2011 Georgia Deer Hunting Special

Huge jump in deer harvest experienced during 2010 season. Population estimates trending downward, but relatively stable.

Nick Carter | October 1, 2011

Nelson Guerriere, of Tampa, Fla., killed this 140-inch Ben Hill County 12-pointer on Nov. 7 last year after it came into a food plot a couple minutes behind a doe. GON’s rut map on the facing page shows an early or mid-November rut peak for Ben Hill County, which fits what Nelson saw in the woods.

Georgia deer hunters killed a pile of deer last season. You’d have to go all the way back to 1997 to rival the estimated 464,000 deer that hunters took out of the woods last year. It was an 18 percent increase in harvest over the 2009 season and continues the trend of growing hunter and harvest numbers since 2006.

Undoubtedly hunters were happy coming out of the woods with plenty of meat for the freezer last season, but at least some will be unhappy with lower deer sightings in the woods this year. Charlie Killmaster, WRD’s state deer biologist, said the current minimum population estimate of almost 914,000 deer is almost identical to last year. He attributed the stable number to good recruitment of fawns in most areas of the state this spring and summer, but he also predicted a rough season for hunters in some areas of the state.

Tough Times For The Blue Ridge

“Harvest was definitely up this year. But as luck would have it, so was recruitment in some regions,” said Charlie. “Where (recruitment) wasn’t (up), saw a decrease in population size.”

The Blue Ridge Mountain Physiographic Region in northeast Georgia, which is encompassed by WRD’s Deer Management Unit 1 (See page 22 for DMU info), experienced a surge in hunter participation and harvest last year. Coupled with poor fawn recruitment rates, which fell off almost 32 percent, population estimates are down by 11.6 percent. Hunters in the Blue Ridge might need to switch focus to thinning the booming black bear population this season.

“The Blue Ridge Mountain Region is going to have a tough time this year,” Charlie said. “They had a good year in 2009 due to a really good recruitment rate the year before, but I expect harvest to drop by 25 percent this year.”

On the other end of the spectrum is the Ridge and Valley Region in northwest Georgia, which is best represented by DMU 1. Although harvest was up, so was the recruitment rate — by almost 73 percent. It resulted in a population estimate increase of almost 8.6 percent. Charlie said he expects a high harvest from the Ridge and Valley this year. There are a lot of young deer in the woods.

With typical year-to-year fluctuations in the other three physiographic regions, Charlie said he expects a typical season for middle and south Georgia hunters, as the recruitment and population estimates for the Piedmont, Upper Coastal Plain and Lower Coastal Plain experienced similar fluctuations as recent years.

Are We Killing All The Deer?

For several years, GON has listened to and reported on poor seasons and falling deer sightings through our annual Rate Your Deer Season survey. The data gathered from WRD’s phone surveys indicate the opposite.

Since 2005, the number of hunters and annual harvest has been on the rise statewide, according to WRD. Also, the percentage of does in that harvest figure remains high. Last year, does made up 66.5 percent of the harvest. So, last year’s explosion in estimated harvest to more than 464,000 deer compared to this year’s population estimate of 913,649 means if we keep it up we’ll be killing 50 percent of the deer in the woods, and most of them will be does. That can’t last long.

You can imagine the hunters screaming at next year’s regulations meetings. However, WRD Senior Biologist Don McGowan said the harvest data must be taken with a grain of salt. It is based on numbers taken from licensing data and may be inflated. The total number of Georgia hunters jumped by 8 percent, from 304,327 to 322,224 from 2009 to 2010, a number that also may be inflated.

“I have seen some hunter-survey information that shows when the economy is down, then deer hunter numbers tend to increase; the explanation for that is that a lot of hunters are in the building and construction industry and when they don’t have work, they have more time to go hunting,” said Don. “Our data shows hunters, on average, did indeed hunt more days per person last year and harvested more deer per person.”

So, even though we don’t know the exact number of deer killed in Georgia, we do know harvest and hunter numbers have been trending upward as the deer population estimates have remained relatively stable, with a downward trend from more than a million animals in 2008.

Rising Hunter Numbers!

Everything we hear in the media tells us hunting is a tradition that is dying a slow death. That doesn’t seem to be the case for deer hunting in Georgia, according to WRD’s hunting license numbers (remember the aforementioned grain of salt). The figures for 2010 show an increase almost across the board for all types of licensed deer hunters.

The biggest jump, however, came from honorary license holders — hunters age 65 and older. Either WRD found more than 15,000 lost honorary license holders last year or there were a lot of Georgians who turned 65 and decided to start hunting. The number of honorary license holders jumped 39 percent from 40,588 to 56,277 from 2009 to 2010.

A Taste For Does

If you look at the table above, you’ll notice the percentage of does in the total harvest experienced a pretty significant spike during the 2009 hunting season, and that trend continued last year.

The 2009 hunting season was the first when folks across Georgia really felt the squeeze from credit and housing markets tanking. Speculation is the economy made meat hunters out of more of us, resulting in an increase in doe harvest. There’s one more thing we can blame on the bad economy.

The Arrival of Baiting

There aren’t any numbers to tell us how baiting in the Southern Zone will affect harvest and population numbers yet, but it’s certainly a hot topic, and the data from this year’s hunting season will be interesting no matter the results.

Here’s a biologist’s prediction:

“It will be interesting to see how baiting will affect the harvest in the Southern Zone this year,” said Charlie Killmaster. “I anticipate a sharp increase in harvest in both those (physiographic) regions, particularly for archery harvest. After a year or two, hunting pressure over bait will likely push deer more nocturnal and harvest will drop off, hopefully before any damage is done. If recruitment drops off in south Georgia this year, I anticipate a pretty rotten season next year with the combination of the two issues.”

WRD is conducting a study this season using radio collars to monitor how baiting affects deer movement. This should be very interesting information for hunters.

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