There seems to be no ceiling in sight for deer hunters in Kentucky, at least not for the near future. Even with less than ideal conditions during last year's season, hunters still posted the third highest harvest in Kentucky's history. In fact, the past three seasons have all been phenomenal.
The record deer harvest was recorded two years ago during the 2015-2016 deer season. That year surpassed the season before, which is now Kentucky's second highest harvest in history. It would be expected to see a drop last season, but hunters took enough deer to place the 2016-2017 season as the third highest on record despite less than ideal conditions.
The early season started off hot, and above average temperatures continued on into October. Several super moons led to a lot of deer activity at night and limited movement during legal hunting hours. The heat and reduced deer movement also contributed to below average hunter effort. If this was not enough to dampen hunter success, there was very high acorn production across much of the state. This means deer did not have to move much to find food. Even so, by the end of the season hunters had posted another banner year for whitetail harvest.
One item of note was that Owen County finally fell from the throne as the No. 1 county for harvest. Owen County had posted the highest deer harvest numbers every year since 1999, but was supplanted last season by Pendleton County, which posted a harvest of 3,242 deer. Owen County fell to second with a harvest of 3,106 deer.
Overall, the health of the deer herd is very good and there was even a lower than normal number of cases of epizootic hemorrhagic disease (EHD). EHD occurs naturally in deer populations and is more of a factor during years with hot, dry weather when deer tend to congregate at water sources. The disease is not transmissible between animals, but when crowded conditions occur near water, it makes deer more susceptible to the tiny flies that spread the EHD virus. Kentucky had wet conditions early and even though there was a dry period during the hunting season, it did not lead to many cases of EHD.
Jenkins says they are continuing to monitor and are utilizing targeted surveillance to test for CWD. Not only are they testing hunter-harvested deer, but the department also is focusing on older-age deer and road-killed deer. Several years ago, the KDFWR started the battle of keeping CWD out by imposing strict regulations on transporting live animals into or through the state, as well as how and what portions of harvested cervids may be legally brought back into Kentucky. Of course, as the disease expands around other states, there is no barrier to prevent the disease from reaching deer should it naturally spread.
Jenkins also says there is another disease concern they are keeping a close eye on as well. Last year two wild deer in southeastern Indiana were diagnosed with bovine tuberculosis (TB). The two deer were close to the Ohio border, so Indiana, Ohio and Kentucky wildlife agencies have all been testing and monitoring for signs of the disease. This was the first time TB was discovered in Indiana, and so far these two deer are the only known cases.
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Tuberculosis is a very serious disease that is transmissible between animals and even to humans. However, the version deer carry is a different strain than the type humans normally encounter and the possibility of contracting the disease is very remote. It is a good idea, though, to always wear gloves and use proper techniques when field dressing or handling raw meat. Cooking deer meat to an internal temperature of 165 degrees F kills bacteria such as TB and E. coli.
One goal Jenkins had when he took the position of managing Kentucky's big game was looking at how deer are managed to ensure that best practices were being used.
"We have been managing deer the same way here in the state for the last 15 years or longer," said Jenkins. "We use the same management approach and the same season structure. It is time to take a look at how we are doing things and see if it is time to implement some changes."
There are areas in the state where deer numbers are not where they should be, as well as areas where deer numbers are above population goals. This leads to an increased number of deer and vehicle collisions, as well as more complaints by farmers about crop damage.
Some of the things the KDFWR is doing is conducting deer surveys and gathering information from hunters. They are also putting together teams to look at specific practices and evaluate how these practices work for the best health of the deer herd, while providing the most opportunity for hunters. Jenkins says they may propose some big changes, based on science, this fall that would take effect in 2018.
The KDFWR has already opened more areas to firearm hunting and added more quota hunts. They are also looking at the possibility of moving some counties in the southeastern part of the state from Zone 4 to Zone 3. But they want to be very cautious, so as to not hurt the deer population in a geographic area that is already lagging behind the rest of the state.
The southeastern part of the state has lower deer numbers than most of the rest of the state, and the Department has actually been conducting fawn and doe mortality studies in that area. Some of these counties are showing signs of improving, just coming along slowly, so it is very important to make gradual changes to hunting regulations and not impede or set back herd growth.
Deer in this area are heavily dependent on hard mast, namely acorns, for forage. In the event of a severe mast failure, this could lead to very high hunter success due to increased deer movement during hunting season. Making the season limits more liberal and then having a higher than desired hunter harvest could knock the population back tremendously, so it is very important to manage these areas carefully.
Looking to this season, optimism is certainly running high. Deer numbers are high and the health of the deer herd is great. There is hardly anywhere in the state where hunters cannot expect to have a good chance of tagging a deer. Obviously, weather conditions during peak hunting times, such as opening weekends, early muzzleloader weekend and during firearm season play an important part in hunter success. However, last season proves that even without optimal weather, deer hunting in the Bluegrass State is awesome. Perhaps this season will even shape up to another record setting harvest.