The 2016 Deer Season Review
During the past deer season 180,661 deer were reported harvested by deer hunters in Virginia. This was the lowest statewide deer kill total in 18 years. Annual deer kill totals by county dating back to 1947 can be found on the Deer Kill Data section of the DGIF website.
Deer herds and deer kill numbers are down over most of the Tidewater Region. These declines are not unexpected. Over the past decade, the Department has greatly impacted the Tidewater deer herd with liberal either-sex deer hunting regulations to address population objectives in the Deer Management Plan. These liberal regulations, combined with substantial Hemorrhagic Disease (HD) events in the fall of 2012 and 2014, have resulted in significantly reduced herds (down >=25 percent) in 22 of 29 (76 percent) Tidewater deer management units.
To address these declines, the Department has been cutting either-sex deer hunting days over much of the region during the past two regulation cycles. These reductions should allow Tidewater deer herds to stabilize or slowly recover.
Hemorrhagic Disease hit the south-central Piedmont like a sledgehammer in the fall, 2014, and the Department reduced the number of firearms either-sex deer hunting days in many Southside counties back in late 2015. These changes have been successful in reducing the female deer kill. As long as there is not another HD event in this area, deer herds over most of the region should be stable or, hopefully, slightly up.
This is the region where the Department continues to maintain liberal seasons. The female deer kill has been fairly high here for the past nine consecutive years. Over most of this area, the Department continues to try to reduce the deer population to address population objectives in the Deer Management Plan. The deer kill will hopefully be stable to slightly down over the next several years.
West of the Blue Ridge
Deer management in western Virginia remains a tale of two distinct situations. Deer herds on private lands over most of western Virginia have been fairly stable over the past two decades (with a couple of exceptions). Over the same time frame, there has been an approximate 38 percent decline in the number of public land deer hunters and about a 67 percent decline in the deer kill on public lands west of the Blue Ridge.
To address this decline, the number of either-sex deer hunting days on public lands was cut significantly. These past changes have been successful in reducing the female deer kill, and the western public land deer hunter and deer kill declines appear to have bottomed out and plateaued. Neither has improved. Either-sex deer hunting days on National Forest and Department-owned lands in western Virginia are being cut again effective this fall to very low levels in many counties.
Relative Deer Abundance Map
The best way to compare deer populations in Virginia is based on the antlered buck deer kill per square mile. Figure 2 indicates the relative densities of deer on private lands in counties across Virginia. This is the best map of where deer are in the state. The descriptions for each group (very low, low, moderate, et cetera) are subjective.
So many Virginia deer hunters are justifiably asking, what happened to the deer? The fact is the declining deer kill trends over the past decade in Virginia were both expected and predicted. The Department’s primary deer management effort over the past decade was to increase the female deer kill level to reduce deer populations over much of the state, especially on private lands in eastern Tidewater, consistent with population objectives in the Deer Management Plan. The Department’s deer management staff anticipated that high and sustained female deer kill levels would eventually lead to a significant decrease in the deer herd and the recent decline in total deer kill numbers.
Second, the Department was hit with a significant, and unexpected, assist from HD in several areas. Some areas in eastern Virginia have had HD three of the past five years (2012, 2014, and 2016). This is unprecedented.
Third, many deer hunters also blame predators (bear, bobcats, and coyotes) for the recent deer herd decline. I do not blame predators for the decline in the deer herd at this time. We hit the deer herd very hard in some areas; expected and predicted it would come down, and it did. [Note: the deer herd has not declined over the last decade in those parts of the state where the Department has maintained fairly conservative regulations. These deer herds are generally stable; some, slightly increasing.]
A final limiting factor that cannot be overlooked in deer management is the continued, steady decline in the number of licensed deer hunters. From just under 300,000 licensed deer hunters in the early 1990s to approximately 200,000 or fewer in the fall of 2016, the Department has lost approximately one-third of those hunters over the past 25 years. Over the past three fall seasons alone, the Department has lost over 25,000 (more than 10 percent) licensed deer hunters.
This decline in deer hunters represents the biggest statewide deer management issue in Virginia, in my opinion. It will have a significant, negative effect on the Department’s finances and adversely impact the state’s ability to manage deer populations through hunting well into the future.
Today, there are many deer hunters in Virginia who think our agency killed all the deer. In their defense, the Department has hit the deer herd very hard over the past decade—especially on private land in eastern Virginia. However, in the not-too-distant future, it is possible that the major management issue in Virginia will not be “where are the deer” but “where are the deer hunters?”
The 2017 Season
So what is the forecast for the fall 2017 deer season? A big increase or decrease in the statewide deer kill from last fall (180,661) is not expected. If the deer kill is down, hopefully it will be due primarily to a decline in female deer kill numbers as a result of significant reductions in either-sex deer hunting days in eastern Virginia. Now that the Department is in the process of cutting back on these liberal seasons and regulations in many areas, over time (three to five years) these deer herds should stabilize and begin to slowly increase.
Past experience indicates that the ups and downs in annual deer kill totals are in part attributable to mast conditions and/or HD outbreaks. In years of poor mast crops, the deer kill typically goes up (e.g., 2013). In years of good mast crops, the deer kill typically goes down.
There are several new deer regulation changes this fall. Check the annual hunt guide to stay up to date. Please support Virginia Hunters for the Hungry; do not feed deer; and, most importantly, be safe.
This article was written by Matt Knox, Deer Project Coordinator, Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries (DGIF).
This article originally appeared in Virginia Wildlife Magazine.
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