After seeing a drop of 11 percent in deer harvest across all nine wildlife districts during the 2016-17 season, hunters and biologists both voiced concerns. The harvest had been bouncing up and down as liberalized hunting regulations aimed at stabilizing the herd took effect over the past decade, but in hindsight, the long-term harvest trend was heading down.
Despite an 8 percent harvest increase during the 2017-18 season and a herd estimated at one million, biologists were looking to the future when they proposed tightening regulations following years of biological assessments that resulted in five biological deer regions. Translated, that means deer hunting zones for regulatory purposes.
Jon Shaw, the N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission’s Deer Biologist, said he is moving away from some past ways of looking at deer harvest numbers on a year-by-year basis. Instead, he is looking at and reporting long-term comparisons and trends. “In the past, we have given our harvest report numbers compared to the previous year,” Shaw said. “I have tried to get away from that, look at things in terms of long-term trends. Too many things can influence a single year’s harvest — mast crops, hunter effort, weather and disease.”
Shaw said a key to what is going on is the antlered buck harvest. Based on declining success taking antlered bucks and other deer harvest and biological data, the Commission proposed splitting the Eastern Region into a Northeastern Region and Southeastern Region, with the Southeastern Region having a gun season set back by one week and the Northeastern Region gun season set back by two weeks. Both would have had a week added to the end of season.
Last season, the Northeastern Region experienced declines in antlered buck harvest from the 10-year average, with a decline of 25.1 percent in District 1 and 12.5 percent in District 3. The Southeastern Region had declines of 3.7 percent in District 2 and 2.2 percent in District 1. The Central, Western and Northwestern Regions (Districts 5-9) saw antlered buck harvest increases compared to the 10-year average ranging from 13.3 percent to 59.6 percent.
“Our deer hunter surveys showed overwhelming support for establishing seasons to benefit the deer herd based on biological data for all five regions,” Shaw said. “However, a number of hunters showed up at our public hearings voicing opposition to changing the old Eastern Region’s seasons, so it will remain the same this fall. It was an effort to improve the timing of buck harvest and promote a balance in the sex ratio going into the breeding season. With earlier seasons, hunters show preference for harvesting bucks, which means does not bred at the appropriate time. Therefore, fawns are not born at the appropriate time.”
In other words, hunters complain about not seeing as many bucks as in the past, but a vocal few do not want shortened seasons that would increase their future success. Another proposed regulations change would have shortened the muzzleloader seasons in all regions from two weeks to one week and moving them back. Again, vocal opposition at public hearings shot the proposed muzzleloader seasons down. Historically, the muzzleloader season lasted one week, prior to the liberalization of regulations over the past decade.
Shaw said the liberalized regulations worked as intended, but now it is time for hunters to take their “foot off the gas pedal.” New and more abundant predators, disease outbreaks and landscape changes are affecting fawn recruitment, which is the number of fawns that survive to join the huntable population. However, the only factor that the Commission and hunters can control is hunter harvest.
The five deer regions are biological units based on average dates of fetal implantation in does. If hunters take bucks during the primary breeding period, the breeding effort suffers. During current muzzleloader seasons, hunters show preference toward taking antlered bucks because those seasons take place during peak breeding periods. Eventually, hunters may take enough notice of declining opportunities and embrace shortened seasons as a way of restoring antlered buck opportunities and overall deer numbers.
One proposal that did become a regulation for this fall is establishing a statewide annual limit of two bucks and four does. In the past, hunters in the Eastern Region could take four bucks while hunters in other regions were limited to two. Hunters could use all six tags for six antlerless deer, but that is no longer the case.
The other major change is the elimination of bonus antlerless report cards that allowed hunters to take an unlimited number of antlerless deer on private property. Bonus antlerless report cards will now apply only to hunters participating in Urban Archery seasons. Hunters participating in DMAP will still be exempt from the six-deer bag limit while still complying with DMAP parameters.
“We saw a psychological component when we implemented bonus antlerless report cards,” Shaw said. “The harvest jumped 27 percent and maintained a high level thereafter. Hunters were thinking the Commission was telling them to harvest more antlerless deer.”
If the reverse is true, doing away bonus antlerless report cards will result in hunters taking fewer antlerless deer. Very few hunters actually need bonus antlerless report cards because only a small percentage actually harvest more than a deer or two. Another regulations change for this fall is moving Cleveland Rutherford and Polk counties into the Northwestern Region.
“Those three counties had a special season that, over time, became more like the Northwestern season, so we combined those counties in the Northwestern Region,” Shaw said. “They will still have the Western Region’s either-sex season, but in the areas that had doe days at the end of the season, we shifted them to the beginning of the season. As with attempting to move muzzleloader and firearms seasons back to reduce pressure on bucks, this is an effort to balance the sex ratio going into the breeding season by taking does earlier.”
Deer populations are still rebounding from severe outbreaks of hemorrhagic disease in 2012 and 2014. In 2014, Franklin and surrounding counties in District 3 experienced severe outbreaks. While outbreaks are still occurring, especially in some mountain counties, hemorrhagic disease occurs to some extent every year.
Hurricanes and other weather events also affect hunter success. The last major hurricane strike was Matthew in the fall of 2016. Therefore, tropical storms were not major players in last season’s harvest. “The harvest can go up or down,” Shaw said. “A hot fall, disease and recovery from disease, or a good or bad mast crop can impact harvest during a given year. But, what we are seeing is a decline the deer population attributable to harvest.”
Shaw continued, “With new predators across the landscape, we cannot sustain the harvest we have had over the past decade, so we are going to have to look at reducing harvest in areas where we see notable declines. We don’t want to go back to where we were in the late 1980s and 90s when there were more deer than the landscape could hold, and we liberalized regulations, but we need to maintain a population level that most people can accept, whether they are farmers, hunters, or people who enjoy seeing deer.”