“We expect to see annual variations in harvest for various reasons, including weather, mast crop, disease, hunter effort and hunter selectivity,” said Jonathan Shaw, deer biologist with the N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission. “Our mast crop was spotty, but some areas had good mast which can lead to declines in deer movements and a hunter’s ability to harvest deer. The largest decline in harvest this year occurred in the northern piedmont area, which saw some scattered hemorrhagic disease activity.”
The number of active deer hunters in North Carolina has remained relatively stable, but fluctuations at a local level can impact harvest numbers. “We tend to focus on trends rather than annual variations,” said Shaw. “We have observed declining trends in harvest and deer numbers in some parts of the state.”
The Wildlife Commission will not attribute the decline to any single cause, but says there are several potential reasons for the decline in harvest. First, doe harvest opportunities have increased over the years, which could lead to declines in deer numbers. Then you have outbreaks of hemorrhagic disease which have contributed to declines in some areas. Hemorrhagic disease, which is transmitted by gnats and midges, is a common virus that occurs in deer in the southeastern United States.
Let’s not forget the more likely factor, especially here in the mountains, habitat. The quality of habitat may be in decline due to land use practices, including development and increased efficiency in land management, such as farming and forestry practices. Lastly predators play a part. Coyotes and other predators have increased in numbers over the last two decades. They can have significant impacts on fawn recruitment, but these impacts are highly variable across time and the landscape. Predators alone will not decimate deer populations, but their impacts may be additive with other factors that cause declines.
Let’s look at some numbers for some of our local counties and Game Lands. The largest total harvest was Yancey County with 1,214. Madison County was a very close second with 1,201 total deer harvested. Not surprisingly the vast majority of those deer were harvested on private land. That’s really a shame given all the National Forest in both counties. See the comment above about lack of quality habitat. Buncombe County was third largest with 720 deer harvested, again with the majority of those on private land. Haywood County only had 265 deer killed during the season.
The Game Land harvest in the mountains was very low. With a million acres of National Forest here you would expect better. The entire Nantahala National Forest only had 510 reported deer killed. The Pisgah fared only slightly better with 531 total. I was really surprised to see that Sandy Mush only had 28 reported deer killed. Thanks to hikers and waterfall gazers the DuPont State Forest is doing very little habitat management. On the total of 10,000 acres they only had 48 deer killed.
So I guess we have a mixed blessing here in the mountains. Let’s start with the good news. On the one hand in the previous 2015 – 2016 season we had the largest increase in the state and this year we had the lowest decline. Statistically, 1.2 percent is insignificant. It appears from harvest records deer populations are on the rise in the mountains.
The bad news? Hunting opportunities are pretty much confined to private property if you want to put venison in the freezer. The problem is many mountain hunters don’t have access to private property unless they do a lot of leg work and knocking on doors. Many hunters in our region travel east or to adjacent states to join deer clubs.
Our public land managers, particularly on the National Forest, need to do a better job managing the land for wildlife habitat. The WRC will be hosting a public forum at Haywood Community College on May 16th at 7 p.m. to discuss deer management. Let your voice be heard.