October 11, 2016
Hunters killed more than 200,000 deer for the fourth straight year in Arkansas, but the golden age of deer hunting in the Natural State might be waning.
The discovery of chronic wasting disease in February triggered a new era in deer management and, by extension, Arkansas deer hunting.
In late February, the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission announced that an elk killed by a hunter in October in Newton County tested positive for CWD. Further testing revealed that CWD was prevalent in 23.3 percent of the deer in a 125,000-acre sample area in Newton County.
Other cases popped up in Boone County. A CWD case in Pope County was 44 miles from the sample area, confirming that the disease was far more widespread than AGFC officials initially believed.
Last year's edition of this feature contained this paragraph: "Deer hunting in Arkansas has settled into a consistent pattern that suggests another great year awaits us in 2015. Unless our deer suffer a catastrophic disease outbreak, that trend should continue indefinitely."
The catastrophic disease outbreak (CWD) has been in effect for at least 10 years, according to the AGFC, with no apparent ill effect on deer numbers or hunting. Therefore, hunters will probably kill a comparable number of deer this season.
Now that CWD is confirmed, however, the AGFC will manage deer differently, including some new regulations that might suppress the deer harvest, even though there are no fewer deer in the woods.
Cory Gray, the AGFC's deer program coordinator, said that the commission for years has managed Arkansas's deer herd for maximum sustained yield. Gray said he estimates the population numbers around 1 million animals. Hunter harvests of about 200,000 animals annually reduces the herd by about 20 percent, but deer easily reproduce those numbers.
To control the spread of CWD, Gray said deer densities in CWD-confirmed areas will be reduced, and that deer age structure probably will be reduced. That means bag limits might be increased in Deer Management Zone 2, with additional opportunities for killing does. Also, the 3-point rule might be lifted in Zone 2, allowing hunters to kill any antlered buck.
Hunters killed 9,751 deer in Zone 2 last year. If hunters take advantage of greater opportunities, that number could increase significantly.
On the other hand, the AGFC was considering new regulations that it had not approved at press time that could greatly influence hunter success in other parts of the state. The main proposal would prohibit baiting for deer, including a ban on feeders. Many hunters use mechanical feeders to supplement deer nutrition in the food-poor piney woods of Zone 12, which also produces the state's highest deer harvests every year.
Without feeders to attract deer, harvests might decrease considerably.
During the combined 2015-16 deer seasons, hunters checked 212,398 deer. That's a 2 percent increase from 2014-15, when hunters killed 208,075 deer.
Gray said that Arkansas deer hunting success has enjoyed a high level of stability.
"When you look at harvest trends in other states, it's been a downward trend," Gray said. "Ours is either flatlined or climbing."
Hunters killed 1 percent more antlered bucks last year than the year before, but they also killed 1 percent fewer button bucks. Discounting all other mortality factors, that should translate to an equal number of antlered bucks in the herd next fall.
Hunters also killed significantly more does last year — 108,124 — than they did the year before, an increase of about 4 percent.
The age structure of the male and female segments are better than ever, too, Gray said. Antler-point restrictions that went into effect for the 1998 season shifted hunter pressure away from bucks aged 1.5 years and younger to those aged 2.5 years and older.
Also, a large percentage of Arkansas' doe herd is aged 2.5 years and older, Gray said. They produce an average of 1.7 fawns per year, and 65 percent of those recruit into the autumn population, which indicates a growing herd.
CWD-related regulations might change that in the future, but the deer herd should remain stable under current regulations. Hunters knock them back in the fall, and deer recover the numbers lost in the spring for a sustaining cycle.
Like most states, Arkansas contains many different types of habitat and land-use patterns. The Mississippi Alluvial Plain, or the Delta, in eastern Arkansas contains vast farms that shelter a lot of deer. Most of the area is privately owned, however, and access is limited. Access to AGFC-owned WMAs is tightly controlled during firearms seasons. Harvests on WMAs are regulated by limiting the number of hunters who can hunt with modern guns and muzzleloaders, by way of a lottery-style draw for permits. On the other hand, access usually is open for bowhunters, except during the muzzleloader and modern gun seasons, from Sept. 24 through Feb. 28.
The Arkansas River Valley also has a lot of deer, but again, most of the land is privately owned. Bowhunters enjoy open access and ample opportunities at WMAs like Galla Creek and Petit Jean River. Public access is most generous in the Ouachita Mountains and Ozark Mountains, mostly on the 3 million or so acres that comprise the Ozark and Ouachita national forests. Access is largely unrestricted, and while hunting pressure is intense in some areas of the national forests, it's non-existent on others, especially in remote, hard-to-reach areas. Deer densities are lower per square mile in the mountains than in the rest of the state, but whitetails are plentiful for those willing to work.
Where are your best chances to kill a deer? Judging by the numbers, Zone 12 still is the best place to "make meat." During the 2015-16 seasons, hunters killed 75,959 deer, or 36 percent of the statewide total. That's slightly higher than 2014-15, when Zone 12 contributed 35 percent of the statewide total.
In Cleveland and Bradley counties, hunters killed 9 deer per square mile, the most in the state. In neighboring Grant County, hunters killed 8.5 deer per square mile. They killed 8 deer per square mile in Dallas County and 7 per square mile in Drew County. Columbia County's deer harvest fell to 6 deer per square mile from 7 killed the previous year.
Keep in mind that Zone 12 encompasses nearly 35 percent of the state's landmass, but that area supports a staggering number of deer. Of last year's total harvest, 43,853 were does, compared to 40,584 does the previous year, and compared to 46,319 does in 2013-14. Hunters killed 26,697 antlered bucks, almost the same as in 2014-15 when they killed 26,540 antlered bucks. Hunters killed 5,409 button bucks, slightly more than the 5,379 button bucks they checked in 2014-15.
In all, 65 percent of the deer kill in Zone 12 last year was antlerless, compared to 63 percent in 2014-15, but equal to 2013-14.
As usual, hunters in Union County led the state last year by checking 7,505 deer, up from 6,750 in 2014-15. Of those, 4,351 were does, 2,738 were antlered bucks, and 416 were button bucks.
Cleveland County was a distant second at 6,186 (3,689 does, 1,988 antlered bucks). Second through fifth places had comparable numbers. Hunters in Drew County killed 6,149 deer (3,599 does, 2,089 antlered bucks) and 6,032 deer in Clark County (3,354 does, 2,239 antlered bucks), followed by Bradley County with 5,962 total (3,451 does, 2,073 antlered bucks). That's only two fewer antlered bucks than in 2014-15!
It's noteworthy that in all those counties, hunters killed significantly more does than antlered bucks.
The rest of the Top 10 in the GCP were Grant County (5,402; 3,121 does, 1,867 antlered bucks), Dallas County with 5,305 total (3,057 does, 1,826 antlered bucks), Columbia County (4,946; 2,850 does, 1,813 antlered bucks), Ashley County (4,819; 2,936 does, 1,574 antlered bucks) and Ouachita County (4,490; 2,505 does, 1,637 antlered bucks).
Of those counties, Clark lies partially in the GCP and partially in the Ouachita Mountain foothills. It is a transitional zone loaded with excellent deer habitat, including large river bottoms and large tracts of hardwood forest.
Top public areas in the GCP were Casey Jones WMA (333 deer), Big Timber WMA (324), Felsenthal National Wildlife Refuge (261 deer), Howard County WMA (161), Poison Springs WMA (154), Moro Big Pine WMA (123), and Lafayette County WMA (109).
Because of generous public access and healthy deer populations, the Ozark region is always a good place to hunt and have a reasonable expectation of success.
The Ozarks encompass Zones 1, 1A, 2, 3, 6, 6A, 8, 8A. In those zones combined, hunters killed 60,720 deer in an area roughly as large as Zone 12. That's 304 fewer than 2014-15.
Washington County, which contains the cities of Fayetteville and Springdale, was tops with 3,780 deer, including 1,679 does and 1,874 antlered bucks. Next was Benton County (3,730 with 1,771 antlered bucks and 1,702 does), which contains the cities of Rogers and Bentonville. Their harvests were down considerably from 4,500 and 4,398, respectively, from 2014-15.
Next was Madison County (3,497; 1,839 antlered bucks, 1,472 does), Independence County (3,381; 1,607 antlered bucks, 1,559 does), Cleburne County (3,248; 1,520 antlered bucks, 1,462 does), Van Buren County (3,247; 1,533 does, 1,497 antlered bucks), Sharp County (3,227; 1,651 does, 1,322 antlered bucks), Pope County (3,078; 1,485 does, 1,471 antlered bucks), Fulton County (2,955; 1,446 does, 1,276 antlered bucks), Randolph County (2,804; 1,398 does, 1,127 antlered bucks) and Baxter County (2,759; 1,326 does, 1,220 antlered bucks).
Top public areas in the Ozarks were Ozark National Forest WMA (650 deer), Sylamore WMA (488), White Rock WMA (331), Piney Creeks WMA (277), Buffalo National River WMA (187), Gene Rush Buffalo River WMA (103), Madison County WMA (111), Harold E. Alexander Spring River WMA (85), Wedington WMA 985) and Gulf Mountain WMA (74).
In the Ouachita Mountains, primarily Zones 11 and 13, hunters killed 27,075 deer. Saline County was best, (5,148; 2,738 does, 2,093 antlered bucks), followed by Hot Spring County (4,261; 2,296 does, 1,666 antlered bucks), Garland County (4,225; 2,067 does, 1,885 antlered bucks), Pike County (4,005; 2,276 does, 1,729 antlered bucks), Yell County (2,516; 1,277 antlered bucks, 1,056 does) and Montgomery County (1,910; 1,141 antlered bucks, 769 does).
Saline, Hot Spring, Garland and Pike Counties enjoyed huge increases in the number of deer killed compared to 2014-15.
Top WMAs in the Ouachitas were Winona (532), Mount Magazine (402), Muddy Creek (212), Lake Greeson (197), Howard County (161), and Caney Creek (115).
It is hard to quantify how many deer hunters actually kill in the Arkansas River Valley because it's such a narrow area, and its counties also include large areas of the Ozarks and Ouachitas. However, Zone 7 takes in much of the River Valley and is a good indicator. Hunters killed 4,976 deer in Zone 7 last year, including 2,659 antlered bucks and 1,973 does.
The best WMAs in the Arkansas River Valley were Fort Chaffee (415), Ed Gordon Point Remove (110), Petit Jean River (81), Dardanelle (78), Holla Bend NWR (68), and Galla Creek WMA (40). Hunters killed 27 deer in the Russellville Urban Deer Zone.
The Delta encompasses 10 management zones (4, 4A, 4B, 5, 5A, 5B, 9, 16, 16A, 17) in which hunters killed 23,129 deer last year. This area includes the White River and Cache River NWRs. Arkansas County led that region with 4,552 deer, including 2,501 antlered bucks and 2,744 does.
Top public areas last year were White River NWR (984), Cache River NWR (471), Wattensaw WMA (184), Trusten Holder WMA (151), and Bayou Meto WMA (148).
With so many great places to hunt across Arkansas, it's sometimes hard to pick a "perfect" location to bag whitetails. But wherever you choose to hunt, chances are pretty good you'll have a fair opportunity to bring home the venison this fall.