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When all is said and done, deer season went OK

3/20/2009

Deer hunters across whitetail country produced mixed results this past season, as unusually cold and rainy winter weather generally hampered hunting efforts in the northern tier of states, while relatively dry, mild weather in other areas encouraged more hunters to participate.

Changes in the number of antlered and antlerless deer that are allowed in various states from north to south also affected the success rates of hunters. Predictably, more whitetails were taken in the South, where most of hunting season was downright balmy.

Does were on everybody's hit list as wildlife managers continue to support efforts to reduce the deer population in states where they have become a nuisance to farmers and drivers.

Here's a quick rundown on how the season went down in some of the top deer-hunting states:

In the prime deer-hunting state of Wisconsin, the 2008 harvest was down 13 percent over the previous season. The numbers were skewed by the 25 percent year-over-year reduction in harvested deer in the northern counties where winter was especially harsh. Bad weather during the opening weekend of Minnesota's gun season in November was one of three causes for a decline in that state's deer harvest, according to Big Game Program Coordinator Lou Cornicelli. Reduced bag limits in some areas, and a smaller deer herd are two other causes.

"Our hunters got about 222,000 deer last season — 95,500 antlered and 126,500 antlerless," Cornicelli said. "If you're a glass-half-empty kind of guy, it wasn't such a good season; if you're a glass-half-full kind of guy, it was the eighth best season on record."

Of course, many Minnesota hunters remember the record season of 2003, when 290,525 whitetails were tagged, and they might be numbered among the glass-half-empty crowd. As far as the body count for 2008, about 40,000 fewer whitetails were taken last season in Minnesota that the previous five-year harvest average of 260,000.

"As usual, the southeastern and central counties checked in the highest numbers," Cornicelli said. "Still, we're not managing for records; we need to reduce our deer herd in a lot of areas. We're getting there, but we've got a ways to go."

Maine hunters likewise saw their deer harvest drop as precipitously as their 401K portfolios. Preliminary harvest numbers there indicate 21,062 deer were tagged, or 27 percent less than were harvested in 2007 and the lowest deer harvest since records were first taken in 1986.

Lee Kantar, deer and moose biologist for the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife, said frigid weather and record-setting snow packs caused deer to yard up an average of 140 days statewide, compared with the norm of 84 days. Anything beyond the average is considered bad for fawn survival, as deer soon exhaust natural food supplies, so the winter of 2008-09 will have repercussions for deer seasons ahead in New England.

Though the results of Michigan's annual deer survey won't be available until June, acting Big Game Specialist John Niewoonder doesn't expect 2008 to rank as a banner year. For one thing, following the discovery of a single farm-raised deer infected with Chronic Wasting Disease (CWD) in Hicks County last fall, the state's Department of Natural Resources banned baiting in the Lower Peninsula.

Hunters used to having deer come to them, or at least to their piles of beets and other handouts, were on their own. Even though the general gun season opened on a Saturday for the first time in years — a factor that usually bolsters hunter numbers and the harvest — the Nov. 15-30 season was rainy and unseasonably cool.

"Even with the bait ban in the Lower Peninsula, I think we're going to see pretty good harvest numbers," Niewoonder said. "The Upper Peninsula (U.P) is another story. We added some tag regulations that probably impacted the abilities of hunters to get a buck. It used to be that we had a lot of deer and not much hunting pressure, but that isn't the case now. I'm betting the harvest numbers will reflect fewer deer for the U.P., and a bit bigger harvest in the L.P — especially the southern counties.

In Ohio, where reducing the deer herd is job one for the DNR's Division of Wildlife, a record 252,017 deer were killed during the 2008-09 hunting season, an increase of almost 20,000 deer over the previous year and the most since the previous record of 237,316 were harvested in 2006-2007.

"I was very pleased with the season. Hunters were encouraged to take more does and they continued to put heavy pressure on the antlerless deer," says David M. Graham, chief of the Division of Wildlife. "But work remains to lower the deer population, particularly in eastern Ohio." This, in a state that resumed legalized deer hunting in 1943, when 168 whitetails were killed in the three-county area open to hunting.

Graham's assessment of the modern deer density in the eastern counties is reflected in the harvest statistics, though the greatest number of whitetails was taken in central Ohio counties around Columbus, especially in Coshocton and Tuscarawas counties. In a convincing display of their prowess with archery equipment, Ohio bowhunters tagged 85,856 whitetails compared to 117,468 for gun hunters. The rest of the harvest came during muzzleloader and youth-only hunts.

Pennsylvania recorded an improvement in its deer harvest, with 335,850 being tagged. That's four percent better than the 323,070 whitetails in 2007.

Last year, hunters killed 122,410 antlered deer, up from the 109,200 taken in 2007. Also, hunters harvested 213,440 antlerless deer in 2008-09, which is on par with the 213,870 antlerless deer taken in 2007-08. One aspect of the harvest that isn't such good news is that, of the antlered bucks killed, 52 percent were yearlings. And 22 percent of the antlerless deer harvested were button or "nubbin'" bucks — so much for quality deer management.

"This year's antlered harvest is on average with the harvest for the last five years," said Dr. Christopher Rosenberry, Game Commission deer and elk Supervisor. "The same holds true for the antlerless harvest; about one quarter of all the licenses issued were used to harvest an antlerless deer, which also is on average with the harvest success rate for the past five years."

As usual, the western counties, plus the wildlife management units (WMUs) that encompass the vast Allegheny, Moshannon and Elk National Forests produced the most deer. WMU 2D topped all units with 6,800 antlered whitetails and 12,000 antlerless deer.

In Virginia, the deer harvest was also up 4 percent. Hunters reported killing 253,678 deer, including 134,154 bucks (22,291 button bucks) and 119,524 does. Across the state, deer kill levels climbed in all regions. Though most Southern states don't require hunters to tag deer and report them, estimates in other states follow Virginia's example.

Texas had a good season for numbers, with approximately 400,000 whitetails killed out of a herd estimated at 3.9 million, but what has Lone Star State hunters talking these days is not so much the past but the future.

Considering what a cash crop deer have become in Texas, wildlife managers and pay-to-hunt ranch managers have grown concerned lately with the number of juvenile bucks being killed. As a result, the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department (TPWD) is proposing that antler restriction regulations be expanded to 52 more counties, which means that about 60 percent of the state would be covered.

To cushion the blow for meat hunters, however, TPWD plans to increase the antlerless harvest in the Trans-Pecos, Cross Timbers, Prairie and Rolling Plains counties. Longer seasons are proposed, too. The sweeping changes were the main topics of discussion at TPWD meetings around the state in February and March. Of course, not many of the changes will affect private ranches, which usually enforce their own, more stringent, harvest restrictions.

Most of the state's trophy bucks come from south Texas, which has been plagued by two consecutive years of antler-shrinking spring droughts. The trophy outlook for 2009 isn't looking much better in the Rio Grande Plains, nor in the Hill Country, which also has experienced severe drought this spring. East Texas and the Panhandle have been getting good soakings, however, and trophy projections in the northern regions of the state are expected to be decent.

"Our deer survey results for 2008-2009 won't be known until June, but I polled the eight district leaders and the consensus was that the season was average or maybe a little below average," said Mitch Lockwood, the state's white-tailed deer program leader. "The places where the numbers might be up slightly in quantity and quality are in the antler-restriction areas. So that tells us the restrictions are having an impact."

Antler restrictions in most states involve tine lengths and/or the number of tines. Texas takes a different tack, however, as it enforces spread restrictions; that is, any buck with less than a 13-inch antler spread must be spared. In Texas, that means a buck whose rack extends out on either side to the points of its ears when they are held in a normal, attentive position.

"What a spread restriction, or 'slot limit,' does for us is to allow hunters to take out bucks that might have, say, one spike on one side opposite a four-point antler," Lockwood said. "Inferior bucks can be removed from the herd, and young bucks with small-frame racks that might develop into what most hunters would regard as trophy bucks are protected."

Chad Dacus, coordinator for the Mississippi Department of Wildlife, Fisheries and Parks Deer Program, reports that hunters in that state had a "good, but not great" deer season. Hunting activity in the Magnolia State actually benefited from cool temperatures.

"We were right on where we have been in recent years," Dacus said. "I base that on checked deer at our wildlife management areas (WMAs). The harvest total on WMAs for 2008-2009 was up a little (2,478), though it didn't measure up to 2007-2008, which was phenomenal in terms of numbers and quality.

"I think some people were expecting lightning to strike twice last year, but it didn't happen. Still, we had a tremendous acorn crop last fall and the deer that people were checking in on our wildlife management areas were heavy and healthy. I expect that the deer harvest all over the state was pretty decent."

Next door in Alabama, Deer Study Project Leader Chris Cook says that the returns aren't in from the 2008-2009 seasons, but he expects the harvest to be "about average."

"We don't have any way of recording exactly how many deer are killed each year, but we do send out hunter survey forms and extrapolate some answers from that," Cook said. "We haven't gotten any of the surveys back yet, but we expect that they will indicate an average year, with about 420,000 deer harvested. That represents about 30,000 more deer than the previous year, but 2007-2008 wasn't a particularly good season for a couple of reasons.

"One, we changed from a buck-a-day limit to a three-bucks-per-season limit. Also, Alabama had a tremendous acorn crop in 2007, and the deer were more dispersed and less likely to walk out into food plots during daylight hours. So hunters didn't have as many chances."

Moving north again, the Illinois harvest count was down by more than 11,000 deer (188,425 in 2008 compared to 199,671 in 2007). "While the last week of our deer hunting seasons was extremely cold, those hunters who decided to brave the elements had some success," says Paul Shelton, manager of the IDNR Forest Wildlife Program.

In neighboring Iowa, wildlife officials logged 142,194 deer taken during 2008-09 hunting seasons, or 4,020 deer fewer than in the previous season, but winter wasn't the mitigating factor in the Hawkeye State.

"We're starting to see the harvest reflect what we have been seeing in our deer herd analyses, that the number of deer across the majority of Iowa has declined," said Tom Litchfield, state deer biologist for the Iowa Department of Natural Resources.

In fact, Iowa's deer herd has been reduced by an estimated 25 percent in the last few years, though by design as more emphasis has been placed on managing for trophy bucks. For the fourth year in a row, there were more does tagged in Iowa than bucks: 74,758 to 67,436.

Missouri's 2008-2009 firearms deer harvest was 238,819, or 21,343, (8.2 percent) fewer than the number of whitetails tagged in 2007. The Missouri Department of Conservation attributed the ho-hum season to several factors, including new antler-point restrictions, the effects of hemorrhagic disease outbreaks the past two summers in some (mainly southern) counties and harsh weather in the northern counties during firearms seasons.

In the Show-Me State, as well as in Kentucky, northern Arkansas and much of Tennessee, hunters reported killing a number of deer that had misshapen hooves — an indicator that they were survivors of the hemorrhagic disease (blue tongue) outbreak of 2007 that swept through the upper South.

While most of the states where deer hunting is the biggest game in town had their ups and downs, tiny Maryland claimed bragging rights for the best hunting season of all. For the first time in history, Maryland hunters tagged more than 100,000 deer — 100,437, to be exact. The previous record harvest came in 2002-2003 when 94,114 whitetails and sika deer were taken. The latest harvest included 32,221 bucks (an 8 percent increase over last year) and 59,987 does (a 10 percent increase over 2007-2008).

"Hunting license sales increased slightly last year, but we believe the major factor for the record harvest was that hunters increased their efforts to put more venison in the freezer during these lean economic times," notes DNR Deer Project Leader Brian Eyler. That's as good a rationale as any; after all, as the old saying goes, you can't eat horns.