South Carolina Sees Decrease in 2009 Deer Harvest

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Results of the 2009 Deer Hunter Survey conducted by the S.C. Department of Natural Resources indicate that the statewide harvest of deer last season totaled 231,703, a decrease of 7 percent over last year. An estimated 120,365 bucks and 111,338 does made up this total, according to Charles Ruth, Deer and Wild Turkey Program coordinator for the S.C. Department of Natural Resources.

Since 1997, the S.C. Department of Natural Resources (DNR) Wildlife Section has employed an annual random mail survey to estimate the harvest of deer at the state and county level. This year's survey was sent to 25,000 hunters. Prior to 1997 deer harvest figures were dependent on Deer Check Station reports in the 18-county Upstate and reports from hunt clubs in the 28-county Coastal Plain.

"The old way of documenting the deer harvest had flaws including failure to report harvested deer and the fact that there was no reporting required in many cases," Ruth said. "Based on the survey work that has been done since 1997, it appears that the old system was documenting only about half of the deer being harvested annually in South Carolina, which is exactly why DNR is now using the survey technique."

Increasing rapidly through the 1970s and 1980s, the deer population in South Carolina has been stable to declining since the mid-1990s, according to Ruth. Although harvest figures were up slightly in 2008, the decline in 2009 is consistent with the declining trend reflecting about a 25 percent overall decline from the record harvest established in 2002. The reduction in harvest seen since 2002 can likely be attributed to a number of factors including habitat change. Although timber management activities stimulated the growth in South Carolina's deer population in the 1980s, considerable acreage is currently in even-aged pine stands that are greater than 10 years old, a situation that does not support deer densities at the same level as younger stands in which food and cover is more available. Wildlife population densities are directly tied to the habitat and since habitats are always changing, population densities are also always changing.

Also, coyotes are a recent addition to the landscape and are another piece of the puzzle. DNR is currently involved in a major study with researchers at the Savannah River Site investigating the affects coyotes are having on the survival of deer fawns. Based on the 2009 Deer Hunter Survey, South Carolina's deer hunters reported harvesting about 30,000 coyotes while deer hunting in 2009. They also took more than 36,000 feral hogs.

Harvest figures, like those provided by the 2009 Deer Hunter Survey, allow DNR biologists to reconstruct the deer population using computer modeling. It is a relatively simple procedure: plug in the number of bucks and does harvested along with age structure and reproductive data and the computer model determines the number of deer that were theoretically in the population prior to harvest. According to this modeling, Ruth said, South Carolinas' deer population peaked during the mid-1990s with just a bit more than one million deer in the pre-hunt population. Currently, the statewide deer population is estimated at about 725,000.

Nonetheless, South Carolinas' deer population is healthy, and the outlook for the 2010 season is good, according to Ruth. Hunters should not be overly concerned if the deer population is down compared to several years ago when the population reached its peak. DNR has been working to moderate South Carolina's deer population, and most hunters, to their credit, have recognized the fact that having fewer deer leads to better quality deer. Results of DNR's antler scoring program indicate that this may indeed be the case as the last five years have seen nearly 900 bucks successfully entered into the state records program.

Top counties for harvest in 2009 included Bamberg, Allendale, Union, Anderson, and Calhoun with each of these counties exhibiting harvest rates in excess of 15 deer per square mile, which should be considered extraordinary. Very few areas in the United States consistently yield comparable harvest figures.

All areas of South Carolina have long and liberal firearms seasons and the majority of deer (180,728) were taken with centerfire rifles in 2009. Shotguns (25,487 deer) and archery equipment (15,756 deer) also contributed significantly to the overall deer harvest, whereas muzzleloaders, crossbows and handguns combined (9,732 deer) produced less than 5 percent of the total statewide harvest. Other survey statistics indicate that 131,537 South Carolina residents and 15,402 non-residents deer hunted in the state in 2009. Based on hunters that deer hunted at least one day, overall hunting success in 2009 was 70 percent, which is outstanding. Resident hunters averaged about 16 days of deer hunting, non-residents about 14 days, and the total effort expended deer hunting in 2009 was estimated at 2,289,943 days.

Orangeburg, Colleton, Newberry, Williamsburg, and Spartanburg counties topped the list of counties with the most deer hunting effort. "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," Ruth said. About $200 million in direct retail sales is related to deer hunting in South Carolina annually.

South Carolina's natural resources are essential for economic development and contribute nearly $30 billion and 230,000 jobs to the state's economy.