Declining deer harvest numbers have raised eyebrows since the last season ended, but why did they happen?
It’s no secret in the hunting community that harvest rates are down. Talk at the deer hunting trade shows this winter was all about how disappointing the 2013 hunting season was, about how few deer many of us saw, and QDMA (the Quality Deer Management Authority) recently held its first-ever “whitetail summit” to discuss the growing worries of population and harvest decline.
The big question, of course, is what force or forces are causing the falling harvest numbers. We put together a list of seven factors that may be playing a role.
View the slideshow to see our supposed reasons for the declining deer harvest of 2013.
In many states, hunting experts have theorized that, in the current decline of deer harvests, we are seeing the effects of years of irresponsible overhunting of does.
For a long time, the quality deer management mantra was that harvesting lots of does would leave more food for the survivors, less exhausting rut seasons for the bucks, and overall healthier deer herds. In fact, for quite a few years now, there has been a belief in the hunting world that there was no such thing as shooting too many does.
Current evidence suggests that we have all been very wrong about that. In fact, doe populations in many areas have declined to such an extent that hunters don’t even see female whitetails in the field anymore. Naturally, this decline has led to smaller reproduction numbers, which has in turn lowered buck numbers and reduced herd sizes.
RELATED: Is There a Nationwide Deer Shortage?
Unfortunately, human hunters aren’t the only ones guilty of over-harvesting deer. Recent studies have done a lot to suggest that predators, specifically coyotes, are having a much greater adverse effect on deer population sizes than you might think.
Part of the problem is rooted in human over-harvesting of does, in that hunters have cut down herd sizes to such an extent that they are now more vulnerable to predators than ever before. It figures, though, that if deer populations are shrinking and predator populations are burgeoning (which they are), then predacious beasts like coyotes could feasibly be sabotaging opportunities for deer herds to grow back to their former strength.
Even if hunters cease harvest of does and fawns entirely, predators might still be a strong enough force to prevent population recovery. In many areas predators are picking off lots of fawns, igniting a chain reaction that leaves many hunters with nothing to hunt. Aggressive predator control might be the best way to address this particular issue.
Poaching and unlicensed deer hunting are major problems, largely because it is almost impossible to estimate just how big an impact they are having on deer populations. A study by the Noble Foundation between 2008 and 2010 saw poachers kill eight of the 57 bucks that the organization had collared for study.
Unless poachers were specifically targeting the collared animals, the study suggests that poachers could be killing 14 percent of buck populations. How accurate this number is, of course, is difficult to judge, a fact that makes the job of deer management organizations that much harder. How can effective deer management strategies be put in place if we don’t know how many deer are being taken by unlicensed hunters?
4. Reduced interest in hunting
While obviously not the reason that many of us saw and killed fewer deer last fall than in previous years, many states have recently recorded a decline in hunting tag sales – a factor that is almost definitely contributing to the drop of overall state harvest numbers.
As finding deer becomes more difficult, fewer hunters are going to bother going to the trouble to buy a tag and spend time in the field, making this entry on the list both a “cause” and an “effect” of declining deer harvests at the same time.
The fear among hunters that deer diseases are presenting a major threat to herd populations tends to come in waves. Every few years, a severe outbreak of chronic wasting disease or epizootic hemorrhagic disease will devastate a deer herd in a specific region and leave wildlife management experts wondering what would happen if a wide-scale epidemic of one of these diseases got out and effected the nation’s deer herds across the board.
However, while these diseases – as well as others, such as cutaneous fibromas and Lyme disease – certainly present threats to the health of deer herds and to the overall level of deer harvests seen in different areas, they are not likely the driving force behind any major deer decline. Case in point was a study conducted in Missouri a few years back, which used radio transmitters to track deer and note causes of death. Only four percent (or eight deer) died of any disease-related cause.
6. Tough winters
It will be interesting to gauge the health of deer populations after this winter, which has been one of the coldest and longest on record in many areas of the country. Tough winters like this one can wear deer populations down and have a big impact on the overall health of the herd.
With that said, it’s not likely that winter weather is a primary cause of harvest decline across the board. Even in areas which never face tough winters – Florida, for instance – hunters have been noticing a clear decline of deer population sizes and harvest numbers.
RELATED: How Whitetails Handle the Winter
It may not be the cold winters themselves that are presenting arguably the biggest threat to deer herd health, though. On the contrary, what truly counts in the winter is the habitat and how it is equipped to help deer weather the storm.
Deer herds needs a balance of cover and food to survive the brutal winters described in the previous slide. The best cover, it seems, is provided by tough and durable evergreen conifers, which help to protect wooded areas from wind and prevent deep snow as well.
However, in the winter, most deer herds resort to feeding on woody browse to survive, which is provided entirely by the buds and twigs of shrubs, saplings, and more seasonal trees. Habitats that do not provide this balance, therefore, can become incredibly difficult places for deer herds to survive a long and hard winter.