COLUMBIA -- Results of the 2016 Deer Hunter Survey conducted by the S.C. Department of Natural Resources indicate the statewide harvest of deer decreased about 11 percent last season, not surprising given the poor hunting conditions last fall.
An estimated 99,678 bucks and 72,637 does made up a total harvest of 172,315.
Increasing rapidly through the 1980s and 1990s, the deer population in South Carolina has generally been declining over the last dozen years and results from 2016 continued that trend. The reduction in harvest can likely be attributed to a number of factors, including habitat change.
Although forest-management activities stimulated significant growth in South Carolina’s deer population from the 1970s through the 1990s, considerable acreage is currently in even-aged stands that are greater than 15 years old.
According to forest inventory data, during the last 20 years, the state's timberlands in the 0 to 15 year age class dropped 34 percent while timberlands in the 16 to 30 year age class increased 104 percent. These older stands are not as productive and simply do not support deer densities at the same level as younger stands in which food and cover is more available in the understory.
Also, coyotes are a recent addition to the landscape and are another piece of the puzzle. SCDNR has recently completed a major long-term study with researchers from the United States Forest Service Southern Research Station at the Savannah River Site investigating the affects coyotes are having on the survival of deer fawns. This research demonstrated that coyotes can be a significant predator of deer fawns, that predation by coyotes can be an additive source of mortality, and that efforts to increase fawn recruitment via coyote control provided only modest results and at high cost.
One cannot apply these results uniformly across the state because habitats, coyote densities, deer densities, etc. vary. However, coyotes are now well established in South Carolina, so they should be expected to play a role in deer population dynamics at some level.
That being the case, this “new mortality factor” combined with extremely liberal deer harvests that have been the norm in South Carolina are clearly involved in the reduction in deer numbers in the last decade. Given this and the difficulty and high cost of coyote control, it seems apparent that making adjustments to how we manage deer, particularly female deer, is more important now than prior to the colonization of the state by coyotes.
As it relates specifically to the decrease in harvest during the 2016 deer season, it should be noted that hunting conditions in South Carolina were poor during the fall of 2016. This began the first week in October with hurricane Matthew.
The magnitude of this event forced a flood-related temporary season closure for all game species in a number of coastal counties. Although these closures only lasted 5 to 10 days, the aftermath of Matthew created access and other problems for deer hunters.
The deer harvest in a number of coastal counties affected by the storm was down over 25 percent which dramatically affected statewide totals.
Additionally, hunting was negatively impacted across the state by unseasonably warm temperatures and what many called a record acorn crop, both of which negatively affected daytime movements by deer.
Recall that deer hunters faced similar poor hunting conditions in 2015 as a result of the 1,000-year flood spawned by hurricane Joaquin.
Provided that hunting conditions are more normal, the deer harvest in 2017 is expected to increase because many deer that would normally have been harvested the last two years were not and should be carried over at some level.
Top counties for harvest in 2016 included Calhoun, Hampton and Orangeburg in the coastal plain and Anderson and Spartanburg in the piedmont, with each of these counties exhibiting harvest rates in excess of 12 deer per square mile, which should be considered extraordinary. Although the harvest has declined in recent years, South Carolina still ranks near the top among Southeastern states in harvest per unit area.
All areas of South Carolina have long and liberal firearms seasons and the majority of deer (137,163) were taken with centerfire rifles in 2016. Shotguns (16,025 deer) and archery equipment (11,373 deer) also contributed significantly to the overall deer harvest, whereas muzzleloaders, crossbows and handguns combined (7,754 deer) produced less than 5 percent of the total statewide harvest.
Although the annual Deer Hunter Survey focuses on deer hunting activities, there are questions on the survey related to the harvest of wild hogs and coyotes in the State.
Results of this year’s survey indicate that approximately 28,513 coyotes were taken incidental to deer hunting, down 2 percent from 2015.
On the other hand, approximately 25,252 wild hogs were killed statewide representing a 25 percent decrease from 2015 likely related to pig mortality as a result of major coastal flooding two years in a row.
Other survey statistics indicate that approximately 124,589 South Carolina residents and 14,408 non-residents deer hunted in the state in 2016.
Deer hunters reported an overall success rate of 65 percent, which is outstanding. Overall hunting effort was estimated at over 2 million days.
The number of days devoted to deer hunting in South Carolina is very significant and points not only to the availability and popularity of deer as a game species, but to the obvious economic benefits related to this important natural resource. About $200 million in direct retail sales is related to deer hunting in South Carolina annually.
Complete details of the 2016 Deer Harvest Report are available on the SCDNR website at: http://dnr.sc.gov/wildlife/deer/2016DeerHarvestReport.html