Since 1988 the western deer harvest has been trending upward. The reported harvest in 1988 was approximately 5,000 deer. By 2013 that number was closer to 20,000 with a slight dip in 2014. The most important part is that the overall trend is upward. What doesn’t show is where those deer are harvested. As suspected, most deer were harvested in private land. As examples, here in Buncombe County of a total 474 deer harvested only 91 were on public land. In neighboring Madison County which has a LOT of National Forest land, of a total 715 deer harvested only 80 were on public land. That doesn’t say much for habitat management on public land.
We seem to be harvesting a lot of young bucks (understandable due to deer density discussed later). During the survey period, nearly 50% of the male deer harvested were in the 1.5 year age class while less than 10% were in the 4.5+ class. These figures are consistent with the same data recorded in a 1983-1985 study. What this says is that due to low deer density many hunters are not letting young bucks walk. Not only that, but the survey also indicates that three-quarters of the antlered bucks harvested occur before peak breeding season around December 5th. There are so few deer hunters are shooting the first buck they see and just happy to see one. Can’t say that I blame them since the season ends about a week after the peak of breeding. This figure says that a lot of the young bucks needed for breeding are being shot before they do so.
Now let’s look at the dismal deer density figures. Part of the report includes a color coded map of the entire state showing approximate density of deer per square mile. Green represents less than 15 deer per square mile and gray has a population so low there is no way to estimate the density. It will come to no surprise that from Buncombe County west the deer population is less than 15 per square mile and most of Swain County has no estimate. Only four counties east of the mountains share such a low density. That’s pretty bad for 100 counties in the state. It is no wonder that most deer hunters in the mountains travel to the Piedmont or as far as the Coastal region to hunt deer. Your chances for shooting a big buck and filling all of your six tags is much greater.
So what does this mean long term? First, there is positive news for the long term trend; at least on private land. I have seen some big body deer reported this year from the local area. The results also show that if we are to retain hunters in the mountains, instead of travelling down east or to Georgia and South Carolina the WRC must be more forceful with the U.S. Forest Service to do more wildlife habitat management work on the Pisgah and Nantahala forests. Based on the high percentage of antlered deer harvest before the peak breeding season it might mean a shift in the season in the mountains to allow for more breeding by younger bucks prior to being harvested. We will wait to see.
Speaking of deer season, the gun deer season here in the mountains ends this weekend on December 12th with that being the only antlerless harvest day for Buncombe, Madison, Henderson, Haywood, and Transylvania Counties. Then bear season picks up again on Monday the 14th. The first split of the regular waterfowl season ended on December 5th so duck and goose hunters can take a break before it picks up again on December 19th and continues through February 13th for geese and January 30th for ducks. Dove season is also open through January 15th and most small game seasons are open now through February 29th. Lot of hunting opportunities out there for the avid hunter. Get in the woods and stay safe.