Whitetail Nation: Are Deer Numbers in Decline?

The morning after deer season closed several men gathered around church before the Sunday service began. Carl inquired of Bill, who always gets a nice buck. “How’d you do this season, Bill?”

“Don’t ask. I never saw an antler during gun season, much less any does, and in archery season only saw a few dinks. Maybe gun season was bad weather, but that doesn’t explain archery season. Worst season ever.”

Various factors can affect the population of deer, from weather and natural conditions to hunting pressure, predation, disease and more.

Various factors can affect the population of deer, from weather and natural conditions to hunting pressure, predation, disease and more.

On Monday morning, a thousand miles away in a machine shop breakroom, Joe sat at a table staring into a cup of lukewarm coffee wondering what happened to the 150-inch buck he last saw on Labor Day. Sam walked in and asked, “How’d the last weekend of gun season go, Joe? Did you get a crack at that big buck?”

“Never saw him. Neither did any of the neighbors. Maybe the coyotes got him. Maybe he wandered off, got in a fight, or got hit by a car and died. Didn’t see many deer at all. Hard to say.”

Conversations like these took place in more than a dozen states where white-tailed deer are a popular target. States that normally harvest more than 100,000 deer saw precipitous declines over the last two years, prompting thousands of hunters to wonder why. Where are all the deer? Has the herd been decimated by disease? Are predators and poachers to blame? Over-harvest? Habitat loss? Bad weather?

Midwestern hunters saw steep declines in harvests from 2012 to 2014: Ohio was down almost 20 percent; Illinois down 19 percent; Wisconsin down 17 percent; and Missouri down 17 percent. Indiana and Iowa were hardly any better at about 12 percent each, but Minnesota and Michigan were even worse—down 24 and 22 percent respectively.

Pennsylvania hunters ended the season with similar declines. They harvested fewer deer than in any season since the controversial herd reduction and antler restriction program began in 2002. Although the 2013 Pennsylvania harvest rose slightly from 2012, the 2014 harvest was down 11 percent from 2012.

South of the Mason-Dixon line, West Virginia and Virginia also saw dramatic reductions in deer harvests. West Virginia was off 21 percent and Virginia was off 10 percent. Keep going south. North and South Carolina harvests dropped by 8 and 7 percent respectively.

Add all the numbers up, and these states produced almost a half million fewer deer in 2014 than they did in 2012. To compare, that would be as though two states in the heart of whitetail range—Pennsylvania and Ohio—harvested almost NO deer for a year. No wonder hunters are asking so many questions.

What’s going on? Can the total percentage drop of 15.9 percent in these leading whitetail states mean 13 state game departments are all on the wrong track?

Water cooler talk sometimes reflects well-informed opinions, but it often focuses the limited view of the person speaking and magnifies personal disappointment. The insight of game managers is broader. They study patterns, conduct research, consult with other experts, and monitor herds for the long term. So, I contacted a few deer specialists in these states to hear their thoughts.

Upper Midwest
Word in the Upper Midwest came from Kevin Wallenfang, Wisconsin Dept. of Natural Resources Big Game Ecologist, and Chad Stewart, Michigan Dept. of Natural Resources Deer Management Specialist. Severe winters of 2012- 13 and 2013-14 resulted in losses of deer in Wisconsin and the Upper Peninsula of Michigan.

Wallenfang also mentioned habitat, saying that “northern Wisconsin habitat quality is not what it used to be, especially on publicly owned lands where much of our deer hunting takes place.” Leslie McInenly, Minnesota Dept. of Natural Resources Big Game Program Leader, also attributed the declining deer population to winter kill, and a purposeful herd reduction over the past 10 years.

In addition to hard winters, Stewart also attributed the harvest decline in Michigan to fewer hunt- ers, delayed crop harvests in the southern region which provided more cover, and EHD outbreaks in the southern region.

Midwest States
Missouri, Illinois and Ohio have all been bringing deer populations down gradually over a long period. In addition, Missouri Dept. of Conservation Deer Biologist Jason Sumners pointed out that a nearly complete mast failure in 2012 made deer much more vulnerable to hunters, resulting in an abnormally high harvest that season.

Tom Micetich, Illinois Dept. of Natural Resources Deer Project Manager, said that regarding the two-year drop from 2012 to 2014, total permits for deer declined by 41,709, and Illinois had 21 fewer regional late-winter antlerless seasons open. It makes sense then, that making fewer deer permits available and reducing hunting opportunities will result in fewer deer harvested. Micetich added that Illinois was hit hard by EHD in 2012 and 2013.

Mike Tonkovich, the ODNR Division of Wildlife Deer Program Administrator, also cited efforts over several years to reduce deer populations to a socially accept- able level, and to a level the habitat is capable of supporting in good to excellent condition.

Mid-Atlantic Region
Pennsylvania Game Commission Deer and Elk Section Supervisor Christopher Rosenberry suggested three reasons why the deer harvest declined there.

“None of them,” he said, “support the view that the deer population has declined.”

He noted that antlerless tags were reduced from 2012 to 2014, that the length of firearms seasons were reduced in several Wildlife Management Units, and that heavy rain on one of the days the most hunters were in the woods all suppressed the 2014 harvest.

Matt Knox, the Virginia Dept. of Game and Inland Fisheries Deer Project Coordinator, attributed the reduced harvest to a variety of factors, and added that “fall 2014 was the biggest hemorrhagic disease year the department has documented in Virginia in the past two decades.”

The Carolinas
Charles Ruth, the South Carolina Dept. of Natural Resources Deer Project Supervisor, said habitat change and the rise of the coyote as a major predator since the turn of the century have had an effect on deer. He also noted that when 160,000 people attend home foot- ball games at major universities on the same weekend, many of them are firearms hunters who are not in the woods harvesting deer.

Coyotes have had a serious impact on populations in the Southeast in the last decade, including in North Carolina, which is where this monster spike shot by Dennie Bowman in 2013 came from.

Coyotes have had a serious impact on populations in the Southeast in the last decade, including in North Carolina, which is where this monster spike shot by Dennie Bowman in 2013 came from.

North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission Deer Biologist Jonathan Shaw said that a year of low harvest usually follows a year of high harvest. A case in point: following the 2001-02 record harvest, 2002-03 saw a 17 percent decline. In a public meeting, Evin Stanford, North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission Supervising Deer Biologist, said in a public meeting that another factor — a massive acorn crop — meant fewer whitetails were killed.

“From the coast to the mountains, we heard that hunters saw no deer,” Stanford said. “But if you hunted over bait and acorns were plentiful, you probably didn’t see many deer.”

A bumper acorn crop limits the need for deer to move for food, so their exposure to hunters is limited. Stanford even predicted that EHD would contribute to a harvest drop of 15 to 18 percent statewide over 2013. When the figures came in the one-year decline was 18 percent.

My survey of the declining harvest covered states that traditionally harvest more than 100,000 deer. Smaller states as diverse as South Dakota and Florida saw similar percentage declines. Whatever else is true, it’s clear that states differ widely in habitat, weather and predatory pressure. The effects of disease and cultural interests of hunters also differ. Deer biologists recognize that these questions have no one-size-fits-all answer, and are as ready as anyone to consider every factor that influences whitetail habitat, populations and hunting.

It’s also clear that reduced deer harvests usually don’t take deer managers by surprise. In some cases, the lower harvest was the expected outcome of issuing fewer tags, which was a response to a long-term intentional lowering of deer populations.

Across the whitetail range, managing the deer herd is challenging work. That raises an important question: Who wants to be responsible to maintain populations at a level that keeps everyone happy? Thankfully, there are people will- ing to do that. But perfection eludes them because they must constantly respond to the ebb and flow of deer populations caused by countless factors, many of which are outside their control. And one might even be a hidden time bomb—the fact that hunters themselves are on the decline.


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