September 02, 2015
The state of Georgia has some of the best deer hunting in the southeast. From the Blue Ridge Mountains in the north and across the coastal plain in the south, whitetails abound and provide good hunting opportunities for the Peach State hunters.
However all locations are not equally productive and there are clearly some areas that grow more deer than others because of a number of factors. The Wildlife Resources Division (WRD) has the job of managing whitetails and enhancing hunting opportunities. This is a complex issue, but the WRD has a plan.
WRD manages the deer herd for long-term sustainability in balance with dynamic habitat capabilities and social tolerances on a regional scale, with the state broken into two main deer hunting zones — the Northern Zone and the Southern Zone. The agency recently completed its Georgia's Deer Management Plan (DMP) for the next 10 years (2015-2024), which includes management philosophy and goals. When contemplating the management plan for the future, the WRD have to consider numerous issues, particularly the biological, ecological and social impacts of deer in Georgia.
The health and well being of the deer population (biological), the habitat (ecological) and how they interact and affect human populations (social) all have to be taken into consideration. This means that state biologists have to consider the variety of habitats throughout the state in addition to the hunter density and land uses. The deer in southwest Georgia obviously have different food sources and hunting pressure than whitetails that live in metro Atlanta.
On a historical note, the plan mentions how the human population in the state of Georgia has increased from 4.8 million in 1972 to 9.9 million in 2012. During that same time period, the deer herd has grown from 253,000 to 990,000, having peaked at 1,352,000 in 1998.
The total number of deer hunters was 220,900 in 1972, peaked at 335,600 in 1992 and has trended downward to 318,113 in 2012. But even though hunter numbers have not kept up with the growing overall human population, the deer harvest has kept pace, due to liberal bag limits, more either-sex days, longer seasons, more sporting arm choices and the proficiency of hunters.
Another significant change over the last 50 years is the number of deer harvested per hunter and the number of days hunted per deer harvested. It used to be a hunter would be quite fortunate to bag any deer during the season, and a deer taken among groups of hunters would be cause for great celebration. In 1962, the average number of deer per hunter was 0.2. By 2012 that average had risen to about 1.1 deer per hunter. Today, it is common for most hunters to bag at least one whitetail each season, with some regularly taking several deer each year. And it doesn't take as long to get a deer each year. In 1968, it took an average of 45 days of hunting to get a deer. Currently, hunters take about 15 days on average to put a deer on the ground. It's clear to see from those statistics that hunters have it much better today.
As the state enters the next 10 year phase of deer hunting, biologists see many encouraging and troubling trends and have tailored management goals around them. Most avid hunters have noticed the statewide limit of 10 does and the nearly season-long either-sex days. This has had the effect to reduce the total population, which the WRD wanted. The state herd was over 1 million animals, which was too high, and the liberal limits helped bring the population down to a more desirable number of just under a million.
This widespread harvest of female deer, which has been increasing over the last two decades, has led to a somewhat lower deer population, which has also led to some hunters complaining about the lack of deer being seen. Poor fawn recruitment, or baby deer being born and surviving, is also on a downward trend, which has a significant negative impact. Coyote predation on deer, particularly fawns, has also had a big impact on the herd, and many hunters statewide are seeing more coyotes and fewer deer.
The management of approximately 1 million wild animals roaming on 57,000 square miles of land in a variety of terrain, along with the interests of 300,000 hunters can be a complex issue. There are numerous dynamics and factors to consider when the WRD decides deer seasons, bag limits and either-sex days. WRD's biggest question is figuring out the optimal number of deer for the state's habitat.
The DMP states, "Because of Georgia's diverse landscape, the deer herd varies greatly throughout the state. WRD's goal is to maintain a herd that provides excellent hunting and viewing opportunities that are sustainable, statewide and regionally. Sustainability requires deer numbers in balance with habitat capabilities and within social tolerances."
Hunters want plenty of deer to hunt, but numbers beyond what the habitat can support leads to smaller, less healthy deer. Some hunters want trophy bucks, which mean less deer so there is more food for them to grow bigger. Farmers and auto insurance companies also want fewer deer. The general public likes to see deer here and there, just not eating their flowers or hitting their cars.
The Georgia DMP states that the "overall physical condition of the deer herd is excellent. However, at a fine scale (e.g., property level) deer population densities may number fewer than 10 deer per forested square mile or may exceed 100 deer per forested square mile. Due to the local nature of this issue, individual property level deer management is the most appropriate solution."
That boils things down to adjusting the harvest on property to the individual habitat and herd. If hunters are seeing fewer deer, shoot fewer does and consider planting more food plots. If the hunting land seems to be overrun with thin does, increasing the doe harvest may be the best course. Consulting a biologist will help determine the best management plan.
The DMP narrowed down the key management issues to deer seasons, bag limits, hunting methods, deer management techniques, hunter access, deer density, deer conflict management, and education and outreach. Committees, advisory panels and public input were all addressed when coming up with the management plan.
Georgia's liberal deer season starts with archery in early September and ends with firearms in January. The zones now have the same beginning and ending dates through archery, primitive weapon and firearm seasons. With an end date of January 10, south Georgia hunters are losing five days, while north zone hunters are adding 10.
A very liberal limit of 10 does and two bucks allows hunters to fill their freezers with venison if they choose. However, few areas can sustain that much harvest. That limit, along with one buck requiring at least four points on one side, of an inch or longer, will continue. Biologists allow this limit for areas that need to be reduced, but caution that many areas cannot have every hunter taking 10 does. The WRD is looking into implementing a mandatory harvest reporting system to learn more.
Georgia allows hunters to use archery equipment, primitive weapons and firearms. Also, the southern zone has recently been permitted to hunt over bait, while the northern zone is prohibited from this activity. The current dog hunting regulations will continue as well.
Options for providing management flexibility to private landowners is being studied. This would apply to large plantations and hunting clubs that need specific management criteria. More research into deer predation is planned and the process for countywide antler restrictions will remain.
Hunter access is a big issue for hunters lacking property. As such, the WRD plans to continue to look for new lands to acquire, while enhancing public hunting land opportunities. This includes informing landowners of liability protections and engaging local governments to encourage deer management with hunting on county and municipal-owned properties. Crop depredation permits remain the same.
Deer density is a hot issue and subject to personal experiences. Some hunters see deer every time they go, while others only see a few all season. The amount of deer in an area depends on the habitat. The Blue Ridge Mountains contain about 15 to 20 deer per square mile (PSM), while the fertile Piedmont and Upper Coastal Plain regions have 25 to 30 deer PSM. When hunters were queried about what they thought about the deer in their area, most replied that it was too low. WRD's goal is to raise the population in many areas or at least keep it stable in the future.
"As for private lands, many of the counties in the Upper Coastal Plain have large tracts of privately owned land that are intensively managed for deer and at times have a large agricultural component to them or surrounding the property," said Brent Howze, biologist with the WRD. "This equates to pockets of healthy deer spread across the region."
The Blue Ridge Mountains is a small area in north Georgia that is largely forested and is 43 percent publically owned. The herd depends on acorns and has a low deer population. Fawn recruitment has been "dramatically declining" in the last 12 years.
The Ridge and Valley section in the northwest has long narrow ridges and adjacent fertile valleys, with a deer population averaging 23 PSM and a moderately declining fawn recruitment. The rolling foothills of the Piedmont have a five-year average of 32 deer PSM, but the greatest decline of fawn recruitment of all regions with a 32 percent reduction over the last 20 years.
"As a region, the Piedmont has the highest harvest per square mile," said Charlie Killmaster, deer program manager. "There are two primary functions that cause the Piedmont to have the highest harvest; hunter density and deer population density. The Piedmont and Ridge and Valley regions have the most diverse mixture of forested cover, agriculture, pasture land and suburban development.
The mixed land use of the Piedmont and Ridge and Valley provides the optimal ratio of food and cover, and can support the highest deer density in the state. The Piedmont tops the Ridge and Valley on harvest primarily because there is a higher hunter density in the Piedmont. There are also substantial portions of the Ridge and Valley that are either too heavily forested or too heavy in agriculture."
Below the fall line lies the Upper Coastal Plain with flat topography and ample agriculture. The area's five-year average is 27 deer PSM with a declining fawn recruitment. The Lower Coastal Plain is characterized by inland swamps and coastal marshes. It has averaged 21 deer PSM with a declining fawn recruitment as with the rest of the state.
"The Upper Coastal Plain has the most agriculture and the least forested cover," Killmaster added.
The overall deer population is either stable or slightly declining in most areas of the state. Partly due to poor fawn recruitment and the overharvest of does, along with coyotes. However, the state still has a healthy deer herd and hunters who apply themselves are killing just as many deer without an increase in effort.
The biggest issue facing hunting in Georgia for the future is the poor recruitment for both whitetails and hunters. Deer hunters are an aging population and fewer young hunters are entering the ranks.
The DMP states: "The factors causing this decline have been speculated and researched, but the consensus among many wildlife professionals is that the continued urbanization of Georgia's population, loss of wildlife habitat coupled with loss of hunting access, competition between diverse recreational activities and increasing family or work obligations have contributed to this decline. As a result, Georgia's hunters have been gradually aging with disproportionately low recruitment of new young hunters. This is a concern because hunters provide critical financial contributions to support wildlife management programs and hunters are the primary tool by which several wildlife populations are managed."
The WRD is continuing its efforts in educational and outreach to young hunters. There are numerous adult/child hunts scheduled at WMAs each season, but it is up to the adult hunters to introduce sons, daughters, nephews, neighbors and other youths into the great sport of hunting in the deer-rich state of Georgia.