Ethical Hunter

Counting White-tailed Deer Kill Totals

Ever Wonder How Deer Kill Statistics Get Totaled By State Agencies?

Deer Kill Check StationEach year, millions of hunters set foot in the woods and harvest millions of deer. We count these harvests as a way to manage the whitetail population and to attempt to quantify an area’s deer hunting opportunities. However, not all states determine their harvest totals using the same methods.


Means of coming up with a total harvest include surveys, mandatory registrations, car checks and physical counts in the field. But they can be divided even further. Some surveys are done online, over the phone or through the mail; and some mandatory registrations require physical check points while some can be done over the phone or online.

Counting deer harvests is something state wildlife agencies have experimented with for many years. Most states have switched up their methods more than once, and most continue to do so in an attempt to get the most accurate and convenient method while maintaining a reasonable budget.

Having mandatory registrations with check stations is a very accurate way of reaching a total because, in theory, each whitetail harvested is accounted for. However, many hunters oppose this because of the inconvenience, and the costs of managing check stations and hiring personnel to collect and analyze the vast amount of data can add up quickly.

Despite the downfalls, mandatory registrations are still very popular. Twenty-five states and four Canadian provinces use some sort of mandatory registration practice.

Surveys are also a very popular option for estimating harvest totals. Fourteen states and four provinces use surveys as their main method of calculating harvests.

Post-hunt surveys often include information such as the number of deer harvested, sex, age and weight of each deer, where it was killed, and what harvest method was used. Some surveys will even ask for a buck’s antler measurements so accurate records can be kept.

Most agencies that use surveys generate a random sample from a list of hunting license holders. They will then request the selected hunters complete a survey online, through the mail or over the phone. The idea is that the data from the selected sample should be representative of the total population.

The downfall of surveys is it is sometimes difficult to get hunters to participate if it isn’t mandatory. For example, each year South Carolina chooses 25,000 hunters at random to participate in its survey in an attempt to get reports from 15 percent of licensed hunters.

In 2009, South Carolina’s Department of Natural Resources received 6,501 surveys back, which was about a 26 percent response rate. However, when considering the number of hunters in the state, the survey only measured about 4 percent of the total hunting activity.

Some states are getting creative with their reporting methods and are choosing to incorporate new technology into their calculations. Many states now allow hunters to report their harvests online, and Arkansas has even developed its own harvest-reporting app for the iPhone.

In 2010 Idaho attempted to go completely paperless with its reporting. Agencies taking advantage of new technology are saving money as well as making hunting preparation more convenient for hunters. In most states, hunters can now purchase their hunting licenses online, and many allow deer tags to be printed from their website, too.

Not all states have been able to improve their calculation methods though, even with the help of advancing technology. Harvest calculations cost money, and with a declining economy in the past few years, some states have had to cut back on funding for wildlife agencies.

Florida has had spotty estimates for harvest totals since 2004 because of staffing cuts at the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission. Michigan had to eliminate some check stations in 2009 and 2010 because of budget cuts.

Other factors that affect harvest calculations are changes to the calculation method itself. Arkansas, Connecticut, Florida, Idaho and Texas have all recently altered their methods for estimating whitetail harvests. Most changes are simply new rules for surveys that will alter new harvest calculations slightly. However, in 2009 Texas changed its formula for estimated white-tailed deer harvests, which ultimately changed its harvest statistics for the last 10 years and put its 2008 harvest as the new all-time single-season record.

Texas still sends out mail surveys similar to many other states, but it has adjusted the non-responding bias correction factor, which has in turn increased the yearly harvest by more than 100,000 deer. The state’s wildlife authorities reported the bias correction factor was changed because of information obtained in telephone follow-ups to the mail surveys sent out in the 2005 to 2007 seasons.

Although many hunters consider harvest calculations to be inconvenient or intrusive, gathering information about each statewide harvest serves many purposes in managing wildlife. State wildlife agencies can use the information from these counts to set bag limits, estimate deer population, and assess hunter approval.

Wildlife agencies use the number of deer harvested each season to estimate how many deer are in the area. This gives them an idea of how many deer the state’s hunters should aim to harvest the next season. If the harvest estimate is inaccurate because of lack of reporting by hunters, it could lead to a significant imbalance in the deer population in future seasons.

For example, one way wildlife agencies estimate the total deer population using harvest is through the SAK (Sex-Age-Kill) method, which is used in Wisconsin. According to the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources, SAK is used when the hunting season is over and the total harvest is known. It uses the number of bucks harvested, the age structure of the harvested bucks and does, and the fawn to doe ratios that were observed during summer to estimate the number of deer in the state before the hunting season began. Then, to determine the post-hunt population, they multiply the total harvest by 1.15 (to factor in an estimated 15 percent non-recovered wounding and poaching mortality) and subtract from the pre-hunt population. This count is then used to set goals for the upcoming hunting season.

Because the surveys issued often include information beyond just the number of deer harvested, agencies can look at how satisfied hunters were with the season and make changes accordingly. Hunters who participate in surveys and follow mandatory registration rules ultimately help make hunting better for all who are involved.

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