South Carolina Recommending a New Comprehensive Approach for Deer Management

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The S.C. Department of Natural Resources (DNR) is recommending a new comprehensive approach to managing the state's important white-tailed deer population. South Carolina deer hunters have been requesting changes for some time. Since 2003, DNR has conducted public meetings and surveys to determine hunters' attitudes related to future deer management in the state and the results indicate broad support for change.

DNR's governing board has discussed this issue on numerous occasions during the past year, voting at the Dec. 17, 2010 DNR Board meeting to support a statewide limit of 4 bucks per hunter per year and a mandatory deer tagging program whereby all harvested deer (bucks and does) must be tagged at the point of kill with tags provided by the department. A nominal fee of $5 per tag for residents and $25 per tag for nonresidents is proposed. All youth hunters, resident gratis and lifetime licensees could receive buck and doe tags at no cost. The number of doe tags available to each hunter would be determined annually based on management needs in addition to the proposed limit of 4 buck tags per hunter. The current recommendation is set at 4 doe tags per hunter with tags being valid on any day starting Sept. 15 in Game Zones 3-6 and Oct. 1 in Game Zones 1 and 2 (a lower number of doe tags would be valid in Game Zone 1 due to the lower deer population density). Under the new program, statewide "doe days" would be eliminated, but the Antlerless Doe Quota Program (ADQP) currently available to hunting clubs would be retained. The ADQP allows for the issuance of doe tags to individual tracts of property based on the deer management and agricultural objectives of the owner or manager.

In May of 2010, DNR contracted with an internationally recognized public opinion and attitude survey research firm specializing in natural resource and outdoor recreation issues. A telephone survey of randomly selected resident deer hunters was conducted, providing a statistical reliability of +1.6 percent at the statewide level and at least +3.94 percent at the Game Zone level. This was followed in September by an internet based survey that was open to the public and included direct notification to over 80,000 licensees. Prior to these recent surveys, DNR conducted 18 public meetings and completed a survey of the owners or lessees of 3.8 million acres of land enrolled in the Antlerless Deer Quota Program.

Results of the various surveys and public meetings have been consistent since the process of determining public opinion began several years ago. Overall, a minimum of 70 percent of hunters support the concept of a reasonable limit on antlered bucks and the implementation of a tagging program that would provide for enforcement of such a limit. Additionally, a minimum of 70 percent of hunters indicate that they would support paying a modest fee to implement such a tagging program, as long as the fees are used to administer the program and to conduct deer research and management.

Read a complete summary of DNR's efforts to document public opinion on future deer management.

White-tailed deer are the official state animal and the most economically important game species in South Carolina. There is currently no enforceable limit on the number of bucks a hunter can take during the season. Although there is a 5-buck limit prescribed by law in the two Upstate Game Zones, these limits have never been enforceable. In the four coastal plain Game Zones state law specifies there is "no limit" on antlered deer. This lack of a reasonable bag limit on bucks in the Palmetto State is in stark contrast to the approach in other states and to the approach with other fish and game species in South Carolina which typically have bag limits.

Most hunters perceive that the current system leads to overexploitation of bucks, particularly young bucks, resulting in a poor overall management approach. Annual deer harvest figures support hunters' allegations that some hunters take unfair advantage of the lack of bag limits. Recent harvest data indicates that only 4 percent of hunters take more than 5 bucks annually, however, as a group these hunters take 20 percent of all the bucks in the state each year. Similarly, only 11 percent of hunters take more than 3 bucks each year, but they take 43 percent of all the bucks annually.

Other data also supports hunters' desires to see a more conservative approach. Although there are still a few areas in the state that have high deer populations, the overall statewide population has moderated during the last 10 years resulting in an estimated 25 percent reduction. This is likely due to changes in habitat associated with forest composition and growth, urban/suburban development, and many years of extremely liberal deer harvests. Also, coyotes are a recent addition to the landscape in South Carolina and appear to be having a negative impact on deer. Deer in most areas are now well or slightly below the natural carrying capacity thus allowing for local adjustments in deer populations based upon the interest of the various communities.

DNR staff recognizes the interest of hunters in some areas for an increase in local deer populations. The requirement for the tagging of all deer, bucks and does, will provide the tools for total deer herd management. DNR will continue to address habitat change and will continue to encourage landowners and hunters to harvest coyotes.

Coyotes arrived in South Carolina through natural movements from adjoining states, but were also illegally brought into the state for hunting purposes. Current research being conducted at the Savannah River Site by the U.S. Forest Service and DNR indicates that coyotes are significantly impacting the survival of deer fawns. The study, now in its fourth year, indicates that annual fawn mortality through all causes is about 70 percent, which is much higher than expected, and that coyotes are responsible for approximately 80 percent of these mortalities. If these findings even moderately represent a statewide situation, this "new mortality factor" combined with extremely liberal deer harvests and lower deer populations are a cause for concern. It should be noted that based on the experience in other states, it is highly unlikely that coyotes can be significantly reduced, and certainly not eliminated. Therefore it is more important than ever the one factor that can be controlled (the hunter harvest of deer) be more carefully managed.

Although DNR can make recommendations, any changes to the current deer hunting laws require action by the South Carolina General Assembly. The DNR Board proposal will be incorporated into the DNR's Legislative Proposal for the 2011-12 session.