South Carolina's 2010 Deer Outlook -- Part 1

South Carolina's 2010 Deer Outlook -- Part 1

Looking to get some venison in the freezer? Here are some of the top spots in the state to begin your hunts.

Deer hunters across South Carolina seem to have been pleased with the 2009 deer hunting season in general, based on inputs from a number of hunters. However, in most sections of the state, the top end harvest numbers weren't quite as high as they were a few years ago by comparison.

The data compiled by the Hunter Survey for the 2009 deer-hunting season certainly bears that out. Charles Ruth, Deer and Turkey Project Supervisor for the South Carolina Department of Natural Resources, said that once again deer harvest numbers dropped on a statewide basis.

While there were some bright spots imbedded in the state in terms of overall harvest, which we'll cover in detail later in this feature, the downward trend in harvest continued in 2009.

"During the 2009 deer season it is estimated that a total of 120,365 bucks and 111,338 does were harvested for a statewide total of 231,703 deer," Ruth said. "This figure represents a 6.9 percent decrease in harvest from 2008 when 248,778 deer were harvested and is 27.5 percent below the record harvest established in 2002 of 319,902."

Ruth said the trend of decreasing harvest figures is actually a complex blend of several issues impacting the deer population.

"As I've said for several years the deer population simply reached a carrying capacity," he said. "Most hunters who have hunted for a long time in South Carolina remember having many years of rapidly increasing deer populations during the 1970's and 1980's. Then it leveled off and the deer population in South Carolina exhibited relative stability between 1995 and 2002."

Ruth added that since 2002, however, the population has trended down, and 2009 was no exception.

"The overall reduction in harvest seen since 2002 can likely be attributable to a number of factors, including habitat change," he said. "Although timber management activities stimulated significant growth in South Carolina's deer population in the 1970's and 1980's, considerable acreage is currently in even-aged pine stands that are greater than 10 years old, a situation that does not support deer densities at the same level as younger stands in which food and cover and more available."

But now there's an "X" factor in the deer population slide that Ruth said is becoming a considerable concern. Coyote populations have apparently been on the increase during recent years and there is now hard evidence linking that population growth to deer mortality.

"Coyotes are a recent addition to the landscape and are another piece of the puzzle," Ruth said. "SCDNR is currently involved in a major study with researchers at the Savannah River Site investigating the affects coyotes are having on the survival of deer fawns. Cumulative data through 3 years indicates approximately 80 percent total fawn mortality with coyotes being responsible for approximately 70 percent of these mortalities. If these findings even moderately represent a statewide situation, this "new mortality factor" is clearly involved in the reduction in deer numbers. This is especially true when combined with extremely liberal deer harvests that have been the norm in South Carolina."

By looking at the deer harvest numbers for the various counties across the state, we can begin to get a good picture of where the most deer are being harvested. The top counties in 2009 are not necessarily a lock to be the best in 2010, but they do offer a good starting point. A lot of data is being generated by the annual deer harvest survey in South Carolina.

In addition to the actual harvest of deer, we can take a look at the percentage harvest increase or decrease in harvest from the top counties. In this way, hunters can look for areas of the state where the harvest numbers are both comparatively high and are up from the previous season. That would make the area a prime candidate for seeing more deer in 2010.

According to Ruth, the harvest projections for the 2010 season would be near what we've seen in recent years. He said it could bump up or down a bit but overall, it should not fluctuate much, given the information he has on hand at this time.

Studying deer harvest figures from the previous season and the trend, whether up or down, is one way of estimating both deer herd numbers and potential harvest rates in specific portions of the state.

According to Ruth, there are different ways to look at the deer harvest. One is to simply look at the total harvest in a given county. Ruth said with the often significant variation in size of counties in South Carolina that can be misleading when comparing one county to another. However, a positive harvest trend in a single county from year to year would be a good point to consider.

Most wildlife biologists prefer the 'apples to apples' concept. Specifically, they like to measure the number of deer taken per unit area. For South Carolina, the number of deer harvested per square mile is a commonly used method. In this way, regardless of the size of the county or area being considered, you can get a feel for the relative productivity of the area as a deer producer.

Ruth said that harvest per unit area standardizes the harvest among counties regardless of size of the individual counties.

"One way we measure the harvest rate is by the number of deer taken per square mile, with 640 acres equaling one mile," he said. "Overall, when considering the estimated deer habitat that is available in South Carolina, the deer harvest rate in 2009 was 11.0 deer per square mile over the entire state.

"Although the deer population in the state has declined in recent years, this harvest rate should be considered good in comparison with most other states," he said.

We'll take a look at the top 10 counties for the 2009 hunting season in terms of harvest per square mile. Then we'll also look at the harvest in terms of total harvest for the top 10 counties. With this data in, along with the percentage of increase or decrease in harvest for the 2008 season, you can make good deductions on where the best deer hunting near you may be for 2010.

The top county in the 2009 deer hunting season was once again Bamberg County. Bamberg has lead the state in the deer-per-square-mile status for several years in a row. In 2009 there were 22.4 deer harvested per square mile, up from the leading number of 20.0 deer for the 2008 season. The harvest for this county was up by 12.2 percent in 2009 over 2008, a significant increase since it also was tops in South Carolina in 2008. There were 3,454 bucks and 3,439 does harvested for a total of 6,893 deer in 2009.

Allendale was second in 2009 with a rate of 18.7 deer harvested per square mile. This is close to what was taken in 2008 and represents a 0.4 increase in harvest in 2009. There were 3,086 bucks and 3,249 doe harvested in Allendale county during the 2009 season.Union county was third in the 2009 season harvest with a total of 17.7 deer harvested per square mile. However, this represents a 9.4 percent drop from the 2008 harvest. In 2008 Union county ranked second behind Bamberg County. There were 3,742 bucks and 3,386 does harvested in 2009 in Union County.

Taking the number four spot in 2009 was Anderson County with a harvest rate of 17.4 deer per square mile. This represents a significant increase of 18.9 percent over the 2008 total. In 2009 there were 3,017 bucks and 2,933 does harvested in Anderson County.

Finishing fifth in 2009 was Calhoun County, with a 17.1 deer-per-square-mile harvest rate. Calhoun County could be a real bright spot in 2010 because there was a whopping 34.4 percent harvest increase in the harvest from 2008 to 2009. There were 2,755 bucks and 2,333 does taken in Calhoun County in 2009.

In the number six spot was Spartanburg County with a harvest rate of 16.7 deer per square mile in 2009. This represents a respectable increase of 3.9 percent over the 2008 season's results. The total number of bucks taken was 3,598 and there were 3,360 does harvested in 2009.

In seventh place was Orangeburg County with a harvest rate of 15.3 deer per square mile. The 2009 harvest represents a 6.9 percent increase over the 2008 harvest. There were 6,333 bucks and 5,733 does harvested in Orangeburg County in2009.

Coming in at number eight in 2009 was Saluda County with a 15.0 deer per square mile harvest rate. Saluda County leads the top 10 in "percent increase over 2008" with a whopping 39.7 percent harvest increase in 2009. This is certainly another county to watch in 2010. There were 2,268 bucks and 2,222 does harvested in Saluda County in 2009.

Hampton County was in the ninth spot with a total harvest of 14.5 deer per square mile. Hampton County dropped from the number four spot in 2008 in large part because of a 20.4 percent decline in harvest in 2009. There were 3,494 bucks and 3,863 does harvested in 2009 in this county.

October and November are the months when the deer harvest peaks in South Carolina, but between 20 and 25 percent of the deer harvest takes place in December. Photo by Ron Sinfelt.

Rounding out the top ten is Greenwood County with a harvest rate of 14.1 deer per square mile in 2009. This represents a slight decline of 2.8 percent from the 2008 total. There were 2,352 bucks and 2,148 does harvested in Greenwood County in 2009.

For your planning purposes, the next 10 counties in terms of deer harvested per square mile in 2009 were, in order, Cherokee, Abbeville, Newberry, Colleton, Lee, Laurens, Chester, Fairfield, Charleston, and Florence counties.When looking at the top ten counties by actual total harvest in 2009 we'll see some of the same county names again, which always a good sign. However, as Charles Ruth noted, the size of the county will have a major influence on the total harvest.

The top county in total deer harvest in 2009 was Orangeburg, with 12,066 deer harvested. Colleton County was second with a total of 10,182 deer.

In third place was Williamsburg County with 8,176 deer harvested in 2009. Hampton County was fourth with a total of 7,356 deer in 2009.

In the fifth spot was Florence County with 7,243 deer harvested in 2009 followed by Fairfield County in 6th with a total harvest of 7,181 deer.

The seventh slot belonged to Union County with 7,128 deer taken; in eighth place was Spartanburg County with a total of 6,958 deer harvested in 2009.

In ninth place was Bamberg County with 6,893 deer harvested and finishing the top 10 was Newberry County with 6,696 deer harvested.

WILDLIFE MANAGEMENT AREASWildlife Management Areas (WMA's) are high use areas for deer hunters and Ruth has some overall data on those areas as well for 2009.

According to Ruth, deer hunting on Wildlife Management Areas remains popular in South Carolina, with approximately 49,000 licensees having a WMA Permit.

"Wildlife Management Areas represent lands owned by DNR, other state owned lands enrolled in the WMA Program, US Forest Service lands enrolled in the WMA Program, and private and/or corporate lands that are leased by DNR as part of the WMA Program," Ruth said. "Deer harvest figures for coastal WMAs are from check stations and are presented only for those WMA properties that have a deer check-in requirement. Deer harvest figures for upstate WMAs, the Mountain, Central and Western Piedmont Hunt Units were estimated by extrapolating the county deer harvest rates in terms of deer harvested per square mile to the acreage of WMA land that falls within the respective counties comprising the WMA."

Ruth said that this assumes that hunters on WMA lands exhibit effort and deer harvest patterns similar to those of the general licensee database that was surveyed. Finally, the estimated deer harvest on WMA lands is included in, not additive to, the county and statewide estimates found throughout this report.

"During the 2009 season it is estimated that 4,706 bucks and 3,786 does were harvested for a total deer harvest on Wildlife Management Areas of 8,492," Ruth said. "This figure represents decrease of approximately 9.9 percent from 2008. It is estimated that approximately 18,661 hunters spent 220,199 days hunting deer on WMAs in South Carolina in 2009."

In addition to the above information, study the graphic map attached to this feature and you'll see some trends in areas where the most deer are taken. Find some of these areas near where you hunt and odds are good you can improve your odds of success

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