Inside A County’s Decline In Deer And Deer Hunting

The author’s home county was once known for its great deer hunting, but locals say the Heard County hunting isn’t where it used to be.

Donny Karr | September 30, 2019

Heard County was once known throughout Georgia as a haven for deer hunting. After consistently producing some of the most impressive bucks in the state from the late 1980s through the 1990s, the county garnered a reputation as a top destination for both quality and quantity of deer.

As a child in the late 1990s, I remember my father taking my two brothers and I to our Heard County hunting club on the eve of opening day each fall. It was not uncommon to lose count of the number of deer we spotted in the fields and on the roadside as we made our way to deer camp late Friday evening.

Near the turn of the century, the potential for Heard County’s deer hunting was still shining as brightly as ever. However, in the years that followed, optimism for the county began to fade as hunters started to notice a slight decline in the overall number of deer they were seeing. For hunters like David Carroll, who was born and raised in Heard County and had hunted its woods since his childhood, the change became more evident with each passing season.

“We started to notice in the late 90s that we were seeing less deer than we used to,” says David. “Most hunters assumed it was just a temporary drop in population numbers, since there was so much hunting pressure. But, each year it kept getting worse and worse, until finally we realized that we had a problem with our deer numbers, and we couldn’t really figure out why.”

Much of Heard County’s 300 square miles consists of a combination of farmlands, planted pines and dense hardwoods. Two decades ago, nearly every acre of huntable land was part of a hunting club or was being hunted by someone eager to get a piece of the action. As the number of deer continued to fall, local businesses began to notice that the number of hunters started to match the trend.

From fishing to hunting, David Carroll is a quintessential Heard County outdoorsman. David watched his home county go from being a top deer hunting county to seeing fewer and fewer deer. It hasn’t improved even as hunter numbers dropped way off.

“My mother was the manager at Hardee’s in Franklin for many years, and she can tell you that the influx of hunters they used to see during the fall is just gone entirely,” says David. “Before 2000, if you went in that restaurant at 6 a.m., you wouldn’t be able to find a seat because it was absolutely packed with people in camouflage. Now, you might see one or two hunters in there each weekend.”

In the late 1990s, Heard was home to as many as eight different deer processing businesses scattered throughout the county. One by one, they all closed their doors as the deer population continued to dwindle.

By 2015, Heard County had been transformed. What used to be a small, rural Georgia county with untapped whitetail resources is now one in which the autumn season is as quiet as the rest of the year. The distant boom of a rifle is not a common sound in deer season like it used to be. For those who call Heard County home, the deer have simply vanished in some areas.

Doug Stephens is also a lifelong resident of Heard County and has operated a taxidermy business for more than 20 years. Like many other Heard County natives, Stephens believes that Heard’s reputation for whitetail greatness that once created a booming economy every fall season also contributed to its downfall.

Doug Stephens has lived in Heard County his entire life and runs a taxidermy business there. He said, as a whole, the county’s deer is nothing like it used to be.

“More and more hunters came in from outside the area, and just started to decimate the herd once the state raised the bag limit,” said Doug. “There are still pockets of deer around the county, but as a whole, it’s nothing like it used to be.”

Heard County’s native hunters have been searching for answers as to what has caused the steep decline in its deer population. Many local hunters point to the large increase in the county’s coyote population.

“I think we have decimated the population down to the point where the coyotes are now keeping the population down,” says David. “It seems like we have reached a point of no return with coyotes. We shoot them and trap them, but it doesn’t seem to have any effect on decreasing the population numbers.”

State deer biologist Charlie Killmaster said coyotes do have an impact on deer numbers as they are able to pick off young fawns. However, he added, “I wouldn’t expect (coyote predation of deer) to be much different than any other county in Georgia,” said Killmaster. “Coyotes have played a role in the decline of the deer population across the Piedmont region, but I don’t have anything that indicates to me that Heard would be any different than anywhere else in regards to the impact they have on deer numbers.”

Some locals point to timber harvesting companies as one of the culprits responsible for Heard’s downfall, but Doug and David both agree that overharvesting deer is one of the main contributing factors to Heard County’s overall crash in whitetail numbers.

“A lot of us try to blame the timber harvest, but I really think it’s overharvesting of deer,” says Doug. “They’ve been harvesting timber in the county since they quit planting cotton. Everything changed when they raised the overall bag limit in Georgia.”

Biologists have always maintained that bag limits don’t impact deer populations, that it’s the either-sex days that are the tool to regulate deer harvest. The reasoning from biologists is that regardless of the limit, the vast majority of deer hunters generally kill about the same number of deer each season.

The state began to increase the bag limits in the early 2000s. Georgia legislators voted to raise the limit in 2000 from five to eight deer.

When it was raised to a 12-deer limit in 2002, it was met with widespread opposition from hunters throughout much of the state. The WRD seemed to shirk responsibility for the new rules—despite asking for them—in a statement released to hunters who voiced their disdain:

“Concerning the deer bag limit, deer are the only game species that the department does not have the regulatory authority to adjust the bag limit. The deer bag limit is firmly established in state law, which may only be modified by elected members of the Georgia General Assembly. Thus, the regulatory tools available to the department to address biological issues relating to deer harvest are season length and either-sex days.”

In 2000, the WRD initially asked legislators to introduce a bill that would completely eliminate limits on antlerless deer. After much opposition, legislators agreed to compromise and increased the limit to eight. WRD again asked for unlimited harvest of antlerless deer in 2002, but state legislators voted to raise the limit to 12 deer.

WRD justified its requests to raise limits by citing concerns with deer populations in suburban areas and on large private landholdings, both of which have little hunting pressure.

At the same time deer limits were raised, every day of deer season was an either-sex day in Heard, much like most of the state at that time. Meanwhile, coyote populations were increasing, and they were killing deer. It was a perfect storm of bad news for deer in counties like Heard, where hunting actually takes place and is vital to the local economy.

For decades, the state has kept deer harvest estimates for each of Georgia’s five different regions. According to the WRD website, “Since at least 1962, WRD has used scientifically valid survey methodology to get estimates of harvest. Harvest estimates are obtained by asking a random sample of approximately 2,500 licensed Georgia deer hunters about their deer hunting effort and success during the most recent deer season. These results are then applied to the total number of deer hunters in the state. The 2,500 hunter sample size is more than adequate, statistically, to produce precise estimates of statewide harvest, effort, and success.”

In 2016, WRD began keeping county-specific deer harvest numbers with the introduction of Georgia Game Check, which requires each hunter to log their individual harvest into the system within 72 hours of taking a deer. Some number of hunters don’t use game check even though it’s required, so the harvest numbers are not precise, but here’s what has been reported:

Heard County Deer Harvest (Game Check numbers)
Season  Bucks  Does  Total
2016-17   694   559   1,253
2017-18   718   489   1,207
2018-19   641   536   1,177

Killmaster says the deer population in Heard County is undoubtedly lower than in previous years, but he noted the number of deer is now at a level that is more biologically sustainable.

“Since 1990s to now, there’s no question that there’s been a decline in the deer population,” says Killmaster. “That needed to happen from a biological perspective. Sometimes, what needs to happen from a biological perspective is not always desirable for hunters. I would suspect that the population in Heard County is now at a sustainable level, but I don’t have population estimates of Heard County.”

Killmaster said overharvesting likely played a role in the reduction of whitetail numbers in Heard County.

“There’s a lot of industrial forests there in the form of plantation style pines, and it could be that a lot of the hunting clubs tended to overharvest those sections of the county,” says Killmaster. “It could be that the deer population is more fragmented in Heard County. Heard still has a better buck harvest than 131 of the other counties in Georgia. It’s still one of the better counties in the state, and it’s in the top third of counties in Georgia for buck and doe harvest numbers.”

Poor management on the part of hunting clubs is an issue that has plagued Heard County since the implementation of the higher bag limits.

Killmaster cited a general rule that killing one doe per 150 acres will keep the deer population stable, while killing one doe per 75 acres will decrease the population.

“Some individual hunting clubs have way too many members,” says Killmaster. “For a lot of years, when we tried to reduce the population, people got used to killing a certain number of deer off a piece of land, and that’s just not sustainable. I would suspect that Heard County’s deer population is now at a sustainable level.”

However, local hunters feel that bringing back some buck-only days in 2013 instead of every day being either-sex has done little to help bring back the once thriving deer population in Heard. David Carroll and Doug Stephens are part of a growing number of hunters—at least in Heard County—who are calling for the introduction of county-specific harvest regulations.

“The state could create harvest regulations for each individual county if they wanted to,” says David. “Until that happens, I just don’t see our deer numbers ever being close to what they were. We had people coming in from other parts of the state who decided they weren’t going to renew their hunting lease and killed off as many does as they could before they left. They couldn’t care less, but the hunters of Heard County are left to deal with the aftermath.”

On the idea of introducing regulations specific to a county, Killmaster said it would overcomplicate already confusing guidelines.

“County-specific regulations are not a good thing because one of the biggest things that can impact hunting in a negative way is creating too many regulations,” says Killmaster. “There are already a ton of rules as it is. Any way that we further complicate the process that’s not biologically justified, for the purpose of micromanaging things, is detrimental to hunter retention. Some of our national forest doe-days are different from the county doe-days, and we have a lot of people killing does on the wrong days in those areas. It just doesn’t need to be more complicated than it is.”

For David Carroll and other hunters in Heard County, there is little else that can be done besides try to carefully manage their own hunting land.

However, that careful management hasn’t been effective in improving the deer hunting.

“It doesn’t matter if you manage your land to the point of not killing any does at all, there can be someone next door to you that’s shooting every doe they see each year,” says David. “It would make a world of difference for our little county if the state would let us go back to having a five-deer limit or even less. Until that happens, nothing will change for us.”

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