Are Virginia Hunters Taking Enough Does?

Are Virginia Hunters Taking Enough Does?

Beginning next season, we'll see two more "antlerless" deer tags on our licenses. Is this a sign our deer herd needs to be trimmed?

By Mark Fike

Each year Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries (VDGIF) biologists look at deer harvest figures and other data (such as landowner complaints, and reports of disease and crop damage) to determine their next step in their goal of managing Virginia's deer herd.

The main management tool biologists use for controlling the deer herd is, of course, hunting. And to control high-density herds, hunting does is effective - if hunters are willing to take enough does.

Over the last few years Virginia hunters have been able to purchase bonus tags to take antlerless deer above and beyond their annual limit. These bonus tags were to be used on private or authorized public lands only.

Here is a look at each region and the doe harvest within.

The Tidewater Region is in good shape according to the goals set by the Deer Management Plan, which is what the biologists look at when determining their strategies.

Phil West, the VDGIF biologist in Region 1, reports that the only change in doe-hunting regulations this year occurs in Middlesex, Richmond and Mathews, all of which had a few more doe days added to their seasons.

Photo by Ron Sinfelt

There are a few localizes spots, such as West Point, where the urban archery season is in effect to allow hunters to help manage the deer herd. West also pointed out that Northampton is a good destination for hunters, as the herd there is robust.

In the southern portion of the Tidewater, Todd Engelmeyer is the VDGIF biologist we spoke to about doe harvest and the deer herd. Engelmeyer agrees with West in saying that the herd is relatively stable and in good shape. There were only two changes Engelmeyer had to report for his district. The first was in the county of Suffolk, east of the Dismal Swamp Line, where doe days were increased to enlist hunter's help with the growing complaints of crop damage. The second was in Southampton, where Engelmeyer reports that the doe harvest is in good shape and hunters could even stand to pass a few does this season.

The Southern Piedmont Region habitat varies substantially in terms of soils and fertility, which determine the quality of habitat. Generally, the deer herd is a reflection of the habitat. A glance at page 19 of the Hunting and Trapping in Virginia Regulation Booklet shows that the counties hugging the eastern slope of the Blue Ridge Mountains have an increase in doe days. The south-central portion of the region has limited their doe days to a total of four days.

Jim Bowman works the region as a wildlife biologist with VDGIF. He took some time to enlighten us on the reasons why the south central portion of the region has seen a cut in doe days.

"During 1997, we adjusted the number of doe days down from fourteen days to eight days. Then in 1999, we again adjusted the antlerless days downward to just four days. Even now at the second year into the cycle, we see that the counties shaded white in the regulation book are seeing a 33 percent to 38 percent portion of the deer harvest as does. We will continue to monitor those trends to determine when we will again need to increase the number of either-sex hunting days to curtail that trend."

As Bowman points out the number of doe days are set with the Statewide Deer Management Plan in mind. All Region II counties, except for Patrick County, had a goal of stabilizing the deer population. The goal for Patrick County is to reduce the population.

"In general, we have traditionally used the number of either-sex hunting days to accomplish a deer population increase or decrease. In a number of the western piedmont counties, such as Bedford, Franklin, Patrick and Henry, it has been a challenge to meet the respective county population goals. This is primarily due to a couple of reasons - one, many hunters tend to select for antlered deer even though very liberal hunting regulations allow harvest of antlerless deer; and two those counties have very productive habitats. We continue to consider new methods to encourage increased doe harvest rates in those counties."

The Southern Mountain Region was the last region to recover from the low deer herd size of the early 20th century. Deer numbers are just coming around to what they should be in many aspects.

John Baker works in this region and commented on the need for more doe harvest in some areas and the stability of the doe herd and the deer herd in other counties within his district. He points out that the public's tolerance or Cultural Carry Capacity of deer numbers is usually lower than that of what the land will hold (biological carrying capacity).

"We certainly do not want to exceed the Biological Carry Capacity. This can lead to deterioration of deer food supply and negative impacts to other wildlife species' habitat, and declining deer health can be the result. Some of our areas are near to or exceeding the biological carrying capacity, such as private land in Scott County," he said.

Baker added, "We do have some private lands in some areas that are exceeding the cultural carry capacity, such as Grayson, Lee, Russell, Smyth and Washington counties. In these counties it would be a good thing for hunters to feel that it is OK to harvest a doe. The opportunity is better now than ever in recent history, particularly on private land. Private land herds in southwestern Virginia have increased in number and become more dispersed than in the past."

Baker reported that VDGIF has seen a 33 percent decline in deer hunters/pressure over the past decade. The opportunity to take a deer is great: there are more deer than ever before and fewer hunters. The fact that there was an increase in the number of either-sex days this season on private lands is a sign that biologists feel that more does should be taken.

There are a few counties within the Southern Mountain Region where the deer herd still has room for expansion. The National Forest lands and the counties of Wise, Buchanan and Dickenson counties private lands do not require doe harvest at this point.

The Northern Mountain Region has had a great deer harvest - but deer numbers continue to grow despite the pressure by hunters. David Kocka, who works the region, gave us the scoop on the

doe population.

Kocka reports that he is seeing more hunters managing for quality deer. Or, at least, they are passing small bucks. He would, however, really like to see those hunters take a few more does. The increase in doe numbers is causing more vehicular accidents, and in some areas, browse lines are becoming noticeable - a sign that the deer are outrunning the carrying capacity of the land.

Kocka reports that much of the area is seeing a 30-45 percent doe harvest when he would really like to see those percentages near 50 percent. In particular, Rockingham and Frederick need some additional pressure on does.

Summing things up in his region Kocka commented, "All of my counties need to maintain or increase their doe harvest."

As with the other regions in the state, the Northern Piedmont Region has high deer numbers in many of its counties. Dan Lovelace is the biologist we spoke to regarding what hunters can do to help the region attain its management goal.

Lovelace suggested that hunters not be hesitant about taking does and using their antlerless tags. The counties of Prince William, Fairfax and Loudoun are especially in need of more doe harvest.

"Right now the doe harvest in those counties is near 41 percent, and we would prefer to see it over 50 percent in order to stabilize the herd. Anytime the doe harvest is less than 50 percent, you are allowing the deer herd to continue growing."

When asked why he felt that hunters have not taken as many does as they could have with the unlimited bonus tags Lovelace commented that many hunters save their tags for bucks.

"Beginning next year hunters will get an additional two antlerless tags. We hope this will allow hunters to feel that they can use their either sex tags for bucks and still take does," he said.

Lovelace stressed that, to his knowledge, there are no counties in the region where hunters need to pass does. In the special urban archery areas, in the counties where there is a season-wide, either-sex regulations, and in Albermarle County especially, the deer herds would be better off if hunters killed more does.

The message that keeps coming through to us from biologists is the need to use the antlerless tags and not feel guilty about taking a doe. This season help manage our deer herd and take advantage of an antlerless tag.

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