There are a lot of theories out there regarding deer. In fact, every hunter has his or her opinion of what the Georgia Department of Natural Resources Wildlife Resources Division needs to be doing to ensure the future of deer populations. Some folks believe there are too many deer, while others feel that the population has dropped.
However, according to Charlie Killmaster, GDNR biologist in charge of the deer program, the Peach State is exactly where the deer herd needs to be statewide. Killmaster and his staff have crafted a whitetail population that provides excellent hunting opportunities. Of course, a stable healthy deer herd does not come without its share of issues and Killmaster and crew are constantly assessing Georgia’s whitetails and addressing those concerns.
Most hunters wonder about the deer population and situations vary from region to region and even between nearby tracts of land. According to Killmaster, after some adjustments the deer herd is about where it should be.
“We’ve had regulations designed to reduce the deer population for some time and a combination of high hunter harvest and declining fawn recruitment, mainly courtesy of coyotes, has done that,” said Killmaster. “We had a goal in our 10-year management plan to slightly increase and stabilize the population in the Piedmont, historically the deer factory in Georgia, and the reduction in either-sex days accomplished that goal.”
A few years ago, Georgia hunters were shooting too many does. In fact, during one recent season, hunters took more than 270,000 does, which was more than any other state that year. That high doe kill, along with coyote predation on fawns, cut down the overall population.
“We’ve had two years of dramatically reduced harvest on adult females in particular,” said Killmaster. “The most impactful change we made was to make the Piedmont region as bucks-only the first two weeks. We dropped the doe harvest by 100,000 deer by mainly going after that first two weeks.”
The total deer harvest in 2013-2014 was 453,952 followed by 444,455 in 2014-2015. When the state reduced doe days, it led to a lower harvest and allowed the population to rise slightly. The total deer harvest in the 2016-2017 season was 316,463 animals, which was about 30 percent less than the season two years prior.
Right now, biologists believe the deer herd is in a good place, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t issues of concern.
CHRONIC WASTING DISEASE
The No. 1 concern is keeping chronic wasting disease out of Georgia. CWD is a transmissible spongiform encephalopathy that affects members of the deer family including whitetails. It was first identified in 1967 and has spread to wild populations in 25 states. Chronic weight loss that eventually leads to death typifies the disease that kills individual animals and can devastate a herd.
It’s not surprising that the GDNR is doing all it can to keep CWD out of the state, including prohibiting the importation of live deer (or cervids) and deer parts from states that have CWD. Most of those states are in the Midwest but Arkansas and Mississippi have recently had cases.
Bringing in live animals are the biggest concern, but parts of dead animals can also be a threat, which is why only boned-out meat, cleaned skull plates and fleshed-out hides can be brought into the state from CWD-affected states. However, it is advisable to follow these rules regardless of where animal was taken, as a precaution.
CWD could severely impact a deer herd and hunters would definitely see reduced deer in the woods and a poorer quality experience. The state is doing what it can to keep it out, but hunters should, too.
MOUNTAIN DEER PROJECT
The next concern for Georgia is the declining herd in the mountains. The northern portion of the state is seeing fewer deer in the high ridges and steep valleys. The culprits are lack of quality habitat, food sources and fawning cover.
“We’ve launched one of the biggest deer research projects that we’ve ever done on a couple of mountain WMAs,” Killmaster revealed.” We’re doing an intensive study on the coyote problem, which entails capturing bred adult females during the post rut, and fix them with a GPS collar and a vaginal implant transmitter.”
This system allows biologists to reach fawns within an hour of birth to collar the fawn. There are mortality sensors on the GPS collars, so if the fawn gets killed, biologists can find it and determine what caused its death.
The project started in January and they hope to target 30 adult females every year for three years. This will give the state valuable data on fawn recruitment and mortality, and hopefully can address and fix the declining mountain population.
With quality habitat being the main deficiency in the mountains, the U.S. Forest Service has a major role because of the thousands of acres of the Chattahoochee National Forest in north Georgia.
“The Forest Service is working on a large-scale forest management plan,” said Killmaster. “We’re hoping to learn about what habitat conditions that are best for fawns to survive. Their ability to do any timber harvest operations has been severely limited in the last 20 to 30 years. That’s what we believe to be the crux of the issue is the lack of fawning cover. A function of that lack of fawning cover is a high level of predation. Because over that same time period we saw the fawning cover decline we see a dramatic increase in the numbers of predators like coyotes and bears.”
Killmaster admits that much of the reason the Forest Service does not harvest more timber is the negative public perception of the cutting of trees. A clearcut is ugly to most public eyes though it opens up the forest for natural regeneration and provides cover and food for wildlife. Any timber harvest will help the understory grow, but the prospective is not encouraging.
“It’s a drop in the bucket,” Killmaster said of the current timber harvest. “We’re trying to punch holes to open up the canopy to get the sunlight on the ground to grow deer food and fawn habitat.
Most deer hunters know that coyotes are increasing and are a problem to deer. They prey on deer, particularly fawns, and are having a negative impact on whitetails.
“Basically, we’ve done everything we can from a regulatory standpoint to allow people to manage coyotes,” declared Killmaster. “We started the Coyote Challenge last year in an effort to raise awareness to the fact that coyotes can be taken year ‘round. We’ve done a tremendous amount of research on coyotes looking specifically at deer-coyote interaction, along with other research in the southeast to educate our biologists on how to manage predator-prey interactions. We provide that technical guidance to help people manage their property.”
Killmaster feels that it is a complex issue and that the occasional coyote killing by deer hunters is useless to the big picture. Studies show that coyotes can sustain a mortality rate of up to 60 to 70 percent and see no net change in their population. Many of them are transient and are constantly on the move and another will move into an area when one is killed. He recommends running a camera survey to assess the population.
Trapping may be the most effective ways to reduce coyote populations but they are difficult to trap and trappers may be hard to find and expensive.
“The fact of the matter is, we’ve got coyotes and we’re not getting rid of them, they’re not going away,” Killmaster said.
Despite some issues and concerns, the Georgia deer herd, overall, is healthy and stable, which gives hunters a good chance at venison this fall.
GEORGIA’S HUNT & LEARN
Georgia’s Wildlife Resources Division is continuing programs designed to teach youths about hunting and outdoors skills. This is a hands-on program to get more youngsters outside and provide basic hunting skills.
Children 10 to 17 years old are eligible, along with a mentor. Skills-based programs are offered for rabbit, quail, falconry, squirrel, turkey and deer. Lessons will include not only actual hunting, but also care for harvested game. Hunter Education classes are also offered, and children over 16 must have applicable licenses.
Three levels are available including Beginner, Intermediate and Advanced, which match youth to their experience level. The deer hunts will be held at three wildlife management areas this fall — Clybel (Charlie Elliott), Chattahoochee Fall Line and Buck Shoals. There is a modest price ($60 or $90) for each program that includes guide, food and education. Primitive camping is available to students, and lodging is included at Clybel.
This is an excellent chance to introduce and teach youth about hunting and the great outdoors in a controlled and assisted environment, especially for parents that may not have the experience to teach them. For details, go to: georgiawildlife.com/LearntoHuntFish.