If you want to kill a deer, the Natural State is a good place to hunt. Ralph Meeker, the deer program coordinator for the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission, said that nearly 66 percent of the state’s 313,000 licensed hunters killed a deer during the 2017-18 deer seasons. Not all licensees hunt deer, so the percentage of successful deer hunters might be even higher.
We are flush with hunting opportunities. The Arkansas archery season runs from the last weekend in September to Feb. 28, the longest continuous deer season in the nation. We have two muzzleloader seasons that offer 12 days of exclusive opportunities for smoke pole hunters in October and December. Our modern gun seasons are generous, but if you live in south Arkansas, it runs uninterrupted for nearly 40 days. That doesn’t include a five-day private lands modern gun hunt that spans the end of October and the beginning of November, nor does it include a three-day Christmas holiday modern gun hunt.
On top of that, we also have two modern gun deer hunts for youngsters in November and January.
For the first time, hunters can also legally hunt deer with air-powered rifles in Arkansas this year.
In 2017-18, Arkansas hunters killed 205,310 deer. That’s the sixth straight year that we killed more than 200,000 deer, and our fifth largest harvest of all time. While significantly less than the record 213,487 we killed in 2012-13, 200,000 is still a big number in a state as small as Arkansas, especially in the chronic wasting disease (CWD) era.
When the AGFC detected chronic wasting disease in early 2016, the agency feared that the disease would scare a lot of hunters away from the sport. That did not happen in the 2016-17 deer season, but it might have had an effect last year in the Ozarks, where the disease is prevalent.
“Overall, the 2017-18 season’s harvest was right on track with our overall management goals,” Meeker said. “Unfortunately, the addition of chronic wasting disease to the management equation has made it much more complicated and has introduced a certain level of uncertainty in the minds of some of our hunters.”
In the spring, unfortunately, more bad news arrived when the Game and Fish Commission announced that deer sampled in Benton, Sebastian and Washington counties tested positive for CWD. The Sebastian County case was the second positive sample taken south of the Arkansas River.
The discovery of CWD opened a new chapter in Arkansas deer management. Deer restoration was our first era. It ended in the late 1980s when our deer herd was estimated at nearly 500,000, which seemed astronomically high at the time.
Now we’re estimated to have more than 1 million deer, and our management strategy until last year was for maximum sustained yield while maintaining a consistent population.
Now, in the CWD focal areas, the strategy is radical herd reduction, with an emphasis on killing young bucks.
In Deer Management Zones 1 and 2 (northwest Arkansas), the AGFC suspended the 3-point rule and other antler-point requirements on WMAs.
The 3-point rule, adopted statewide in 1998, requires a legal buck to have at least three points on at least one antler. The AGFC also allowed hunters in the CWD zone to check button bucks as antlerless deer. Button bucks must be checked as bucks everywhere except in the CWD zone.
Curiously, hunters enthusiastically take advantage of the more liberal regulations on public land, in the Ozark National Forest and Buffalo National River. They are reluctant to take advantage of them on private land.
Input from public meetings reveals that landowners consider deer an asset in the Ozarks, and they are unwilling to undo what has taken generations to build.
The most precipitous harvest decreases occurred across the Ozarks, but the most startling drops were in Sharp, Newton and Washington counties where hunters checked 1,599, 1,337 and 1,325 fewer deer last year, respectively, than in 2016-17. Those three counties represent a complete east-west swath across the northern Ozarks region of the state.
Crawford and Madison counties also experienced severe drops of 1,046 and 1,017 deer, respectively.
Cleburne and Marion counties were the only Ozark counties where deer harvests increased. The harvest in Marion county increased by 390. Cleburne county increased by 28.
Harvests decreased slightly in the Ouachita Mountains region, too, but the difference between 2017 and 2016 was too slight to matter. Harvests in Hot Spring and Perry counties actually increased by 620 and 3, respectively.
What other regions lost in harvest, hunters in south Arkansas made up for in spades. Most of south Arkansas lies in the Gulf Coastal Plain (GCP), which includes the vast area that comprises Deer Management Zone 12. This rural, heavily forested area of lowlands, rolling hills and river valleys harbors the largest number of deer in Arkansas, and it traditionally contributes the largest number of deer to our annual harvests.
Harvests increased the most in Cleveland County (up 1,231), Union County (plus 1,092), Ouachita County (plus 1,060), Columbia County (plus 989), Nevada County (plus 985) and Drew County (plus 834).
Hunters in Zone 12 also continued an unbroken trend of killing more does than bucks last year.
Of the 7,636 deer killed in Union County, for example, 3,009 were antlered bucks with at least three points on at least one antler. The antlerless kill included 4,152 does and 475 button bucks. The latter includes bucks with no more than 1-inch of antler.
That dynamic occurred throughout the region and appears to be achieving the long-term goal of balancing buck-to-doe ratios. Hunters throughout the Gulf Coastal Plain report seeing fewer deer than they did 8 to 10 years ago. That is a tough adjustment for older hunters that miss seeing big herds, but they also report seeing more mature bucks, and healthier deer overall.
Also, deer rutting behavior has been increasingly more conspicuous and more intense in the last four years. Hunters report seeing mature bucks chasing does more often than they did a decade ago, and bucks respond more readily to rattling and grunting than before.
Overall, the counties in Zone 12 dominated the state’s deer harvest last year. Union County, as usual, was tops, followed by Clark, Bradley, Cleveland, Dallas, Drew, Columbia, Ouachita, Grant and Nevada.
For the first time in years, no Ozark county made the top 10. Washington County was a frequent fixture in that list, but Benton County led the region with an overall tally of 4,228 deer for 13th place.
Union, Cleveland, Columbia, Bradley, Dallas, Drew, Grant, Nevada and Ouachita counties are in the Gulf Coastal Plain. Clark County spans the GCP and the Ouachita Mountain foothills.
The urban deer hunts held in September continue to be popular and successful. Eight communities hold special archery-only hunts to reduce deer populations within city limits. About 750-850 hunters participate in the urban hunts, Meeker said, and they kill 800-1,000 deer annually.
Overall, Arkansas hunters seem to be very happy with the status of deer hunting in our state, Meeker said, even with CWD. As mentioned earlier, we have a lot of deer and a lot of opportunity to hunt them.
“Hunters are managers’ number one tool, and we don’t want to lose the ability to manage deer through hunting,” Meeker said. “As an agency we are dedicated to the responsible management and harvest of a healthy white-tailed deer herd. However, to accomplish this it will ultimately take complete hunter buy-in and resolve if we are to be successful.”
CWD & BIG-BORE AIRGUNS
The Arkansas Game and Fish Commission passed new regulations this year to limit the spread of chronic wasting disease and to allow deer hunting with big-bore air guns.
One regulation created a tier-based carcass movement restriction in the CWD management zone. A Tier 1 “red” zone includes Newton, Carroll, Madison and Boone counties. A Tier 2 “orange” zone includes Benton, Crawford, Franklin, Johnson, Logan, Pope, Searcy, Marion, Sebastian, Yell, Washington and Van Buren counties.
The regulation prohibits moving whole deer carcasses in the red zone (Tier 1) to any county outside of the red zone. Whole deer carcasses killed in the orange zone (Tier 2) cannot be transported to counties where no deer has been tested positively for CWD.
The only deer products that may be transported out of the CWD Management Zone are antlers and cleaned skulls, meat with all bones removed, cleaned teeth, hides and tanned products and finished taxidermy products.
Another regulation that has been years in the making will allow hunters to use big-bore air rifles to kill deer during any open modern gun deer season.
Because of their limited effective range, big-bore air rifles will also be legal for deer hunting in Deer Management Zones 4, 4B, 5 and 5B. Previously, only shotguns, muzzleloaders and handguns were legal for deer in those zones.
A legal air rifle for deer hunting must be at least .40 caliber and produce a minimum of 400 foot-pounds of energy at the muzzle. It must be charged with an external tank of compressed air and propel a single, expandable slug.