A young female hunter with her buck.
Mossy Oak

North American Whitetail Deer Harvest Tops 6.3 Million, the Highest in the 21st Century

North American deer harvests hit a high for the 21st century in 2020-21.

It seems like we get nothing but bad news regarding hunting these days, but there is finally something positive to report from the 2020-21 whitetail deer seasons, and that is the largest harvest of bucks in the 21st century.

In the latest Deer Report issued by the National Deer Association, records show that 6.3 million whitetails were harvested across the United States and Canada during the many seasons held in the included states and provinces.

Most notably, the NDA was able to estimate an antlered buck harvest of 3,041,544, which is an increase of 5.3% year-over-year, and an antlerless harvest of 3,207,937. For a little perspective on just how important that is, it's the first time since 1999 there's been three million bucks harvested. It's also the first time since the end of the 20th century that both categories of deer have reached that number.

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In another indication that "the times, they are a changing," the numbers also seem to indicate a bigger trend towards harvesting more mature deer. Harvest trends used to skew heavily in favor of 1 ½-year-old bucks. However, those numbers have been steadily declining since 2001, while the number of bucks that reach 3 ½ years and older harvested each year has gone up. The NDA estimates 1.2 million, or approximately 41% of the overall buck harvest, was animals at least 3 ½ years old.

"2020 saw the highest buck harvest in the new century, and amazingly we estimate that we set another new record for the percentage of those bucks that were 3 ½ years old or older," NDA Chief Conservation Officer Kip Adams said in response to the data. "U.S. hunters are taking fewer yearling bucks and killing more of them as mature deer, but this doesn't mean fewer bucks harvested overall. We're killing older bucks and more bucks than ever in America."

This data seems to indicate what many of us already knew: more hunters are passing up the young ones in hopes of bagging a bigger, older, more mature buck. The data also lines up with the numbers indicated by many state wildlife agencies in 2020 during the height of the Covid-19 pandemic. During that time, many states received an unexpected-yet-welcome increase in hunting and fishing license sales, which was likely the result of more people wanting to get outside after being cooped up indoors for too long. The Michigan DNR, for instance, reported a staggering 121.61% increase in deer hunting license sales just through October of that year.

And they weren't alone. The NDA says hunting license sales increased by about five percent over 2019's numbers. In fact, Michigan ranked second for antler buck harvests in 2020 with 219,387 animals. They were second to Texas, which has always been at the top of these kinds of lists, with 449,933 antlered bucks taken.

Digging further into NDA's harvest report, Wisconsin, Ohio, and New York rounded out the top three states for the highest percentage of yearling bucks in the harvest. That isn't too surprising given the rich hunting traditions of these states.

Meanwhile, Arkansas was the state with the lowest percentage of yearling bucks in the harvest at only six percent, perhaps marking the Gem State's status as a hidden gem for whitetails. Oklahoma and Louisiana rounded out the top three.

Prior to the 2020 seasons, the NDA had noted a three-year decline in antlerless harvests. From 2017 to 2019, the antlered deer harvest was higher than the antlerless harvest. Not only was the antlerless harvest higher than the antlered harvest, but 2020 was also the first time hunters took more than three million antlerless deer since 2013.

There's a lot of interesting data within this extensive report. You can read and download the complete report for free at the National Deer Association website. For now, we're taking this as a glimmer of hope among all the dark headlines around hunter numbers and harvests that we've seen in recent years. We just hope the trend can continue.

For more outdoor content from Travis Smola, be sure to follow him on Twitter and check out his Geocaching and Outdoors with Travis YouTube channels