest.
The coastal and piedmont districts came on strong in 2010-11, with all districts except Districts 7 and 9 showing a harvest increase. In District 1, the harvest increased 8 percent; District 2, 4.5 percent; District 3, 4.6 percent; District 4, 1.9 percent; District 5, 9.3 percent; District 6, 2.8 percent, District 8, 5.3 percent. The District 7 harvest decreased by 7.5 percent. The District 9 harvest was unchanged.
“District 7 has had the highest percentage of does in the harvest the past few seasons,” Stanford said. “We had been wondering when it was going to take a turn downward. We also had a season extension for District 7, which could have had an effect. Hunters also reported the best mast crop in decades in District 7, which could also have been a factor.”
During the 2010-11 season 5,282 Bonus Antlerless Report Cards were issued. This was an increase over 4,053 issued in 2009-10, but a decrease from the 20,870 issued in 2008-09 before $10 was charged for each card.
The antlerless deer harvest of 94,727, including 15,204 button bucks and 79,523 does, exceeded the antlered buck harvest of 80,430. Last year’s buck take is a decrease from the 81,283 antlered bucks harvested during 2009-10. The decline in antlered buck harvest and increase in antlerless deer harvest held steady through a fourth straight season. In 2007-08, antlerless deer comprised 51.3 percent of the harvest, in 2008-09, 51.8 percent, in 2009-10, 51.9 percent and in 2010-11, 54.1 percent.
Antlered bucks comprised 45.9 percent of the harvest; button bucks, 8.7 percent; and does, 45.4 percent. The increasing hunter preference for antlerless deer is likely the result of regulations aimed at stabilizing the deer population. These regulations include increases in antlerless deer seasons, allowing bonus antlerless harvest report cards to be used on some public lands, the 2-buck limit in western districts and 4-buck limit in eastern districts.
As traditionally occurs, the state’s conventional firearms hunters took the preponderance of deer, harvesting 142,406 whitetails, or 81.3 percent of the harvest. This is, however, 2.4 percent lower than the percentage taken with conventional firearms during 2009-10. Muzzleloader hunters took 21,384 deer, or 12.3 percent of the total harvest. This is an increase of 3.7 percent above the 2009-10 muzzleloader harvest. Bowhunters took 11,367 deer, or 6.4 percent of the harvest. This is a 1.3-percent decrease from the 2009-10 archery harvest.
It’s apparent that a greater number of hunters took their deer with a muzzleloader due to an extension of muzzleloader seasons one week forward into the archery seasons.
While that came as no surprise, it is an eye-opener that the extension of the muzzleloader season also created a decrease in the percentage deer taken with conventional firearms. Stanford said hunters probably took their deer earlier than they had in the past using muzzleloaders rather than waiting for the regular gun seasons.
Hunters using dogs took 26,276 deer, or 15 percent of the state’s total deer harvest. In counties where dog-hunting deer is allowed, the harvest was as high as 55.4 percent in Warren County and as low as 2.5 percent in Anson County. More typical is Northampton County, where deer taken by dog hunting comprised 21.3 percent of the harvest.
The 2010-11 Urban Archery Season accounted for 96 deer, including 19 antlered bucks, 10 button bucks and 67 does in the participating cities. The previous season’s total harvest was 83. In January of 2012, Goldston, Indian Trail, Mineral Springs, Troutman, Weddington and Yadkinville will be added to the Urban Archery Season.
Game land deer harvest declined 9.6 percent, from 6,843 in 2009-10 to 6,185 in 2010-11. The percentage of harvest coming from game lands was 3.8 percent in District 1, 3.8 percent in District 2, 2.3 percent in District 3, 3.5 percent in District 4, 4.4 percent in District 5, 3.6 percent in District 6, 0.6 percent in District 7, 3.1 percent in District 8, and 25.7 percent in District 9.
During the 2010-11 hunting season, the top ten counties for total deer harvest were: Northampton, 6,063; Halifax, 5,841; Bertie 4,977; Wilkes, 3,667; Pender, 3,423; Beaufort, 3,344; Granville, 3,264; Franklin, 3,220; Edgecombe, 3,205 and Anson, 3,197. Most of these counties are in Districts 1, 2 and 3, showing the importance of coastal counties when it comes to the statewide total. Granville County is on the western edge of District 5, adjoining Franklin County. Two top-10 harvest counties located farther inland are Wilkes in District 7 and Anson in District 6. They 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 the harvest per square mile of manageable habitat. In past years, this was calculated as harvest per square mile of habitat. When the Commission revised its deer density maps in 2010, it identified areas where deer hunting does not occur. In the past, any area that had any deer was included in the deer per square mile of habitat calculations. (N.C. deer density maps are available on the Commission’s website, www.ncwildlife.org.)
“We have struggled to come up with an appropriate term, because even the word ‘manageable’ doesn’t really describe it accurately,” Stanford said. “As indicated on the 2010 deer maps, the density area estimate excludes areas where harvest data are not available to produce density estimates because hunting is limited or prohibited, such as federal and state parks, municipal boundaries, water bodies, and human densities greater than one person per two acres. Basically the gray areas on the map are areas we get very little harvest data from because hunting is very limited or prohibited. Therefore, we don’t have the ability to monitor the population in those areas. In some of these areas population levels may be quite high. In other areas they may be low or nonexistent. The area estimates represent most areas where our hunting regulations are most effective and where our harvest data comes from. However, we still must realize that hunting obviously does not occur everywhere in these areas. There are many, many areas outside of the gray shaded areas that are not hunted for a variety of reasons. The new area estimate is simply a stab at trying to nail down where hunting most likely occurs and where our harvest data used for population estimation are coming from.”
When comparing previous harvest data to the 2010-11 data, this simply means that the new “deer harvest per square mile of manageable habitat” will be a slightly different number than the former “deer harvest per square mile of habitat” because there is less habitat area included on the new deer density maps. It’s not that the deer population has changed, but that the area included for making calculations is smaller.
Nevertheless, as with the previous data, the deer per square mile of manageable habitat numbers provide a better picture than the total deer harvest in a county. 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 deer on ground that can be hunted.
The top ten counties in terms of deer harvested per square mile of manageable habitat were: Northampton, 11.6; Alleghany, 11.0; Halifax, 8.5; Vance, 8.1; Alamance, 8.0; Hertford, 7.6; Orange, 7.3; Bertie, 7.3; Edgecombe, 6.8; Caswell, 6.8.
The top two counties in each district in terms of deer harvested per square mile of manageable habitat were: Dist. 1, Hertford, 7.6 and Bertie, 7.3; Dist. 2, Pitt 4.6 and Craven, 4.3; Dist. 3, Northampton, 11.6 and Halifax, 8.5; Dist. 4, Bladen, 3.1 and Sampson, 2.6; Dist. 5, Alamance, 8.0 and Orange, 7.3; Dist. 6, Mecklenburg, 6.6, Anson, 6.2; Dist. 7, Alleghany, 11.0 and Forsyth, 6.2; Dist. 8, Lincoln, 5.9 and Gaston, 5.5; Dist. 9, Polk, 4.0 and Madison, 1.0.
Counties along the Virginia border that continue to be top deer producers include Hertford, Bertie, Northampton, Halifax, Alamance, Orange and Alleghany. They have a good mixture of habitats including agricultural lands, forestland and river bottoms.
In the lower coastal plain, Bladen and Sampson counties are top deer producers because they have excellent habitat, consisting of river bottoms, timberlands and farmlands.
The Sandhills and river bottoms of Anson County always produce lots of deer. Lincoln and Gaston counties typically lead District 8 because they have large areas of good habitat.
However, it is interesting that Mecklenburg County in District 6 and Forsyth County in District 7 moved into the top-two list in those districts. This is due to favorable deer habitat near the cities of Charlotte and Winston-Salem combined with high hunting pressure from hunters living in those cities. Although their total harvests are lower than in less urban counties within their districts, their harvests are very high relative to the amount of habitat that can actually be hunted and this has been brought to light by the new method of calculating deer densities.
“As for the 2011-12 season, there’s no way to make a harvest prediction,” Stanford said. “We’ve anticipated a harvest decline for the Northwestern season. But the harvest in the rest of the state should remain about the same.”