During the 2017 season, South Carolina deer hunters harvested an estimated 185, 286 deer, including 102,261 bucks and 83,025 does. The harvest was an increase of seven percent over the 2016 season and 42 percent below the record of 319,902, which was set in 2002. The population estimate is now 700,000 deer, declining from the estimated peak of 1 million animals during the 1990s.
“The biggest change last year was legislation that required all deer would be physically tagged,” said Charles Ruth, SCDNR Big Game Program coordinator. “We now have a consistent, statewide limit on antlered bucks. Prior to the tagging program, two-thirds of the state had no limit on antlered deer.”
Since the inception of the Statewide Deer Research and Management Project, methods biologists use to document the state’s deer harvest have changed. Historically, they developed deer harvest figures using a system of mandatory deer check stations in 18 Upstate counties in conjunction with reported harvests from properties enrolled the Antlerless Deer Quota Program in the 28 Coastal Plain counties. This system yielded an actual count of the harvested deer, so it was an absolute minimum harvest figure.
Shortcomings in this system included deterioration of check station compliance in the Upstate and failures to report by ADQP cooperators in the Coastal Plain. Since the acreage enrolled in the ADQP comprised only one-half of the deer habitat in the Coastal Plain, these past harvest figures did not document deer harvests on approximately 3.2 million acres of lands in the Coastal Plain. Due to these factors, historic deer harvest figures probably only accounted for one-half of the annual total harvest, statewide.
However, that is not the only information biologists use to gauge deer harvests. Surveys are another important tool. SCNDR has conducted this same survey for many years and the response rate has been consistent, which prompts a high degree of confidence in the results.
“We were using this random post-season survey of our big game permit holders for years,” Ruth said. “That turned the corner in the mid to late 90s when we went from a system of check stations and cooperator reports. With the change, what was the Antlerless Deer Quota Program is now the called Deer Quota Program, because now we also establish quotas for antlered bucks. As we do with doe quotas, we establish buck quotas depending upon agricultural damage and other factors in that particular area.”
With the new tagging program leaving the number of does that resident hunters could take unchanged and the DQP establishing antlered buck quotas for the first time, SCNDR officials had initiated their response to hunters who wanted to curtail antlered buck harvest in favor of doe harvest. The strategy is apparently working because in 2017, the buck harvest increased 2.5 percent while the doe harvest increased 12.5 percent. Nevertheless, Ruth cautioned against drawing any conclusions based on one year’s data.
“The basis of the antlered buck regulations is two-pronged and was the result of a decade-long process,” Ruth said. “The first part was getting some type of limit on antlered deer and was driven by hunters who got tired of the ‘brown and down’ mentality. The second part was the tag. Hunters wanted the bag limit to be enforceable and tagging allows hunters to monitor each other.”
Looking back 20 to 25 years, the harvest was ramping up, largely due to an increase in the issuance of antlerless deer tags. Then, when the deer population started declining around the turn of the century, the SCDNR response was to cut back on the issuance of antlerless tags. However, the resulting harvest drop may have also had a psychological component along with a declining deer population. The reverse may have created last year’s doe harvest increase.
“Even then, people were not using all of their tags,” Ruth said. “Hunters are self-correcting. If they are seeing a lot of antlerless deer they harvest a lot of antlerless deer. In only one year of the tagging requirement, there was no change in hunters’ opportunity to harvest antlerless deer. The only change was tagging. What made the tagging more complicated was that we are issuing date-specific antlerless tags, which replaces the former doe days.”
While the total deer harvest increased last season, it was probably due to hunters taking advantage of opportunities lost due to bouts of bad weather during the two previous hunting seasons. They simply saw more deer, so they took more deer. In 2015, Hurricane Joaquin caused 1,000-year flooding across much of the state, resulting in hunting season closures. In 2016, Hurricane Matthew also caused major flooding, especially in the coastal plain, which also caused SCDNR to close some hunting seasons temporarily.
“In talking with hunters and processors, we knew the harvest would go up because of better hunting conditions in 2017,” Ruth said. “The hurricane of 2016 was not as significant in the Upstate, but coastal counties had season closures, floods and hurricanes that kept people out of the woods. Looking at the 2017 harvest, the coastal counties recovered by 20 to 25 percent because people could get into the woods. Hunters were taking deer that remained in the woods in places where they could not get back to due to flooding and other related access problems the two previous seasons.”
Questions about an overall decline indeer numbers and deer harvest numbers can be pinned on several factors. The first is the habitat quality. Much of the state’s forested area consists of older pine and hardwood stands. Timber beyond 15 years of growth is poor deer habitat.
“One of the main factors in our deer population decline since the turn of century is a coincidental situation where we have more older-age class timber stands,” Ruth said. “I think we will start turning the corner. These timber rotations occur at 28 to 30 years, so cutting and replanting operations should increase.”
Deer numbers peaked during the last major cycle of timber harvests and the extremely liberal bag limits for bucks and does went into effect to take advantage of what was a burgeoning deer population. While those liberal bag limits did what was intended, maintaining control over deer in numbers that hunters and agricultural interests could accept, now that those liberal regulations have done their job, it is time to do the deer manager’s equivalent of a race car driver taking the foot off the gas pedal, which is easing up on the hunter’s finger.
Another problem is coyotes, which increasingly appear to be a factor in holding down a potentially rebounding deer population. The first three years of a study at the Savannah River Site indicated a fawn mortality of approximately 70 percent, with coyotes responsible for approximately 80 percent of that mortality. Other studies on the site aimed at coyote reduction showed mixed results. However, hunters in most areas of South Carolina do not have the means to undertake such extensive control measures, which results in modest coyote predation reduction at best. The only practical way of dealing with any additional mortality caused by coyotes is reducing hunter harvest of female deer. Hunters may have a localized impact by trapping or hunting coyotes or by manipulating habitat to favor deer. However, on a statewide scale, reducing doe harvest is the only practical way of stabilizing deer numbers.
“In 2018, if we have seasonable temperature and weather, the harvest should be about the same, plus or minus five percent,” Ruth said.
The 2017 Deer Hunter Survey asked South Carolina hunters to provide information on the month of their kills. Although South Carolina has the longest firearms deer season in the country, the state’s hunters often do not completely understand the relationship between hunting season length and deer harvest success. When deer movement increases during the breeding season or “rut,” deer are more vulnerable to being seen and hunter harvest, whereas outside of the rut, deer move less, and hunters have less chance of seeing them.
Although the firearms seasons are not open in all parts of the state in late August and early September, hunters harvest relatively few deer during that time in the places where the seasons are open. On the other hand, hunters harvest a disproportionally high number of deer during October and November, which is the period when the majority of the breeding activity occurs. Bucks breed more than 80 percent of does during that period. Therefore, timing of the season is a more important factor in determining deer harvest and quality hunting opportunities than the season length.
Hunters must also realize that hunting pressure prior to the breeding season can suppress daytime deer movement during the breeding season when the naturally occurring deer movements should be the greatest. Therefore, they should tread lightly during August and September, concentrating their greatest hunting efforts during November and December to have the best chance of success.