Except for the extreme northern portion of New England, deer numbers in the Northeast continue to grow, which is good news for hunters planning their 2015 archery, rifle and muzzleloader trips. Record-setting snowfalls and extended periods of cold temperatures in Vermont, Maine and New Hampshire resulted in high whitetail mortality in some areas, but in southern New England habitat conditions favored deer survival despite near-record cold and snow in those areas.
There's no doubt that the winter of 2014-15 was rough on New England's deer herd, but whitetails are tough, resilient animals that have been through much worse. Biologists throughout the region are optimistic about hunting opportunities in 2015 and expect overall harvests to mimic those of the last three or four years.
Here's a state-by-state look at last year's deer harvest figures and what hunters can expect in 2015.
Bay State hunters tagged a total of 11,165 whitetails last season, not including the special Quabbin Reservoir hunt, for which harvest numbers were not yet available. Shotgun hunters topped the list with 4,742 deer, with the majority of success in zones 10 and 11. Archery hunters were close behind with 4,456 deer, again with more than half the kill taking place in zones 10 and 11. Primitive arms hunters took 1,967 deer, the majority also falling in zones 10 and 11.
According to the Massachusetts Division of Fisheries and Wildlife, harvest data for zones 1-5 (western Massachusetts) shows low female harvest and a corresponding increase in adult male harvest, indicating that deer densities in these zones are generally increasing. Deer densities in zones 6-9 (central Massachusetts) appear to be within stated goals, while deer densities in zones 10 and 11 (eastern Massachusetts) are still higher than desired.
However, more towns within those zones are providing increased access to land for hunting. Numbers on Martha's Vineyard and Nantucket remain significantly above management goals.
While western Massachusetts (zones 1-9) offer the most opportunities for public-land hunting, deer numbers are relatively low due to the fact that this region is heavily forested, providing little in the way of browse or escape cover for deer. Oddly enough, the heavily-developed, suburban eastern portion of the state features a better mix of forage and cover for deer, which explains the annual high kill numbers.
Simply put, hunters who want room to roam should focus on Massachusetts' western woodlands, while hunters seeking odds-on opportunities should begin seeking permission to hunt private lands in the eastern portion of the state well before the season opens.
For more information about deer hunting opportunities in the Bay State log onto www.mass.gov.
According to deer biologist Andrew LaBonte with the Connecticut Department of Energy and Environmental Conservation, lower hunter success rates was the reason for reduced kills in most portions of the state. The overall deer harvest was 11,394, down 9 percent from 2013. In addition, overall permit issuance declined 8 percent from 2013 to 2014.
Also, permit issuance has declined 17 percent from 2009 to 2014, with the sharpest declines specifically in shotgun/rifle and muzzleloader permits.
Although the exact reason why hunter participation fell is not known, many states along the East Coast at least as far South as North Carolina show declining hunter effort as the unemployment rate fell in recent years. A falling unemployment rate can reduce hunter effort because, as people work longer hours, they have less time to hunt.
LaBonte noted that acorn abundance was comparatively low last season (2.6 on a scale of 0 to 6). Acorn abundance was recently highest in 2010, at 4.9, but then lowest in 2011 at 0.8. The deer kill that year was 13,725, nearly 2,000 animals below last season.
LaBonte said that acorn abundance in 2014 was slightly higher than it had been in the last three years.
"When acorn abundance is high, hunter success has historically been lower compared to years with low acorn abundance," LaBonte said. "We expected that hunter success would be lower in 2014 than in 2013 and similar to hunter success rates seen in 2009 and 2010 when acorn abundance was higher."
Overall, hunter success rates are highest on private lands, but good hunting may be found on public lands in the northern portion of the state. There is limited public-land hunting available in the southern region but hunters who are willing to scout for pockets of good cover on smaller public lands in southern Connecticut should do well this season.
For maps, current regulations and more information, ct.gov/deep.
Green Mountain State hunters tagged 13,590 whitetails in 2014 during four separate hunting seasons. The total buck harvest (7,954) was 10 percent lower than the 2013 harvest and slightly less than the previous three-year average. Adult does comprised 35 percent of the harvest (4,700 animals). The remaining 7 percent of the harvest consisted of antlerless bucks and doe fawns.
According to the Vermont Fish and Wildlife Department, the state's deer herd (estimated at 130,000 animals) is holding steady despite the decrease in apple production compared to 2013 and limited beech nut crops throughout the state.
Acorn production was high in many regions and may have resulted in deer being more dispersed. An abundant acorn crop makes deer less vulnerable to hunters. Deer that have acorns to feed upon tend to move shorter distances and move about less often.
The buck harvest during the opening week of rifle season amounted to 43 percent of the total rifle harvest. Some 27 percent of licensed hunters were in the field during the opening weekend. Cold temperatures and the presence of snow during the November rifle season likely increased hunters' ability to find, see and harvest deer. But extremely bad weather can also keep hunters out of the woods entirely.
By far Management Zone B produced the highest deer harvest in 2014, with 2,005 animals. Zones D1, J2 and K followed with 1,325, 1,392 and 1,394 deer each. For information on last year's harvest go to vtfishandwildlife.com.
The Granite State deer harvest for 2014 was 11,464 whitetails, down nearly 9 percent from 2013.
According to biologist Dan Bergeron, Hillsborough County hunters led the harvest with a total of 2,147 deer, followed by Rockingham County (1,913), Grafton County (1,641), Cheshire County (1,122) and Coos County (978).
The adult buck (antlered males age 1.5 years and older) kill decreased from 7,171 in 2013 to 6,743 in 2014, but was nevertheless the fourth highest total on record. The antlerless harvest (does and fawns) decreased from 5,369 in 2013 to 4,652 in 2014.
New Hampshire's annual deer harvest is well distributed between southern, central and northern portions of the state. Habitat conditions are always important to a successful deer hunt and these areas continue to provide good escape cover, forage and wintering areas for whitetails. Winter severity was considered to be above average last year but an early spring melt helped deer survive the winter in some of the hardest-hit areas.
State parks and forests provide good public land hunting opportunities in the southern portion of the state, while the Green Mountain National Forest also offers some good hunting, especially near recent clear-cuts and other timber-cutting projects.
For more on New Hampshire's 2015 deer-hunting opportunities, log onto www.wildlife.state.nh.us.
Once completely tallied, Maine's 2014 overall deer harvest is expected to be near 20,000 animals.
Considering that Maine's deer harvests were over 50,000 animals in the 1950s, it's obvious that something has changed over the years.
Harsh winters do take their toll on deer herds in this most northern portion of the whitetail's range, but habitat conditions in general have also deteriorated in the interim. Huge losses in farmland, and increasingly mature forestlands (and corresponding decreases in early-successional habitat and wintering areas) have had a progressively negative effect on deer productivity.
Comparatively little is being done to improve habitat conditions statewide because most of the land is under private ownership, where timber production is the long-term goal. Winters are uncontrollable and unpredictable, so there is not a lot for Maine's deer hunters to cheer about as we enter the 2015 hunting season.
The deer in this state would be helped by an improving human housing market, which would drive up lumber prices and encourage landowners to cut more trees.
The deer population in Maine, however, is estimated to be about 230,000 animals, which is more than enough whitetails to serve the state's estimated 170,000 licensed hunters. There are plenty of deer out there — the trick will be in finding them, and this is where a hunter's knowledge of deer habitat comes into play.
The state's bowhunters, for example, have learned that the best hunting is in the Expanded Archery Zone, essentially that area east of the Interstate Route 95 corridor. More than 75 percent of the deer taken by bowhunters were shot in the Expanded Zone — only 400 deer were taken by archers outside that zone.
Due to harsh winters and poor habitat in the north, more hunters are setting their sights on central and southern Maine, where deer numbers are highest and winters are slightly less harsh. Central Maine is popular with hunters because of its comparatively high deer densities and preponderance of easy-access lands.
There are more deer but also more posted land in the southern portion of the state, although many landowners are amenable to hunters who seek permission and treat the land with respect. For more information on Maine's 2015 deer-hunting opportunities, mefishwildlife.com.
The Ocean State's biologists' predictions suggested a stable population and consistent harvest numbers for shotgun, archery and muzzleloader seasons.
Although Rhode Island is the smallest state, it produces some of the biggest bucks in the region, partly because its muzzleloader season runs during the peak of the rut. If you want to take a crack at Little Rhody's monster bucks, think small: get landowner permission to hunt thick, swampy cover and plan to be on hand during the second week in November. For more information, maps and a list of public hunting areas in Rhode Island, .dem.ri.gov.
TIPS AND STRATEGIES
Hunters who are hoping for early-season success should focus their efforts on areas where archery tackle is the primary focus. Bowhunters begin each season with the highest deer densities, milder conditions and reduced competition. The odds favor early-season bowhunters, but luck is fickle and unpredictable!
The most successful hunters scout frequently and change their strategies to fit seasonal variables, including foliage density, food availability, temperature and deer behavior. Hunters who watch and move with the conditions will enjoy the most consistent success.
For this reason, it's a good idea to have several areas in mind when the season opens. If conditions change or other hunters disrupt the original plan it's possible to go to Plan B, or C, or D and still enjoy a productive hunt.
Every New England state's wildlife agency offers detailed summaries and maps of state-owned lands, and the state forester also offers maps and updates on recently cutover areas where deer hunting should be good for several years after the project is completed. Also, consult with your state's deer biologists and land managers for details on where habitat work has been conducted on public lands.
Also, hunters should plan to spend as much time as possible in the woods, even if it's only an hour or two in the morning or evening. Most encounters with deer take place in just a few seconds from sight to shot, so if the only window of opportunity is 30 minutes, take it.