There's good news and bad news regarding the deer herd and deer hunting in South Carolina in 2015. The bad news is that the overall deer herd harvest was down last season — and down considerably from the record harvest back in 2002.
The good news is that a significant portion of the decline last year was because of external issues, and the harvest this year should be about the same as in 2014.
The deer harvest in South Carolina dropped by 9 percent during the 2014 season. This continues the long-term decline in harvest numbers statewide. South Carolina Department of Natural Resources Deer Project Supervisor Charles Ruth said the total deer harvest in 2014 was 202,952 compared to 225,806 in 2013.
"There were a total of 109,446 bucks and 93,506 does harvested statewide," Ruth said. "This represents a 36.7 percent drop from the record harvest of 319,902 taken in 2002. The population and harvest of deer have trended down since that time due in large part to habitat change and specifically a reduction in prime habitat.
Coyotes are another major issue that's developed in recent years and one that's having a significant negative impact, particularly on the survival of deer fawns.
"SCDNR recently completed an extensive three year study at the Savannah River Site investigating the impact of coyotes on the deer population," Ruth said. "The cumulative data shows through the first three years that there's about 70 percent total fawn mortality and 80 percent of that is directly attributed to coyotes. That's a huge impact."
Ruth says the positive news is that the 2014 season had poor weather conditions during peak hunting time, specifically the last part of October and well into November. That means that the lower harvest at least in part had nothing to do with fewer deer, but rather weather conditions making it harder for hunters to kill deer.
"This is the time period when historically deer are moving well and many of the deer are harvested on a statewide basis," Ruth said.
Last year we had a good bit of rain and a lot of unusually warm weather at the end of October and into November.
"When we have wet and warmer weather at that time a decline in deer activity has a significant impact on harvest," Ruth said. "Based on our harvest data hunters during this time of year with normal weather may average 4,000 to 5,000 deer a day. This is especially true on weekends during this peak time of the rut and it's pretty dependable on a statewide basis.
If we have an extended weather issue and this harvest number drops significantly, it doesn't take long to add up to thousands of deer not harvested because of weather. It may not seem like much at the time, but it adds up when we total the harvest numbers.
"While there's no guarantee of good weather, if we have a normal weather pattern during October and November I think we could see a good number of deer harvested in 2015," Ruth said. "The overall harvest trend has been down since it peaked in 2002 but not all years have seen a decline.
In 2013 we actually had a harvest increase of 4 percent. I'm certainly not blaming weather exclusively, but it does have a dramatic impact when it occurs during peak harvest season."
Ruth said that the outlook for 2015 is for a stable harvest.
"Barring poor weather conditions again, I think the overall deer herd is good enough that we should see a harvest similar to 2014 during the 2015 hunting season," he said. "Right now the harvest seems to be like a saw blade with a jagged edge, a bit back and forth and somewhat uneven from year to year. But despite issues we're addressing, South Carolina still leads the southeast states in terms of harvest per unit area. So the hunting is still excellent on a comparative basis."
In different areas of the state, of course, your chances of success will be different. For that reason, the SCDNR tracks the number of deer taken per square unit area (typically square miles) of habitat to get an "apples to apples" county ranking.
Ruth said, "The overall harvest rate statewide in 2014 was 9.6 deer per square mile. The top county in the state in 2014 was Bamberg County with 18.0 deer harvested per square mile — a very good harvest rate. The survey shows a 3.8-percent decrease in harvest in Bamberg County from 2013."
The second highest production came from Greenwood County with 15.5 deer per square in 2014. This represents a whopping 20.1 percent increase over the previous year. Spartanburg County finished third with 15.2 deer per square mile, down 8.2 percent from the previous year. Abbeville County had a total of 14.6 deer per square mile harvested and had a relatively stable harvest, down only 0.7 percent from 2013. Hampton County rounded out the top five with 14.1 deer harvested per square mile. This total was down 3.3 percent from the previous year.
At number six was Anderson County, with a 13.7 deer harvested per square mile rate, down 9.8 percent from the 2013 harvest. Orangeburg County was number seven with a harvest rate of 13.0, down 13.0 percent from the previous season. At number eight was adjacent Calhoun County with 12.2 deer per square mile rate, a drop of 25.5 percent from 2013, but still good enough to make the top 10.
Beaufort County entered the top 10 with an incredible 80.9 percent increase in harvest over 2013 and finished with a 12.2 deer per square mile harvest rate. Allendale County rounded out the top 10 with a harvest rate of 12.0, a drop of 29 percent in harvest from the previous year.
All of these counties offer excellent hunting, despite the decline in harvest most of them experienced in 2014. However, there are a couple counties with significant harvest increases. Also there are two large areas of the state where top 10 counties are close to each other. These multi-county areas produce excellent hunting. One of these areas is in the upstate and lower part of the state.
Ruth said another way to examine harvest figures is a simple total harvest by county. Total harvest does not compensate for county size differences and thus is not a good way to compare one county with another, but it can provide insight with regard to how the hunting in a specific county changed from one year to the next.
"The top five counties during 2014 were Orangeburg, Colleton, Williamsburg, Hampton and Berkeley counties," Ruth said.
The second five counties in order were Spartanburg, Newberry, Fairfield, Laurens and Bamberg counties.
Looking at a state map (on the previous page) of these total harvest counties depicts an upstate and a lower state area where overall harvest was high over a several-county area. Also, counties that are on both top 10 lists are potentially very good targets for 2015 — those counties just plain have a lot of deer. These counties are Bamberg, Orangeburg, Spartanburg and Hampton.
Ruth said hunter interest on Wildlife Management Areas (WMA) remained high, with 59,408 licensees having a WMA permit. He said there were a total of 7,215 deer harvested on WMA's in 2014, representing a 15.9 percent decrease from 2013.
Of the major WMA's in the upstate, the Central Piedmont Hunt Unit led with a harvest rate of 11.4 deer per square mile. The Western Piedmont Hunt Unit was second with 9.4 deer per square mile followed by the Mountain Hunt Unit with 5.1 deer per square mile.
The top coastal WMAs are typically smaller in size, except for the Francis Marion National Forest. The most productive in 2014 was Oak Lea WMA, with an outstanding harvest rate of 18.0 deer per square mile. Second was Cross Generating Station at 14.7 deer per square mile and third was Webb Wildlife Center with a 10.3 deer per square mile harvest.
Ruth said the drop in harvest numbers since 2002 is a result of a three separate factors that occurred at about the same time to cause the deer population and harvest numbers to drop substantially.
"Three things occurred around the turn of the century that combined to create a perfect storm in a sense of problems for the deer herd in South Carolina," he said. "The first issue was a dramatic change in habitat. We literally had an exploding deer population before that time with an enormous amount of prime habitat.
"Much of the habitat in South Carolina deer hunting is dominated by commercial pine and that's not a bad thing, it's just the nature of pine forests," he said. "For the first ten years after planting this is an extremely productive type of habitat. We had a tremendous amount of land in that stage in the 1980's and 1990's and the deer population was exploding.
However, once the pines get over 10 years old the productive potential for deer decreases. The long-term status of even-aged pine stands becomes much less productive for deer. We experienced a big shift in a lot of land changing from very productive (young stands) to older stands at around the same time. The habitat changed from excellent to simply less quality habitat for producing lots of deer.
"A second issue is undeniable — hunters in South Carolina harvested a tremendous number of deer at this time," he said. "This very aggressive harvest, as the herd expanded rapidly, was actually necessary at that time because the expanding population created cultural issues such as crop problems for farmers and vehicles colliding with deer incidents.
We had an aggressive doe harvest then, trying to catch up to the rapidly expanding deer population with a high harvest. But when the growth boom stopped because of habitat, the harvest didn't."
Ruth says that a third problem began to unfold in the last few years — and has turned out to be more of an issue than SCDNR had thought it would be.
"Coyotes really began to get entrenched in the state and in the last 10 to 12 years and now they are found in a fairly high density around most areas of the state," Ruth said. "Now that we've established (that they cause) a significant impact on fawn survival, they are an issue to be reckoned with as we move forward in management."
Around the turn of the century SCDNR biologists talked with biologists from western states. Those biologists suggested that the coyote issue would stabilize over time.
"One reason we under estimated the impact of coyotes was the deer harvest in many of those states are very conservative by management compared to our very aggressive harvest," Roth said. "We didn't fully comprehend the impact of the conservative-versus-aggressive harvest in terms of managing the herd with the addition of coyotes to the overall management.
"By the time we realized the impact of coyotes in conjunction with the other two issues, the convergence of the three separate issues combined to cause the downward spiral in harvest. We've began decreasing doe days the last several years since we have that authority, but I think we need broad management changes approved by the legislature to properly manage the herd."
Ruth added that legally removing coyotes by trapping and hunting will certainly help, especially in localized areas where it is accomplished. According to the SCDNR survey, deer hunters reported harvesting 31,306 coyotes during the 2014 deer hunting season.
However, eliminating the coyote population or reducing the numbers to an extent where they have little impact would be extremely difficult and is not likely to occur. Some very determined stockmen have been trying to eliminate coyotes in the West for 150 years. The coyotes are still there.
Roth says that changing the deer management strategy to adapt is the logical choice.
"Given the data on habitat, declining numbers of deer, and the extremely difficult and high cost of coyote control, it seems apparent that making adjustments to how we manage deer, particularly female deer, is more important now than prior to the colonization of the state by coyotes.
"South Carolina hunters can still enjoy excellent deer hunting and ensure the long term stability of the deer herd with a more conservative management approach," Ruth said.