North Carolina's 2008 Deer Outlook -- Part 1: Our Top Hunting Areas

North Carolina's 2008 Deer Outlook -- Part 1: Our Top Hunting Areas

Here's a region-by-region forecast of the best places in North Carolina in which to get a deer, based on data from the NCWRC. (October 2008)

It seems almost too good to be true, but it is indeed a fact that North Carolina deer hunters set yet another reported harvest record during the 2007-08 deer-hunting season. The total deer harvest was 171,986 for an astounding and unprecedented increase of 11.5 percent over the previous record, which was set during the 2006-07 deer season.

Back-to-back record-setting seasons would be considered highly unusual, with the state's deer herd thought to have been stabilizing over the past several years.

But last season's harvest record shattered conventional thinking, and was the third year in a row of successive record deer harvests.


In 2001, the total deer harvest was 142,847, setting a record for harvest up until that time (for the years when harvest report records have been kept). Then in 2002, the harvest dipped to 118,174. In 2003, it rebounded to 134,507. In 2004, the harvest was up again to 140,311. Then, in 2005, the deer harvest set a record of 144,315 followed by another record of 154,273 in 2006. That 2006 deer harvest alone was an increase of 7 percent above the previous year. Now, tack on another 11.5 percent for 2007 and it proves that hunting has never been so good.

Evin Stanford is the North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission's surveys and research biologist for deer, turkeys and boars. He keeps track of the harvest data and therefore has a better handle on the pulse of the deer herd and deer-hunting effort than anyone else in the state.

"There may be a couple of big reasons and a few smaller ones for the increase in deer harvest," Stanford said. "We had a relatively mild winter and good weather translates into more hunter effort. This is especially true for those counties with the Western and Northwestern deer seasons, where the relatively short firearms seasons can be disrupted by a week of cold winter weather coming along at the wrong time."

The other big reason besides weather for the increase in deer harvest was a change in the commission's either-sex harvest and reporting regulations. For the first time during the 2007 season, hunters in areas that had a maximum length either-sex deer season could use bonus antlerless deer harvest report cards to harvest additional antlerless deer above the regular hunting license total of six deer without having to go through the requirements of the state's Deer Management Assistance Program. The bonus doe harvest report cards applied only to private lands, not to public game lands. Still, even the game land deer harvest was increased by a substantial amount over the previous year.

There was in increase in the deer harvest in every one of the nine state wildlife districts compared with the harvest from the districts last season. During the 2005 season, there were some districts that had a decline in harvest, which were offset by those districts that had a higher harvest. The harvest increase was substantial in all districts except for District 9, which has low deer densities to begin with. However, even District 9 showed a harvest increase.

In District 1, there was an increase in the deer harvest of 18.3 percent above the 2005 deer harvest. In District 2, there was an increase of 14.4 percent. In District 3, there was an increase of 8 percent. In District 4, there was an increase of 12.2 percent. In District 5, there was an increase of 13.1 percent. In Distric

t 6, there was an increase of 16.3 percent. In District 7, there was an increase of 6.8 percent. In District 8, there was an increase of 2.9 percent.

In District 9, there was an increase in deer harvest of 2.1 percent.

"I'm not really sure what's going on in District 3, which includes Wake Halifax and Northampton counties," Stanford said. "The harvest in District 3 was on par with all the other districts in 2006. But it's several percentage points lower than in the surrounding districts for 2007. Still, an 8 percent increase is really a significant increase no matter how you look at it, and District 3 already has a higher deer harvest than any in other district."

The deer harvest from the commission's game lands also showed an increase that was substantially in line with the overall statewide harvest increase. The game lands deer harvest in 2005 was 5,976, and in 2006, the deer harvest increased to 6,845. In 2007, the game lands deer harvest was 7,135, for an increase of 4.1 percent over the 2006 game lands deer harvest. Stanford said that harvest is within the normal annual variations expected of statistics. But it must also be remembered that bonus antlerless tags cannot be used for deer of either sex taken from game lands, and that likely played a role in the lower increase in deer harvest compared with private lands.

Bonus antlerless deer tags also would not apply in those counties in the western regions of the state without a maximum either-sex season, accounting for some of the lower overall increase in harvest in districts 8 and 9.

1. Halifax5,833
2. Northampton5,317
3. Bertie4,938
4. Wilkes4,580
5. Pender3,903
6. Anson3,743
7. Bladen3,283
8. Columbus3,240
9. Chatham3,192
10. Caswell3,120
Harvest Per Square Mile
1. Alleghany18.8
2. Northampton12.2
3. Vance10.9
4. Halifax10.4
5. Alamance10.1
6. Caswell10.0
7. Davie9.2
8. Rowan8.8
9. Hertford8.7
10. Franklin8.5

No season changes occurred that would have contributed to a harvest increase or decrease for any district other than the bonus antlerless harvest report cards. However, a disease outbreak in the western part of the state may have played a role in the lower harvest increase for the western districts compared with the other districts.

"We've been trying through regulations and rules changes to increase doe harvest to control our deer populations," Stanford said. "We will see if these trends in doe harvests stay up high over the long term. In 2007, there was hemorrhagic disease activity in the western part of the state. In districts 5, 6, 7, 8 and 9, where the bulk of hemorrhagic disease activity occurred, the increase in deer harvest wasn't as high as in the other districts. Therefore, hemorrhagic disease may have had an effect on deer harvest in those areas."

By far, the preponderance of the deer were taken by conventional firearms hunters, who harvested a total of 145,948, or 84.9 percent of the total kill. The total deer harvest taken by muzzleloading firearms hunters was 14,609, or 8.5 percent of the entire kill. The total deer harvest taken by bowhunters was 11,429, or 6.6 percent of the total kill. These trends in the harvest percentages for primitive weapons hunters hold true for all years for which harvest records have been kept.

The total antlerless deer harvest of 88,321, including 10,887 button bucks and 77,434 does, exceeded the antlered buck harvest, which was 83,665. The buck harvest was unchanged statistically but slightly down in actuality, dropping from a harvest of 85,458 in 2006 to a harvest of 83,665 in 2007.

The decline in buck harvest with a corresponding increase in the antlerless deer harvest is a significant change compared with all the previous years for which records have been kept. Antlerless deer in the past comprised approximately 40 percent of the harvest. But in 2007, the antlerless deer harvest consisted of 51.3 percent of the total harvest. A small factor could be that the use of bonus antlerless harvest report cards may have also resulted in more people reporting antlerless deer harvests that may have gone unreported in the past.

"We're sure the bonus antlerless tags increased our reported either-sex deer harvest," Stanford said. "But we will be evaluating that further so we can see how many of those who used bonus antlerless report cards also used all of the tags on their regular licenses. Our doe harvest has been increasing over the long term anyway, but the bonus antlerless pro

gram could have affected the actual reporting rate of antlerless deer. A guy in the Coastal Plain may have been hesitant to report a third doe if he wanted to save one of his four buck tags. Things like that may now be encouraging a higher reported harvest of doe deer through the bonus antlerless report cards."

With a total deer herd estimated at 1.25 million animals, the successive increase in deer harvest may actually result in an increase in the population models. The population may therefore actually still be increasing. Only time will tell if this is just one of the peaks to be followed at some point in the deer harvest over the long term during the coming seasons.

One alarming situation that could severely and adversely affect the deer herd in the future would be the introduction of chronic wasting disease or CWD. In 2003, the state conducted a study of 1,000 deer to see if there was any indication of the disease in North Carolina. Currently, the closest area with CWD in deer is in West Virginia.

"We will be duplicating our CWD study effort every five years, so we will be doing it again this year (2008)," Stanford said. "We will encounter a hunter and ask to take the obex (a small part of the brain stem) and lymph nodes in the neck for analysis. We would appreciate everybody's cooperation if a commission employee comes up at a check station or processor and asks for the hunter's help with the study. Each sample has to be a certain distance from any other sample, so we will only be sampling one deer from any localized area."

CWD has never been documented in North Carolina. The disease is always fatal. If an outbreak occurred, the commission would try to control and eliminate the disease through testing large numbers of deer and trying to bring deer densities down to stop the spread of the disease. The commission adopted rules, which are in the Regulations Digest, banning the importation of certain carcass parts from areas with CWD. Hunters can do their part by reading these rules before hunting in other states.

One thing on every hunter's mind is the price of meat, which has risen rapidly along with the price of other foods. But Stanford said an increased desire to fill the freezer with venison was probably offset by other factors.

"The increase in deer harvest could have resulted from those hunters who looked at the food value of venison," Stanford said. "But that would probably be more than offset by the price of fuel and travel to get to a hunting area."

A tiny increase in harvest can be attributed to the Urban Archery season, which was first opened in January 2008. These statistics are included in the 2007-08 harvest data. In Elkin, 49 deer, including four antlered bucks, two button bucks and 39 does, were harvested. At the airport in Washington County, four deer, including two antlered bucks, one button buck and one doe, were taken.

"This was the first year of the program and it met its goals of reducing urban deer populations with a good doe harvest in Elkin," Stanford said. "We anticipate other municipalities will take advantage of the opportunity in the future, after seeing the success in Elkin."

During the 2007-08 hunting season, the top 10 counties for total deer harvest were: Halifax (District 3), 5,833; Northampton (District 3), 5,317; Bertie (District 1), 4,938; Wilkes (District 7), 4,580; Pender, (District 2), 3,903; Anson (District 6), 3,743; Bladen (District 4), 3,283; Columbus (District 4), 3,240; Chatham (District 5), 3,192 and Caswell (District 5), 3,120.

Of more precision in showing the best counties to bag a deer is the harvest in terms of deer per square mile. For example, a large county can simply have a high total harvest because of its landmass or because of a greater number of hunters. But a smaller county with a higher deer density may actually have increased odds for bagging a deer. The statewide average for the season was 4.9 deer per square mile.

The top 10 counties in terms of deer harvested per square mile were: Alleghany, 18.8; Northampton, 12.2; Vance, 10.9; Halifax, 10.4; Alamance, 10.1; Caswell, 10.0; Davie, 10.0, Rowan, 8.8; Hertford, 8.7 and Franklin, 8.5.

The top two counties in each district in terms of deer harvested per square mile were: (District 1) Hertford, 8.7 and Bertie, 8.0; (District 2) Pender, 5.4 and Jones, 5.3; (District 3) Northampton, 12.2 and Vance, 10.9; (District 4) Bladen 4.5 and Columbus, 4.1; (District 5) Alamance, 10.1 and Caswell, 10.0; (District 6) Rowan, 8.8 and Anson 8.4; (District 7) Alleghany, 18.8 and Davie, 9.2; (District 8) Lincoln, 7.0 and Catawba, 5.0; (District 9) Polk, 4.6 and Madison, 1.3.

Some counties really stand out from the others. The counties along the Virginia border continue to shine, producing top deer numbers across the board, year after year. The mountain county of Alleghany may be a small county in size, but the harvest level is astounding. A good mixture of habitats, including agricultural and forest lands, accounts for a high deer density and harvest. The same is true of the other top counties along the Virginia border. Northampton, Vance, Halifax, Alamance, Hertford and Franklin are all northern counties with the right mix of forested lands and open lands to produce superior deer hunting. The Roanoke River bottomlands contribute to the excellent deer hunting in the northeastern counties along the Virginia border.

In the western Piedmont, a mixture of forested lands and open lands (the open land mostly a creation of timber production activities) leads to high deer harvests. Davie County is a traditional deer producer, but Rowan has come on strong over the past few seasons. The Yadkin River drainage and all the associated timberlands grow plenty of deer in these counties.

Asked for his predictions for the upcoming deer-hunting season, Stanford said he hated to make any predictions. There are just too many variables in the equation.

"It should be a typical season, with a harvest similar to the last three years," he said. "But the weather and the incidence of hemorrhagic disease could be the deciding factors."

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