North America's most plentiful big game animal, the white-tailed deer, has long made Louisiana home. Though many other large game animals (think eastern elk, among others) have been extirpated by man since the earliest settlement of the New World by European settlers, the whitetail remains.
Proving a suitable and reliable source of protein for early American Indian groups, deer hunting has long been part of the culture of Louisiana. Today, deer thrive and continue to adapt to man's encroachment, constant development, timber harvesting and intensive industrial farming activities, all the while fending off hogs, disease, and climatic and environmental stressors.
Favoring forest edge and brushy habitats, whitetails are a truly metropolitan species that can be found in plentiful numbers from Canada all the way to the Gulf of Mexico, essentially from corner to corner of the United States. White-tailed deer, or Odocoileus virginianus as biologists may refer to them, play a prominent role in Louisiana's outdoors heritage. With approximately 1.5 million deer tags issued between 2008 and 2014, deer hunting is likely to remain high on the agenda for Louisiana sportsmen.
DEER MANAGEMENT AREAS
The Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries manages the deer herd, specifically, the Louisiana Deer Program is administered by the Office of Wildlife and implemented through six field offices where wildlife biologists and technicians perform year-round research projects, data collection and management activities on public and private lands. As of late, the Bayou State is divided into 10 Deer Management Areas (DMAs). Within these geographic boundaries, biologists spend the year gathering reproductive, life history and habitat data to assist in establishing the state's hunting seasons and supporting management regulations.
Hunting seasons are established according to general breeding periods, habitat productivity and landscape features. Currently, Bayou State hunters are allowed a season limit of six deer, not to exceed three antlered or four antlerless deer. All deer, whether tagged on private or public land, must be validated and reported to the LDWF within seven days of a kill. Harvest data is compiled and used to assess the state's deer herd.
Reporting deer can be accomplished in three ways. Hunters harvesting animals on lands enrolled in Deer Management Assistance Program (DMAP) should follow the instructions provided to them by LDWF. When deer check stations are in operation on WMA hunts, hunters must validate deer. Hunters may also validate deer by calling the validation program at 866-484-4805 or www.la.wildlifelicense.com.
Harvest validation numbers have been sliding over the past few seasons, and since validation contributes a large piece of the puzzle, responsible sportsmen should make sure everyone complies. Deer harvest validation is the law!
Harvest information, along with other data that wildlife biologists and technicians collect throughout the year, is used to develop deer seasons and hunting regulations. Scott Durham, deer study leader, suggests that other improvements to the harvest reporting system are on the way, including a smart phone app that is in development.
"Participation and compliance is still much less than 100 percent," said Durham. "Of course, we need all hunters to report their kills so we have a good feeling as to the health of our deer herd. Biologists know compliance with reporting requirements is low based on historic mail survey harvest index data compared to reporting system data.
HOW IT IS TRENDING
Every year, the LDWF publishes the yearly harvest summaries in early to mid summer. Generally speaking, the top deer producing parishes since the 2009-2010 season have been located in DMAs 1 and 2. Though several parishes from other DMAs make an appearance (West Feliciana, for example), the vast majority of the deer killed in the state come from these two DMAs. Why do they continuously produce top deer harvests in a state filled with whitetails? The equation is not really that hard to understand, suggests Durham.
According to Durham, the amount of available habitat in the area is what has driven the harvest numbers over the last few years, as DMA 1 is located in the very fertile area between the Mississippi River, the Ouachita River and the Red Rivers, stretching from East Carroll to Concordia Parish and west into parts of Ouachita Parish and Rapides Parish.
"DMA 1 is encompassed by a physiographic region made up bottomland hardwood forest and agricultural land," said Durham. "The deer in this area are plentiful because of agriculture and intense management on private lands. Deer harvest numbers on several DMA 1 public lands are generally healthy."
Several historically productive WMAs in this DMA include hot places like Boeuf and Russell Sage.
Within DMA 1, Tensas Parish hunters tagged 2,477 deer by the end of the 2013-2014 season, representing the highest parish-wide harvest total. Deer in this region thrive in edge habitat formed by extensive river bottoms, CRP land, fallow fields and stands of virgin bottomland hardwood forest. The region of the state has been one of the top two producing regions for many years.
"The deer here thrive because there is plenty of food, be it mast, natural browse or supplementing natural food with free corn and beans," said Jonathan Bordelon, DMAP administrator. "Supplementing natural foods with rich grains and agricultural products helps Tensas, Madison and several other DMA 1 parishes lead the state in productivity."
Tensas leads the state with one deer harvested for every 27 acres. Since deer do not have to travel far for nutrients and because they are so adept at living in the presence of man, deer in this parish are capable of living well with fewer acres.
Hunting in the delta region is very popular and is a storied tradition among many families. Public land abounds here as well and includes places like the newly combined Russell Sage WMA (Ouachita WMA was added to it), Bayou Macon WMA, Big Lake WMA and Bouef WMA, which produced the second highest Thanksgiving week harvest in the state with 231 deer harvested in 2013.
DMA 2 spans the north-central and northwestern third of the state and includes the Shreveport area, Alexandria area and portions of the Monroe area. This region of the state is well known for its pine forests, pine forest management and high deer harvest numbers. Also, biologists have seen an increase in DMAP enrollment and deer management in this part of the state.
Pine ridges, wet creek bottoms, timber companies with rotating pine plantations and thickets produce large numbers of deer, turkey and of course, hogs. DMA 2 also hosts large numbers of hunters on state and federal lands. Habitat, hunters and access add up to create the high harvest numbers seen over the years.
Union Parish, for example, is located along the border with Arkansas to the north. Union Parish has been the No. 1 deer-producing parish in the state for the last five seasons based on available published harvest data. With Union Parish at the top, spots 2 through 4 are also held by DMA 2 parishes, with few exceptions.
"Union Parish is heavily forested with some estimates suggesting the parish is nearly 90 percent wooded," said Bordelon. "Here, hunters harvest one deer per 127 acres. So far, we have seen a six percent drop in the harvest reporting numbers during the 2014-2015 season."
Of course, this count is very preliminary and does not include DMAP reporting or WMA reporting. Hunters reported 48,300 deer during the 2014-2105 season compared to approximately 53,000 deer in the previous season. However, even though the numbers are down, Durham assures that the deer herd is healthy. Biologists believe that the good mast crop in 2014 kept deer on wild foods, rather than gravitating over to feeders. The trend in lower numbers may be due to other factors as well, including the fact that the state is behind the times when it comes to reporting deer.
"We are working on a new smartphone app, one that would include LDWF news, hunting seasons, hunting and WMA regulations, and also feature a harvest reporting program," said Dunham. "I think completing this project out would positively influence harvest numbers and we would see an uptick in compliance with the reporting regulations."
DMAP harvest was also down a bit with preliminary numbers showing 14,128 at the end of the 2104-2015 season, compared to 14,900 for the previous season.
Incidence of hemorrhagic disease (HD) was low during 2014-2015, unlike the season before, which saw very intense HD disease. HD, a vector borne viral infection, is not a contagious disease spread from deer to deer, but rather is spread to deer by the biwte of an infected midge.
"Anecdotally, it seemed like a light year for HD incidence and I'd consider 2014 a normal or even a potentially below average year as far as HD is concerned."
Durham suggests that a dry June correlates with increased midge populations when wet years follow the dry year. An increase in the intensity of midges increases the odds of deer contracting HD since more midges increase the chances of spreading the virus.
Though HD was low during the 2014-2015 season, deer are not completely out of the woods. Wild hogs are thriving and are still a big problem in the Bayou State.
"Hogs complete for the same food sources, space and other resources as deer, and turkey for that matter," said Durham.
"When you are managing a wild resource, most forms of competition are a hindrance, and in the bout between wild hogs versus deer, the whitetail's competition has dozens of babies per year, and a sounder of hogs can eat hundreds of pounds of food and destroy acres of farms land and crops in a night. The odds are stacked against the deer."
"Through it all, our deer herd has remained healthy and the 2015-2016 season is shaping up to be a good year," Bordelon said. "Thus far in the year we have had good spring rains that have plumped up our vegetation. Lush healthy vegetation are now ripe for browsing by does during the fawning season."
Hunters in DMAs 1 and 2 will likely continue to heavily influence the harvest rates this season as they have in the past, particularly since there are no major changes to DMAs, harvest limits or harvest requirements. There was some new land added to Maurepas WMA and additional time was added to Sherburne WMA for hunters.
"As always, we look forward to seeing the season's harvest numbers," said Bordelon. "Lets hope reporting requirements begin to tell the whole story."