Another deer season is here, and hunters are excited for the chance to get back in the stand. Deer season is always highly anticipated and there are plenty of reasons to get excited. Deer hunting in Tennessee never disappoints, as there are plenty of deer and lots of good bucks in the population.
Overall, the deer herd is in excellent condition and numbers are very respectable. What the total number of deer in the state actually remains a point of discussion. Deer personnel with the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency are reluctant to put a number to the question of how many deer are in the state, citing it is impossible to count the exact number of deer within the state. While this is true, other sources have estimated the Tennessee deer population to be around 700,000 animals.
The TWRA is obviously correct. It is impossible to count the exact number of deer in this state or any other state. However, state wildlife agencies have ways of estimating deer herds. They use various data and models, such as number of deer seen in certain geographical areas, number of fawns observed, hunter harvest numbers, deer and vehicle collision numbers, landowner depredation complaints and more. They compile these figures and compare them to long-term data to arrive at an estimated number of deer within the state. Although this number is purely an estimate and obviously has an error factor, it is still the best way agencies have of putting a number to deer populations.
Now whether or not 700,000 deer is an accurate number for Tennessee is not as important as hunter success and hunter satisfaction. Both success and satisfaction remain high, despite last season being a down year as far as harvest numbers were concerned; it was the lowest in 10 years. The combined statewide total harvest last season was 144,805 deer, which included archery, muzzleloader and firearm hunting methods.
That figure was down about nine percent from the previous season, which was also slightly down when compared to the 10-year average. Last season was about 12 percent down from the 10-year average. There were several factors that played into the decline, most notably the weather.
As was the case in the season before, the weather last season was unseasonably warm, especially during early archery and muzzleloader seasons. The harvest for muzzleloader season was down approximately 23 percent and is due almost entirely to the hot weather. Deer hunters just do not go to the woods as much when the weather is hot, and reduced hunter effort translates to reduced harvest. It is very understandable though, because hunting in hot and humid weather means discomfort, dealing with insects and sweating, which leads to increased human odor. Not only that, caring quickly for downed game is much more important.
Firearm hunters enjoyed better success. Cooler temps helped by keeping hunter effort high and encouraging deer movement during legal shooting hours.
“Male deer comprised of 57 percent (82,005) of the harvest while females comprised of 43 percent (62,798),” said Tim White TWRA biologist. “Conversely, antlered deer (deer with antlers protruding above the hairline) comprised of 53 percent (77,617) of the harvest while antlerless deer (does and bucks without antlers protruding above the hairline) comprised of 47 percent (62,798) of the harvest.”
According to White, Region II accounted for 34 percent of the harvest, with Region I coming in at a close second with 32 percent of the overall harvest. Regions III and IV reported 16 percent and 12 percent, respectively. Only six percent of the harvest occurred on wildlife management areas, similar to the previous deer season.
It is interesting to look at the ratios of male deer to female deer and antlered deer to antlerless deer in the harvest. The recent change in hunting regulations defining an antlered deer is still being evaluated, both by the TWRA and in the court of public opinion. The goal of redefining an antlered buck to “any deer with antlers protruding above the hairline” rather than a “deer with at least one antler 3 inches or longer” is to reduce the number of young bucks harvested as antlerless deer and to help recruit more bucks into the adult population. It will take at least another year or two to see the real benefits of the new regulations and there remains a segment of hunters still not happy about the change.
Lower harvest figures in the eastern half of the state is not unusual due to difficult terrain and lower deer numbers, but last year hunters in the two eastern regions also had to contend with a major epizootic hemorrhagic disease outbreak. There were over 700 deer found dead and reported in Region IV. In Region III, which includes the Cumberland Plateau, some 574 deer were reported found dead. These figures only represented the deer found and reported and certainly there were many more that succumbed to the disease last year.
EHD is a naturally occurring disease across the country and there are instances of it every year in Tennessee and many other states. Some years, especially during hot dry summers, the outbreaks are much more severe. The disease is spread by biting midges, which are small flies, so in dry years deer congregate around water sources, and animals are more likely to be infected. During severe outbreaks, it can definitely impact deer numbers, especially the number of mature bucks, which take longer to replace than the general deer herd.
There are a couple of changes coming this season that provide additional options for deer season. The first is concerning the use of airbows, a pneumatic device similar to crossbows, during archery deer season for those with a permanent disability permit, as well as during the modern gun season by all hunters.
“Commissioners were voting to give qualified permanent disabled hunters another means of enjoying the outdoors,” said Lt. Col. Cape Taylor of the TWRA Law Enforcement Division. “They are the only ones who can use this device during archery-only big game hunts. This does not include the muzzleloader season for deer. There were no changes made to this upcoming fall muzzleloader season.”
Hunters who qualify for a permanent disability license can visit tnwildlife.org. Under “Buy Licenses,” at the top of website, click on “Special Licenses & Permits.” From there, click on “Applications for Disabled, Blind, Seniors, and Miscellaneous Licenses.”
The TFWC also approved the use of large caliber air guns for use during modern gun season for deer beginning this year. Air guns with pellets .35 caliber and larger will now be legal for deer, elk, bear or furbearers, such as bobcats, foxes or coyotes.
“The action of the Tennessee Fish and Wildlife Commission to allow the use of big bore airguns for the take of big game is an incredible testament to the maturation that is happening across the county,” said Jay Duncan, director of marketing for Crosman Corporation. “Not only is airgun technology maturing to the point that it provides hunters a new, exciting and ethical means of take, but regulatory officials are open to broadening opportunities to put new hunters in the field.”
Expanded hunting options and plenty of available deer certainly are reasons to be excited about this deer season. All hunters, regardless of chosen hunting season or method, have plenty of opportunity awaiting them this year. Now if the weather only cooperates a little more than the past two seasons, we may just enjoy a banner season this year.
The deer population across the state is mostly in great shape, except for a few areas. The western half of the state obviously holds more deer due to habitat. The Mississippi River alluvial valley is very fertile with lots of forage, as is the middle portion of the state with plenty of farm land and row crops. The mountainous areas in the eastern portion of the state hold fewer deer due to the terrain and more dependence on mast rather than crops. Crops are plentiful most every year whereas a mast failure in the mountain counties can make a dramatic impact on deer numbers due to mortality and reduced fawn numbers the following spring.
One item of concern for the TWRA is the growing populations of deer in urban and suburban areas. Depredation complaints, deer-vehicle collisions and other indicators point toward deer numbers increasing in some of these urban areas and the TWRA is examining ways to deal with it going forward. These areas are not hunted, so they function as refuges of sorts for deer without much to contain their numbers to a tolerable level.
Urban deer expansion is a problem in many states, not just Tennessee. Other states have dealt with increasing urban deer in different ways including creating urban hunting zones. Within these zones hunters are allowed to hunt areas where otherwise no hunting is permitted, typically with archery gear due to the aversion to firearms by the residents in these urban locations.