North Carolina deer hunters reported killing 153,629 deer during the 2014-15 hunting season. While that is a whale of a lot of whitetails, the harvest was down significantly from the 2013-14 hunting season's record deer harvest of 188,130. It was, in fact, the lowest deer harvest since the 2005-06 hunting season, when hunters reported harvesting 144,315 deer.
Evin Stanford, the N.C. Wildlife Commission's Deer Biologist, linked the harvest decline to three probable factors: an abundance of natural food, the ongoing incidence of hemorrhagic disease in some areas and the high deer harvest that has been occurring over the last several seasons.
"We experienced a tremendous acorn crop in fall of 2014 the likes of which hadn't been observed in some areas in decades," Stanford said. "We also had high levels of hemorrhagic disease activity remaining in some areas of the state, particularly in Districts 3 and 5.
Several years of a strong deer harvest, last year's record harvest and long-term increasing doe harvest trends have also potentially contributed to population decreases in some areas, although effects from harvest factors would typically occur over time and not abruptly in a one-year period."
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. Hunters who are accustomed to hunting deer by placing grain, sweet potatoes and other agricultural crops in the woods, or setting up deer feeders to scatter pelletized feed or corn would therefore not have seen as many deer as they would have during a normal mast year.
Deer hunters who hunted deer by setting up stands over planted food plots or agricultural fields, or attempted to ambush deer traveling some distance between feeding and bedding areas, would also have seen fewer deer than normal.
Epizootic hemorrhagic disease, which is the most virulent strain of hemorrhagic disease, has been an ongoing concern for the past three years throughout the Southeast, along the Mississippi Valley and into the Midwest. Blue tongue is the other hemorrhagic disease in deer. It usually does not produce mortality rates that are as high as EHD.
While the disease appears to be subsiding in its intensity in North Carolina, it is still having an impact in localized areas. Hunters and biologists are still finding deer that are suffering from the disease or have probably died from its effects.
The hardest hit areas are usually the areas that do not have the midges that spread the disease during years with normal weather. The deer in those areas do not develop immunity to the disease to same degree as deer in areas where the disease lingers perpetually.
Since midges are most abundant along the coast, the deer of the piedmont and mountain regions tend to suffer the most severe declines in population whenever there has been a disease outbreak.
Therefore, they experience longer recovery periods. Hot, dry summers followed by unusually wet autumns create the best breeding conditions for midges. Once the weather returns to normal, the deer population should continue its recovery in all areas of the state.
The 2014-15 reported harvest of 153,629 deer was 18.3 percent lower than the 2013-14 record harvest of 188,130. The harvest had been relatively stable, averaging 174,500 deer over the past seven years beginning in 2008-09, but now has dropped back near the harvest of 154,273 of 2007-08, which was the season immediately preceding that long-running, high-harvest period.
Districts 3 and 5 saw the biggest decreases in harvest when compared to their 2013-14 season harvests, which is evidence that disease played a primary role in the reduced deer kill from those districts.
However, the deer harvest in every one of the other districts was also down. In District 1, the harvest declined by 11.5 percent; District 2, 14.6 percent; District 3, 35.4 percent; District 4, 15.9 percent, District 5, 24.5 percent; District 6, 8.1 percent; District 7, 13.4 percent; District 8, 13.8 percent and District 9, 8.9 percent.
Harvests from game lands made up 3.5 percent of the total deer harvest from all of the districts combined, ranging from a low of 0.7 percent of the harvest in District 7 to high of 21.5 percent of the harvest in District 9.
The antlered buck harvest was 73,439, a decrease of 13,149 or 15.2 percent below the 2013-14 harvest of 86,588. The button buck harvest was 10,321, a decrease of 5,773 or 35.9 percent below the 2012-13 harvest of 16,094. The doe harvest was 69,869, a decrease of 15,609 or 18.3 percent below the 2013-14 harvest of 85,478.
Antlered bucks made up 47.8 percent of the harvest; button bucks, 6.7 percent; and does, 45.5 percent. During the 2013-14 season antlered bucks made up 46.0 percent of the harvest; button bucks, 8.6 percent; and does, 45.4 percent.
These percentages have varied little since the implementation of liberalized either-sex seasons in most areas of the state and the two-buck limit in mountain region and four-buck limit in the coastal region going into effect.
During the 2014-15 season the top 10 counties for total deer harvest were: Northampton, 4,516; Halifax, 3,921; Bertie, 3,798; Anson, 3,583; Union, 3,061; Wilkes, 2,956; Randolph, 2,917; Rockingham, 2,818; Bladen, 2,787 and Beaufort, 2,681. During most years, the coastal region dominates the list.
However, the leading counties last season were spread across the state, with representatives in the coastal, piedmont and mountain regions.
During the 2013-14 season Chatham, Franklin and Wake counties made the top 10. They were replaced by Beaufort, Randolph and Union counties.
A more accurate measure than the total harvest for determining the best counties in which to bag a deer is the harvest per square mile of huntable habitat statistic. "Huntable habitat" means areas where there is both a deer population and regulations that allow deer hutning.
For example, the manageable habitat acreage calculation omits large water bodies, towns and cities, and state and federal parks. (N.C. Deer Density maps are available on the Commission's website, www.ncwildlife.org). The huntable habitat area is re-calculated every five years and represents places where hunting regulations are most effective at generating deer harvest data.
The number of deer harvested per square mile of huntable habitat statistics give a better picture of a county's potential for deer harvest than the total number of deer harvested from that particular county.
For example, a large county such as Halifax may produce a high harvest simply because it has an extensive landmass. However, a smaller county may actually offer greater odds for bagging a deer because it has better habitat.
Another consideration is that a county with a lot of hunting pressure because of its high human population may also produce a higher harvest number of deer per square mile of huntable habitat. That's simply because that county gets hunted hard.
This effect was evident in a six-county cluster in the southern foothills and piedmont region, where the Charlotte-Gastonia and Concord-Kannapolis urban and suburban areas send armies hunters into the woods.
Forsyth County is another example, with Winston-Salem occupying a good portion of the county. Alamance County has the population center of Burlington combined with a suburban landscape that has some good deer habitat. The only coastal county that made the top 10 was Northampton, and the only mountain county was Alleghany.
The top 10 counties in terms of deer harvested per square mile of huntable habitat were: Alleghany, 8.7; Northampton, 8.63; Mecklenburg, 8.41; Cabarrus, 7.67; Forsyth, 7.58; Gaston, 7.32; Stanly, 7.10; Anson, 6.96; Union, 6.85; Alamance, 6.68.
During the 2013-14 season, Halifax, Person, Stokes, Person and Wake counties made the top 10 list, but last season they were replaced by Alamance, Anson, Cabarrus, Gaston, and Stanly and Union counties.
The top two counties in each district in terms of deer harvested per square mile of huntable habitat were: District 1, Hertford, 6.06 and Gates, 0.84; District 2, Craven, 4.06 and Pitt, 3.80; District 3, Northampton, 8.63 and Halifax, 5.69; District 4, Bladen, 3.26 and Harnett, 2.42; District 5, Alamance, 6.68 and Guilford, 5.93; District 6, Mecklenburg, 8.41 and Cabarrus, 7.67; District 7, Alleghany,8.71 and Forsyth, 7.58; District 8, Gaston, 7.32 and Lincoln, 6.57; District 9, Polk, 4.20 and Madison, 1.62.
As is always expected, firearms hunters took the most deer, harvesting 119,315 or 77.7 percent of the total harvest. Hunters using muzzleloading arms took 17,709 deer or 11.5 percent. Bowhunters took 11,003 deer or 7.2 percent and crossbow hunters took 5,602 deer or 3.6 percent.
The previous season, gun hunters took 77.3 percent, muzzleloader hunters, 11.2 percent, bowhunters, 7.8 percent and crossbow hunters, 3.7 percent, so the percentage of the harvest by weapons choice was little changed.
Hunters using dogs took 20,188 deer or 13.1 percent of the harvest, compared to 23,882 deer or 12.6 percent of the harvest in 2013-14. The slight increase in that percentage is consistent with a large acorn crop: unlike other hunters, hound hunters do not strictly rely on deer moving on their own.
Top counties for deer harvest with hounds included Warren at 1,105, Gates, 1,020 and Northampton, 1,010. In Warren County, hound hunting accounted for 66.8 percent of the deer harvest; in Gates, 53.6 percent; and in Northampton, 22.4 percent.
The continued expansion of the Urban Archery Season from 47 municipalities in 2013-14 to 51 municipalities in 2014-15 accounted for 191 deer, including 42 bucks, 25 button bucks and 124 does. The previous Urban Archery Season harvest was 151 deer, including 31 bucks, 20 button bucks and 100 does.
While the number of participating areas is increasing and the harvest increased by 40 deer, the number of deer that the special January season adds to the total deer harvest is statistically insignificant.
The Commission conducts an annual hunter harvest survey for all game species by mail. The data for 2012-13 showed 243,500 hunters reported that they had hunted deer over a total of 3,478,000 days. Deer hunters hunted an average of 14 days and 50 percent of them harvested deer (23 percent of hunters killed one, 12 percent killed two and 15 percent killed three or more).
In the 2013-14 survey, 258,409 hunters hunted deer over a total of 3,671,258 days. Deer hunters hunted an average of 14 days and 49 percent of them killed deer, with 24 percent killing one, 13 percent killing two, and 6 percent killing three or more.
Notice that although the 2013-14 season set the state record and last year's total harvest was down, the number of deer per hunter stayed nearly the same across all of the age and sex categories.
That suggests that the higher kill numbers in 2013-14 were partly driven by higher hunter numbers. And in fact during the 2013-14 hunting season, there were 14,909 more hunters and they hunted 193,258 more days than hunters did during the 2012-03 season.
Once the Commission makes the data from the 2014-15 hunter harvest survey available, it may well show that fewer deer hunters put fewer days in the field — factors that could have added significantly to the dramatic decline in the harvest below that of 2013-14.
A falling unemployment rate can reduce hunter effort because, as people work longer hours, they have less time to hunt. Another factor could have been beef prices, which hit an all-time high during 2013-14. The high prices for protein could have provided an incentive to induce more hunters to hunt more days for venison as an alternative to beef.
Sixty-nine percent of the deer hunters harvested no does, which means only 31 percent of hunters actually had an impact on controlling the deer population. Seventeen percent harvested one doe, 8 percent harvested two does and 6 percent harvested three or more does.
Sixty-six percent harvested antlered bucks, including 24 percent who harvested one, 8 percent who harvested two and 2 percent that harvested three or four. These percentages were nearly unchanged between the 2013-14 and 2014-15 hunting seasons.