Lightening may not strike the same place twice, but don't tell deer hunters in the South Carolina coastal plains that hurricanes abide by the same law of nature. Hunters have endured two straight seasons of major hurricane rains and flooding that have significantly disrupted deer seasons. Additional weather effects were felt over a wide area of the state both years, but certainly the coastal areas — where, traditionally, exceptional hunting occurs — were hardest hit.
In 2015, the 1,000-year flood event of Hurricane Joaquin pounded much of the state, forcing localized closings of deer season in some areas. This was followed in 2016 by Hurricane Matthew, which also forced flood-related temporary deer hunting season closures in many coastal areas. On a broad scale, deer hunters experienced widespread access issues because of weather for the second consecutive year.
South Carolina Department of Natural Resources (SCDNR) Deer Project Supervisor Charles Ruth said the bottom line is that the 2016 deer harvest was severely impacted by flooding and poor weather for hunting.
According to the annual Deer Harvest Report data Ruth compiles, the 2016 deer hunting season was down by 11.7 percent from the 2015 harvest and that 2015 number was also down from 2014. In addition to the flooding, unseasonably warm weather and what many called a record acorn crop all combined to create the perfect storm of tough deer hunting for the second consecutive year.
"We can't predict or control the long-term weather, but I think because of poor conditions from flooding to overall unseasonably warm weather during prime hunting season statewide, a lot of deer were left in the woods in 2015 and 2016," Ruth said. "I think if hunters catch a break and we have normal rainfall and normal, cool weather during the rut particularly, deer will move better. If that occurs the odds are good that we'll see an upswing in the harvest in 2017. I feel we have ample numbers of deer in the woods and we have plenty of hunter effort. A cooperative weather season may be all we're missing."
Ruth said the deer harvest in a number of coastal counties most affected by the storm was down well over 25 percent, some much higher, in 2016 compared to 2015. This dramatically affects statewide deer harvest totals.
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"A decrease of this magnitude from one season to the next in several areas clearly demonstrates the dramatic impact of a major event, in this case the flooding, on the 2016 statewide harvest," he said.
Ruth added that based on habitat available and the issues with coyotes, the deer population overall remains reasonably stable. Also no problems are associated with any deer diseases. The major problem other than weather and reduced quality habitat over the past years is coyotes.
"Coyotes are a recent addition to the landscape and are another piece of the puzzle," Ruth said. "The SCDNR has recently completed a major long-term study with researchers from the United States Forest Service Southern Research Station at the Savannah River Site investigating the impact coyotes are having on the survival of deer fawns. This research demonstrated that coyotes can be a significant predator of deer fawns, that predation by coyotes can be an additive source of mortality, and that effort to increase fawn recruitment via coyote control provided only modest results and at high cost."
Ruth said that these results cannot be uniformly applied across the state because habitats, coyote densities, deer densities, and other factors vary. However, coyotes are now well established in South Carolina so they should be expected to play a role in deer population dynamics at some level.
"With coyotes now part of the deer population dynamics, this 'new mortality factor' combined with extremely liberal deer harvests that have been the norm in South Carolina are clearly involved in the reduction in deer numbers in the last decade," he said. "Given this and the difficulty and high cost of coyote control, it seems apparent that making adjustments to how we manage deer, particularly female deer, is more important now than prior to the colonization of the state by coyotes."
A quick breakdown of the 2016 harvest data shows that during the 2016 deer season an estimated total of 99,678 bucks and 72,637 does were harvested for a statewide total of 172,315 deer.
The top five counties in overall harvest in 2016, in order were Orangeburg, Colleton, Anderson, Spartanburg and Hampton counties. The top five per unit area were Anderson, Spartanburg, Calhoun, Hampton and York counties. Three of these counties, Anderson, Spartanburg and Hampton, are in both lists, making them potentially prime places to hunt for the 2017 season.
Ruth said the decline in harvest seen since 2002 can likely be attributable to a number of factors cited above plus habitat change. Although timber management activities stimulated significant growth in South Carolina's deer population in the 1970s and 1980s, considerable acreage is currently in even-aged stands that are greater than 15 years old. According to forest inventory data, during the last 20 years the state's timberlands in the 0-to-15-year age class dropped 34 percent while timberlands in the 16-to-30-year age class increased 104 percent. Ruth said this situation simply does not support deer densities at the same level as younger stands in which food and cover are more available.
Another interesting trend Ruth has noted is hunters seem to be backing off doe harvests in terms of percentage of harvest. Prior to coyotes entering the picture the SCDNR doe harvest was much more liberal in the mid-to-late 1990s than what regulations currently allow.
"As the harvest rates dropped with habitat changes and coyote population increases, the very liberal number of doe days has dropped," Ruth said. "In some areas of the state we at one time had 20 doe days, now we have a maximum of eight. Also the percentage of does harvested in terms of total harvest numbers has edged down over time."
Ruth said at one time the buck and doe harvest percentages were close to even, and given the habitat and pre-coyote conditions that was not necessarily a bad thing. But with changing conditions he said the data shows hunters have apparently self-regulated doe harvests to some extent and the harvest of bucks has been considerably higher than does in recent years.
In summary, Ruth said overall the deer herd is healthy coming into the 2017 season and with good weather hunters can expect better hunting than in the previous two years, especially in the areas hardest hit by flooding.