Deer hunters across the state of South Carolina enjoyed a good, but not great, deer hunting season in 2010. As has been the trend in recent years, the overall harvest was down, but compared to most other states in the southeast, the deer harvest in South Carolina is still very good.
According to Charles Ruth, Deer and Turkey Project Supervisor for the S.C. Department of Natural Resources (SCDNR), the number of deer harvested in 2010 was down slightly compared to the 2009 harvest.
"During the 2010 deer season, based on our surveys, we estimate that a total of 116,755 bucks and 105,894 does were taken for a statewide total of 222,649 deer harvested," Ruth said. "This figure represents a 3.9 percent decrease from the 2009 harvest of 231,703 deer. It is also 30.5 percent below the record harvest established in 2002 when hunters harvested 319,902 deer."
Ruth said that after many years of rapidly increasing population and harvest during the 1970's and 1980's, the deer population in South Carolina exhibited relative stability between 1995 and 2002. Since 2002, however, the population has trended down, with 2010 being no exception. The overall reduction in harvest seen since 2002 can likely be attributable to different factors, including habitat change as a significant reason.
"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," Ruth said. "This is a situation that does not support deer densities at the same level as younger stands in which food and cover is more available. We're still seeing the impact of this in the 2010 harvest and that impact and trend will likely continue into the 2011 harvest."
Ruth added another variable into the likely reason for lower harvest numbers.
"Coyotes are a recent addition to the landscape and are another piece of the puzzle," he said. "SCDNR is currently involved in a major study with researchers at the Savannah River Site investigating the impact coyotes are having on the survival of deer fawns. Cumulative data throughout the study indicates 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. The study is currently in the process of determining if coyote control leads to increased fawn survival on the area."
Ruth added that the on-going study regarding coyotes and deer is in the second year of the second part of the study.
"In this part of the study, we're still doing the same fawn survival counts, but we've utilized large scale trapping of coyotes prior to the time fawns drop to determine if this has an impact on fawn survival," Ruth said. "While we've completed only one year of study at this time, the results were dramatic in that fawn survival went way up when the coyote population was significantly reduced."
Ruth said that year two of this study will serve as a control to verify the results from the first year.
"I am confident that we'll find that the removal of coyotes will have a positive impact on the deer herd," Ruth said. "In the end, if hunters and landowners believe that coyotes are a problem and they have the means, trapping is the most effective technique to moderate coyote issues. By all means, take advantage of the three month trapping season to remove coyotes.
"Also, while not as effective as trapping, deer hunters should take every opportunity to shoot coyotes while deer hunting or even when on their hunting property working on stands, food plots or whatever. This is not as effective as trapping, but in removing all the coyotes they can, hunters will likely have a positive impact on the localized deer herd in my opinion."
As for the prognosis for the 2011 season, Ruth said that he would expect a similar harvest to that in 2010.
Ruth said there's no particular issues with the overall deer herd other than the above noted habitats changes and the impact of coyotes. Based on the weather last spring (2011) Ruth said he feels there's a good chance of a reasonable hard mast crop for the 2011 season.
"Overall, on a statewide basis, we didn't have any late hard freezes that would have a major negative impact to on the hard mast crop, so that's a positive," Ruth said. "Overall, I expect to see the deer harvest in 2011 being somewhere close to that of 2010. It could easily be up or down 2 or 3 percent, but basically I think the herd numbers are fairly stable. Factors such as weather can have an impact on hunter participation and harvest. It would not surprise me to see a three or four percent increase, but another slight decrease is possible as well.
"There are too many variables to make a scientific estimate," he said. "But individual effort on the part of the hunters in terms of coyote removal, planting food plots and managing the deer herd for maximum growth can certainly improve localized results. As is usually the case, those that prepare and work hardest seem to have better success."
To pinpoint the best places in the state for 2011 hunting, we can use the harvest figures from the 2010 season as a guide. While past results do not predict future hunting results exactly, the areas where the most deer were harvested last season can show trends that hunters can use for planning purposes for this season.
Ruth said that comparisons can be made between deer harvests from the various counties in South Carolina if a harvest per unit area is established. Harvest per unit area standardizes the harvest 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 in 2010 was 10.5 deer per square mile over the entire state.
"Although the deer population in the state has declined in recent years, this harvest rate is considered good in comparison with most other states," Ruth said.
For the 2010 deer hunting season, the number one county, by a considerable margin in terms of deer harvested by unit area, was Bamberg County. Bamberg County had a whopping 27.2 deer per square mile harvest rate. A distant second place, but still with a very good harvest rate, was Allendale County with a 17.3 deer per square mile harvested.
The number three county was Orangeburg County with a 17.1 deer per square mile harvest rate, followed by Anderson County in the fourth spot with a 16.9 deer per square mile harvest. Rounding out the top five was Spartanburg County with a 15.4 deer per square mile harvest rate.
In the number six slot was Union County with a 15.2 deer per square mile harvest and in seventh place was Calhoun County with a 14.6 deer per square mile harvest rate. At number eight was Cherokee County with a 14.4 deer per square mile harvest rate. Rounding out the top ten were Laurens County with a 14.2 and Beaufort County with a 14.1 deer per square mile harvest rate.
"Total deer harvest by county is not really comparable among counties because counties vary so much in size," Ruth said. "However, it has become customary to rank the counties based on number of deer harvested. The top 5 counties during 2010 for total harvest, in order, were Orangeburg, Williamsburg, Colleton, Bamberg, Laurens, and Florence."
The second five, in order of total harvest were Florence, Fairfield, Hampton, Aiken and Spartanburg counties.
"Overall hunting success in 2010 was 70.4 percent, which South Carolina deer hunters should consider extraordinary," Ruth said. "The harvest success rate for residents was 70.6 percent, and was slightly higher than for non-residents, at 70.3 percent. Success rates for resident hunters were highest in Marion, Williamsburg, Barnwell, Clarendon, and Sumter counties. Non-residents experienced the highest success in Marlboro, Aiken, Anderson, Clarendon, Bamberg counties. However, only Bamberg County had appreciable numbers of non-resident hunters."
Ruth said that for determination of hunting success in 2010, only those individuals that actually hunted deer were included in the analysis. Similarly, he defined success as harvesting at least one deer.
Ruth said that deer hunting on Wildlife Management Areas (WMAs) remains popular in South Carolina with approximately 49,000 licensees having a WMA Permit. He said Wildlife Management Areas represent lands owned by DNR, other state owned lands enrolled in the WMA Program, US Forest Service lands enrolled in the WMA Program, and private and/or corporate lands that are leased by SCDNR as part of the WMA Program.
He said that deer harvest figures for coastal WMAs are from check stations and are presented only for those WMA properties that have a deer check-in requirement. Deer harvest figures for upstate WMAs (Mountain, Central and Western Piedmont Hunt Units) were estimated by extrapolating the county deer harvest rates per square mile to the acreage of WMA land that falls within the respective counties comprising the WMA. He said this assumes that hunters on WMA lands exhibit effort and deer harvest patterns similar to those of the general licensee database that was surveyed. Finally, the estimated deer harvest on WMA lands is included in, not additive to, the county and statewide estimates found throughout this report.
During the 2010 hunting season the data indicates that an estimated 4,316 bucks and 3,494 does were harvested for a total deer harvest on WMA's of 7,810. That is a decrease from the total of 8,492 deer harvested in the 2009 season.
Examining harvest figures from some of the larger and more productive WMA's across the state indicates some interesting results. The Mountain Hunt Unit had a 4.2 deer per square mile harvest rate, the lowest of the major WMA's in the upstate. The Central Piedmont Hunt Unit had a 13.4 deer per square mile harvest rate, which is excellent, and the Western Piedmont Hunt Unit had a 10.6 deer per square mile harvest rate.
In the Coastal WMA's the largest area is the Francis Marion WMA. This huge area produced a 0.9 deer per square mile harvest rate. However there are a couple of WMA's that had outstanding harvest rates. The best overall was the 2,000 acre Botany Bay WMA with a harvest rate of 21.1 deer per square mile. Next was Bear Island with a 19.0 deer per square mile harvest rate. However, this area is also small in size at only 1,519 acres.
There are several other WMA's that do provide excellent hunting opportunities. However, for all hunters who pursue game on WMA's, carefully read the hunting Rules and Regulations should be a top priority. Some require special permits or are draw hunts. Some are open only on specific days. Always refer specifically to the WMA you are interested in hunting in the SCDNR Rules and Regulations. And remember since some of the lands are leased, changes can occur in property boundaries as well as hunting regulations from season to season.
One final note for planning your hunting season is to study the graphs that accompany this feature regarding deer harvest. If you look at both harvest per square mile, which is the best indicator, as well as the total harvest, there are two very distinct sections of the state where deer hunting seems to be best. These two hotspots are most convenient in that one is upstate and one is in the coastal plain. You will certainly find outstanding hunting outside of these areas, but these are two well defined areas to focus your efforts for improving your odds of success in 2011.
Plan your hunts, work had and odds are very good you will be part of the outstanding success rate predicted for deer hunters in South Carolina in 2011.