North Carolina's 2007 Deer Outlook -- Part 1: Where To Get Your Deer

North Carolina's 2007 Deer Outlook -- Part 1: Where To Get Your Deer

The Tar Heel State's hunters killed a record number of deer the last two seasons. Will the trend continue? (October 2007)

Photo by D. Robert Franz.

The official tally is complete and it's more good news for the state's hunters of white-tailed deer. North Carolina's hunters set a new harvest record last season, killing a total of 154,273 deer. Tar Heel hunters not only set a new record, they absolutely smashed it.

"We set a new record for deer harvest in 2005," said North Carolina Wildlife Commission deer biologist Even Stanford. "But we had been dancing all around the previous record set in 2001 for a few years until 2005 when the harvest was 144,315. It was kind of surprising when the new record was set in 2007 because it exceeded the 2006 number by about 7 percent."

The total Tar Heel hunter deer harvest in 2001 was 142,847 and set the state's all-time record at that time. In 2002, the harvest dipped to 118,174. In 2003, it increased to 134,507. In 2004, it rebounded even further to 140,311. The 2006 record included increased harvest over 2005 across all regions except for the far western mountain region.

In District 1, there was a 2.4 percent increase, Stanford said. In District 2, there was a 6.5 percent increase. Districts 3 and 4 had increases of 8 percent. District 5 was up 6 percent. District 6 was up 10.2 percent. District 7 was up 6.6 percent. District 8 was 10.8 percent. Although District 9 had a deer harvest that was down 1 percent, that essentially means no change in the total harvest for that district, since it has a low harvest and low population compared with the other regions of the state.

"Altogether, the statewide deer harvest was up 6.9 percent," Stanford said. "It was a surprise, although in the beginning of the season I thought it might be up a bit from the year before. By the end of Thanksgiving week last year, I knew it was going to be another record harvest."

Even the commission's game land harvest showed a bright picture -- in fact, the deer harvest from game lands showed a higher percentage increase than did the private lands across the state. The game land harvest was 6,845 in 2006, whereas in 2005 it was 5,976. That's a big increase, or about 15 percent over 2005.

Stanford said environmental factors, rather than a large growth in the deer population, probably drove the record statewide harvest. For example, excellent hunting conditions on a few key Saturdays in a deer season can increase harvest numbers whether there are more deer around or not. Nevertheless, the herd may be showing a slight increase.

"In most places, it's stable or increasing," Stanford said of the deer herd. "From 1995 until 2 or 3 years ago, our populations were relatively stable. But record harvests in recent years show it's likely to be increasing in some areas again. The trends are too early in the model to tell us exactly what's going on. But we will know better in a couple of years as we add more data to the model. The harvest data is the figure that essentially drives the model. We take a cross section of the age structure from our DMAP (Deer Management Assistance Program) and check station data and relate that directly to the rest of the herd. We take into consideration how many deer may die of other factors than hunting, automobile collisions for example."

Besides the possibility of an increasing herd adding to the harvest numbers because of greater availability to hunters, there have also been increases in season lengths that could have accounted for some of the record numbers in several of the wildlife districts. Other factors that led to record harvests in 2007 included good weather that allowed hunters across the state to actually participate, especially along the coast where there were minimal strikes from tropical events and a low incidence of midge activity or a low severity of the year's EHD strains.

Midges are the vectors that transmit EHD to deer, and the virulence of the EHD viruses in any given year can be more or less severe, depending also upon how much immunity the deer have developed to that particular strain. Like influenza and colds in humans, certain mutations in the genes of each season's EHD organisms are worse than others.

Stanford said some deer with sloughing hoofs indicative of EHD infection were found at the end of the 2006 season, but there was no observed mortality. There were six symptomatic deer seen in Onslow County, one in Richmond County and two in Catawba County.

"We need to watch out for EHD," he said. "It's reoccurring and there can be some residual immunity after an event. But the immunity goes away with time, so our deer could be again susceptible to it at some point."

Another factor in harvest was increased season lengths.

"We increased seasons in the central and western regions mainly because of hunter requests," Stanford said. "But we are really afraid of those areas losing benefits of the two-buck rule. There have been three season extensions over a four-year period. The two-buck rule was aimed at increasing antlered bucks and the number of older antlered bucks. But by lengthening the season, more people harvested two or more deer in those areas, but (that harvest) included more antlered bucks."

One area where the deer population has been increasing over the long term is the Neuse River watershed in the central Coastal Plain. It still only has a density of 25 to 35 deer per square mile, where other areas of the coastal plain have densities of 35 to 45 deer per square mile.

"Another area where the deer herd may be increasing slightly is the Piedmont," Stanford said. "Both the northern and southern Piedmont regions appear to have deer populations that are slightly on the increase. These are urbanized areas where we've lost hunting as a management tool. But some areas of the Piedmont have still been getting a lot of hunting pressure the past couple of years."

Still, there are some surprising anomalies. In the central deer region, hunters are able to harvest more deer per square mile than in the eastern deer region. Even the shortened season in the northwestern region is showing that same fact.

"In the eastern region, we are harvesting the fewest deer per square mile," Stanford said. "When we first expanded the either-sex seasons and other hunting seasons along the coast, that region had the higher harvest rates. That's simply not the situation today. It's reversed and it's been like that for a while, since around 2003 or so."

One coastal area where the deer population trend appears to be upward is the Cape Fear area, along the southern Coastal Plain. However, Stanford said that would only be

substantiated with more time.

"The eastern gun season was 68 days long in 2006," Stanford said. It was 44 days long in the central region and 25 days long in the northwestern region. But the buck harvest per square mile of habitat was 2.5 in the eastern region, 3.2 in the central region and 3.3 in the northwestern region. For does, the harvest was 1.7 per square mile in the eastern region, 2.4 in the central region and 3.1 in the northwestern region. The harvest totals were 4.5 deer per square mile of habitat in the eastern region, 5.9 in the central region and 6.7 in the northwestern region. The length of the eastern deer season is 55 percent longer than the central region, but the doe harvest is 42 percent higher per square mile in the central region than in the eastern region. The length of the eastern deer season was 172 percent longer than the northwestern season, but the doe harvest per square mile of habitat was 85 percent higher in the northwestern region."

Even the population dynamics are showing higher deer densities in the central and northwestern regions. The Coastal Plain population has an estimated population of 37 deer per square mile of habitat, the Piedmont has an estimated 43, and the northwestern region has approximately 42.

"But if you exclude the Northern Pamlico Deer Management Area, including Hyde, Dare, Pamlico and Washington counties and the Sandhills area, which also has a low deer density, the rest of the Coastal Plain is comparable to the rest of the state, with 42 deer per square mile excluding those two coastal areas with low deer densities," Stanford said.

Further harvest increases will be based more on hunter attitudes and effectiveness than anything else, with population densities essentially the same statewide. Stanford said he feels that given longer seasons, hunters appear to use the increased opportunity to harvest buck deer rather than does. During shorter seasons, they tend to target more does.

On a statewide basis, a 2005 mail survey of the state's hunters showed 71 percent of hunters take no does, 18 percent take one doe, 8 percent take two does, 2 percent take three does and 1 percent take four or more does. Sixty-two percent take no bucks, 24 percent take one buck, 11 percent take two bucks, 3 percent take three bucks, and 1 percent take four bucks.

"Looking at that data, we are relying on 30 percent of our hunters to harvest does," Stanford said. "Data indicates we have plenty of hunters out there to have increasing harvests if they would just shoot more does. Hunters have always had selectivity toward harvesting bucks. But that is changing slowly."

Some regulation changes that may increase the deer harvest this season include the new Bonus Antlerless Deer Harvest Report Cards available on private lands in counties with maximum either-sex seasons that will be applicable for all weapons seasons, and areas participating in the new Urban Archery season in January. Bonus Antlerless cards cost $5 for two deer. Some counties and game lands have also had an increase in the length of either-sex hunting seasons. These changes won't affect many hunters, but a few individuals who are hindered in their management goals by the current bag limits may harvest a few more deer.

The Urban Archery Season was approved too late for cities wanting to participate to complete the necessary paperwork requests. Notification is required by April 1 each year and must include a map of the area. Cities can impose the restrictions they wish, including proficiency tests and other safety measures. The season runs from the second Saturday in January until the fifth Saturday following.

"It gives urban areas a tool for managing problem deer," Stanford said. "There has been some opposition, but these people in the cities who are opposed to the additional season don't seem to realize that a lot of these areas are open during the regular archery season anyway. We are hoping that with the bonus antlerless tags and the additional hunting opportunity only open after the regular season, hunters will take advantage of it."

The indicator biologists use to assess the deer herd population and harvest data is the number of deer living or harvested per square mile of habitat. This excludes areas that do not support deer, such as the cores of cities and water bodies. Here are the top two counties in each district in harvest per square mile of habitat.

Bertie County led District 1 in deer harvests per square mile of habitat with 7.1 per square mile, followed by Gates County with a harvest of 6.7 deer per square mile.

Pender County led District 2 with a harvest of 4.9 deer per square mile of habitat, followed by Pitt County with a harvest of 4.5 deer per square mile. In Pender County, Angola Bay and Holly Shelter game lands, along with some smaller game lands, offer excellent public hunting areas for deer. Pitt County has agricultural land and forestland, but no game lands.

Northampton County led District 3 with a harvest of 11.2 deer per square mile followed by Halifax with a harvest of 10.1 deer per square mile. These counties have hardwood bottoms and farmland, but no significant public game lands.

Bladen County led District 4 with a harvest of 4.2 deer per square mile, followed by Columbus County with a harvest of 3.7 deer per square mile. Bladen County has excellent hunting at Suggs Millpond and Bladen Lakes State Forest game lands. Columbus County has several tracts of the Columbus County game land. But these public hunting areas are mostly dense hardwood swamps and difficult to hunt because of poor access.

Caswell County led District 5 with a harvest of 9.3 deer per square mile followed by Alamance County with a harvest of 8.5 deer per square mile. Caswell Game Land is one of the best public-land places to bag a deer in the state, but Alamance County has no game lands.

Anson County and Rowan County led District 6 with harvests of 7.8 deer per square mile. Anson County has the Pee Dee River Game Land and permit hunts at the Pee Dee River National Wildlife Refuge, and Rowan County has some hunting at the commission's Alcoa Game Land. Alleghany County led District 7 with a harvest of 17.9 deer per square mile, followed by Yadkin with a harvest of 8.1 deer per square mile. These counties have no game lands.

Lincoln County led District 8 with a harvest of six deer per square mile, followed by Mitchell with a harvest of 4.6 deer per square mile. Lincoln County has no game lands, but Mitchell County has part of the Pisgah National Forest Game Land.

Polk County led District 9 with a harvest of 3.9 deer per square mile followed by Madison with a harvest of 1.3 deer per square mile. Polk County has more flatland hunting than other mountain counties, leading to the county's higher harvest. The Green River Game Land is a good place to hunt in Polk County. Some of Pisgah National Forest Game Land is located in Madison County.

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