GON’s 2006 Deer Special: Lowest Deer Harvest In 18 years

Hunter numbers last year dropped to a 33-year low, and deer harvest declined to the lowest total since the 1987-88 season.

Brad Bailey | October 1, 2006

Harvest Statistics By DMU

Hunters are becoming an endangered species. During the 2005-06 hunting season there were fewer hunters in the Georgia woods than since the 1972-73 hunting season 33 years ago.

Over just the past five years, the number of hunters in Georgia — licensed resident, non-resident and honorary license-holders — has dropped from 292,209 to 238,383, a decline of 53,826 hunters or 18 percent. Also alarming is the one-year crash between the 2004-05 season and the 2005-06 season when the number of hunters dropped 11 percent in one year!

With dramatically fewer hunters in the woods, the deer harvest also plummeted. Last year, 238,383 hunters killed 318,808 deer, a decline of 9 percent in the harvest following the 2004-05 season when the harvest dropped 16.4 percent. Last year’s total represents the lowest deer harvest in Georgia since the 1987-88 season 18 years ago when 281,000 deer were killed.

While some hunters are concerned that the liberal bag limit has led to the elimination of the deer herd, the state’s harvest number don’t bear this out. Most hunters kill only what they can put in the freezer, and they are further limited either by the amount of time they have to hunt or the expense of processing venison. Last season 42.2 percent of hunters — or about 100,500 hunters — did not kill one deer. Only about one out of 10 hunters killed more than three deer.

Estimated Deer population by DMU

The number of bucks killed by hunters continued to slide, down 7 percent last year to 128,320 last season on the heels of a 15 percent reduction the season before. Last season’s buck harvest was the lowest in 22 years.

Doe harvest also fell significantly last season to 190,488 deer, 10 percent lower than the preceding year, which had dropped of 17 percent.

John Bowers is an assistant chief of Georgia’s Wildlife Resources Division’s Game Management Section. According to John, a significant portion of the drop in harvest can be attributed simply to fewer hunters in the woods.

“Harvest is a function of hunter numbers,” said John. “Hunter numbers have been dropping as older hunters die and aren’t being replaced. It’s a trend that we have seen coming as the hunter population ages.”

The average age of a hunter in Georgia has moved continually upward into the 45- to 50-year-old bracket, said John. Roughly 25 percent of Georgia’s hunting population is above 55 years old. That segment of the population is beginning to die off.

At the other end of the scale, hunters under 35 comprise less than 22 percent of the hunting population; and hunters under the age of 18 comprise less than 2 percent of hunters. The new generation of hunters simply isn’t there.

Brian Roberson of Fort Valley, killed a Peach County 9-pointer with his bow that netted 138 4/8 inches.

There are other pressures on hunting that have caused more hunters to drop out recently. The loss of hundreds of thousands of acres of International Paper and Weyerhaeuser land that was traditional hunting land in middle Georgia has meant the demise of large numbers of hunt clubs. Hunters on some of these decades-old clubs, particularly the older-age-class hunters have been unable or unwilling to relocate.

The cost of holding a lease continues to rise, making hunting a more and more expensive proposition. This on top of high gasoline prices both take away from discretionary income that might be used on hunting, and also makes a trip to the hunting lease more expensive.

Other factors may have contributed to last year’s precipitous drop of one out of 10 hunters.

“There are a lot of armed forces in the state,” said John. “A lot of them are overseas. That could account for several thousand hunters.”

WRD’s pre-season deer population estimates placed the Georgia deer herd at just over 1 million deer ahead of the 2004-05 season. While that number represents a reduction of about 7 percent from the preceding year, John says the reduced harvest is more about fewer hunters and hunter desires than the size of the deer herd. Many hunters are simply choosing not to pull the trigger.

“Sixty-one percent of hunters last year did not shoot a buck,” said John. “You can speculate about why they didn’t — they may have been passing up small bucks or didn’t see one they wanted to shoot. The upside is that the harvest has changed more than the deer population. Those deer are still out there, and they are living to older age classes.”

WRD deer-herd reconstruction numbers seem to bear this out. As the charts on page 70 show, the percentage of bucks surviving into the 2 1/2 and 3 1/2 plus age classes has been increasing progressively. In the 1970s more than 75 percent of the buck harvest was yearlings — if it had an antler showing it went down. Last year, yearlings made up just 43 percent of the buck harvest. Hunter attitudes have changed. Many hunters are less interested in shooting a small buck and are passing up smaller deer while they wait on a wallhanger. That attitude has allowed more young bucks to survive and pushed buck harvest lower.

An additional concern is a decline in participation by active hunters. According to state numbers, last year the average hunter devoted 15.5 days to the sport. That’s down more than a full day from the 16.8 days-per-hunter rate of the 2004-05 season.

According to a survey of Georgia hunters by Responsive Management, the reason hunters mentioned most often for not hunting was a lack of time. The constraints of working and family are a limiting factor in the amount of time hunters are spending in the woods.

Lower hunter numbers will make deer management in the future a challenge.

“Hunters often say that managing the herd is one of the reasons for hunting,” said John. “But if 61 percent of hunters aren’t killing a buck and 61 percent of hunters aren’t killing a doe, how well are they doing their job? For the guy who has hit five deer with his vehicle, you aren’t doing your job, and he may want to fire you and find another way to deal with the deer population. If there are fewer hunters and they are choosing not to shoot deer, how do you manage the deer herd? It’s a concern. How do you manage 1 million deer that could be on the edge of a population explosion, and you are losing hunters?”

A challenge for the hunting community is how to increase participation, and how to recruit young hunters.

“If every hunter made the effort to recruit one new hunter we could have an impact,” said John. “Do we care enough to do something about it?”

Georgia’s Deer Management Plan identified deer-donation programs as one effort with potential to increase deer harvest.

“Hunters can take the initiative to help manage the local deer herd and provide venison for the needy in their community through church outreach programs,” said John. “Hunters can set up programs to donate deer to processors in partnership with local churches. The church programs pick up and distribute the meat in the community, and the processing is paid for as part of the church’s outreach mission.”

This is already being done in a number of Georgia communities. See page 61 for a list of deer processors who will accept donated deer.

While hunter numbers and harvest dropped significantly last season, the upside for hunters going into the 2006-07 season is that there should be the highest percentage of 2 1/2-year-old and older bucks in the Georgia woods than ever before.

Overall, John said he anticipates a good deer season ahead.

“I expect the deer harvest this year will stabilize at last year’s level or with increase,” he said. “Statistically, our hunter-number estimate is cautious, and the numbers may be higher.

“The acorn crop looks good. There’s a good number of deer available. If the weather doesn’t interfere, it should be a good year. I think we will see a lot of nice bucks — older-age-class bucks — this year.”

Harvest By Age

Georgia Hunter Numbers Decline
The Five Year Drop: 292,000 hunters to 238,000:

Hunters: 292,209
Harvest: 446,000
Bucks: 193,100
Does: 252,900
Deer/per Hunter: 1.5
Hunter Success: 60.3


Hunters: 279,863
Harvest: 410,000
Bucks: 150,500
Does: 260,000
Deer/per Hunter: 1.5
Hunter Success: 56.4

Hunters: 263,552
Harvest: 417,285
Bucks: 162,324
Does: 254,961
Deer/per Hunter: 1.6
Hunter Success: 59.0

Hunters: 268,561
Harvest: 348,760
Bucks: 138,000
Does: 210,760
Deer/per Hunter: 1.3
Hunter Success: 51.0

Hunters: 238,383
Harvest: 318,808
Bucks: 128,320
Does: 190,488
Deer/per Hunter: 1.3
Hunter Success: 51.0

More Older Bucks
The percentage of 1 1/2-year-old bucks in the Georgia deer harvest continues to decline. In the 1970s, yearling bucks comprised more than 75 percent of the buck harvest. Last season yearling bucks made up only 43 percent of the buck harvest. The buck harvest chart below demonstrates the variations in the percentage of age classes of bucks by Georgia Deer Management Zones. (The DMU map is printed on page 70.) The chart on the right below shows the trend since 1990 of a decline in 1 1/2-year-old bucks in the season harvest. This statewide trend has been fueled by hunters’ self-imposed quality-deer-management attitudes that allow more young bucks to walk. Last year 61 percent of hunters did not kill a buck. While buck harvest is down, the good news is that more of Georgia’s bucks are growing older, with a greater percentage than ever moving into the 2 1/2-year-old and older category. For hunters, that means a better chance at a mature buck — especially in the south-Georgia DMUs 6, 7, and 8.

Percent Success For Bucks 2005-06
Number in parenthesis is the comparative percentage from 2004-05 season.
61.0% of hunters killed 0 bucks. (65.6)
27.9% of hunters killed 1 buck. (23.3)
10.2% of hunters killed 2 bucks. (9.5)
1.1% of hunters killed 3+ bucks* (1.5)
(*Can be done legally using bonus tags at WMA and/or NWR hunts).

Deer Population
Georgia’s deer population estimate dropped 7.9 percent from 1.1 million two years ago to 1 million ahead of the 2005 season.

Total Harvest Drops Again
Hunters killed 318,808 deer last season, down from 348,760 a year earlier. That represents the lowest total harvest since the 1987-88 season. Modern firearms hunters took 85.9 percent of the harvest, (shown in red). Archers (including crossbow hunters) ranked second with 9.7 percent (yellow) and muzzleloader hunters (blue) took 4.3 percent of the total harvest.

Buck Harvest Down
Georgia’s buck harvest dropped to 128,320 last season, that’s 9,680 fewer bucks, and a decline of 7 percent from the previous year, and represents the lowest number of bucks in the harvest since the 1983-84 season — 22 years ago.

Doe Harvest
Georgia deer hunters killed 190,488 does, down from 210,760 in 03-04, a decline of 10 percent following a season with a decline of 17.3 percent. It is the lowest doe harvest since 1995.

Hunter Numbers
The state estimates that there were 238,383 deer hunters last fall, including 24,788 non-resident hunters and 27,885 honorary-license holders. Hunter numbers dropped by 11 percent in one season.

Success Rates
Fifty-six percent of Georgia hunters killed at least one deer, an increase from the 51 percent hunter-success rate a year earlier.

Days to Deer
The average deer hunter required 14 days in the woods to kill a deer. Bowhunting required the most time, 28.2 days.

Hunting Numbers Falling 2001 to 2005
Hunters -53,826 (-18.4%)
Harvest -127,192 (-28.5%)
Buck harvest -65,837 (-33.5%)
Doe harvest -64,412 (-24.6%)

Doe Harvest Continues to Slide
After the 2004-05 season’s doe harvest decline of 17 percent to 210,706 deer, last season’s harvest dropped an additional 10 percent to 190,488. Overall, does comprised 60 percent of the harvest. Hunters using bows and arrows were most likely to kill a doe. Does made up 76 percent of the archery kill. Muzzleloader hunters were also ready and willing to take slickheads. Sixty-six percent of the smokepole harvest was does. Firearms hunters weren’t bashful about taking antlerless deer either: does comprised 59 percent of the modern firearms harvest.

Doe Harvest 2000-2004
2000 222,000
2001 252,900
2002 260,000
2003 254,961
2004 210,760
2005 190,488
Doe harvest between 2004 and 2005 dropped by 10 percent. Since the doe harvest peaked in 2002 at 260,000, the percent decline is 25.3 percent.

Success Rate For Does, 2004-05
61.6% of hunters killed 0
19.4 % of hunters killed 1
9.2 % of hunters killed 2
4.2 % of hunters killed 3
2.5 % of hunters killed 4
1.1 % of hunters killed 5
0.8 % of hunters killed 6
0.4 % of hunters killed 7
0.7% of hunters killed 8 or more
(0.7 hunters is approximately 16,686 hunters.)

Great Year For Big Bow Bucks
Brian Roberson of Fort Valley, pictured at left, killed a Peach County 9-pointer with his bow that netted 138 4/8 inches. Brian was among 40 Georgia bowhunters who killed a Pope & Young class buck last year ranking the 2005-06 season as the second best ever for big bow bucks behind 2001 when 45 were killed. Total harvest by bowhunters, however, dropped 28 percent from 42,441 deer in 2005 to 30,924 deer last season. Overall, 34 percent of Georgia hunters hunted with archery equipment (which includes crossbows). The total number of archers was 81,050 — a decline from the previous season of 9 percent. Archers killed 30,924 deer, or 9.7 percent of the total harvest. After a down year in 2005 when the archery buck harvest dropped by 60 percent, the buck harvest by bowhunters last season improved by 43 percent to 7,422. The overall archery success rate was 24 percent, and the average bowhunter had to put in 28.2 days of hunting effort to kill a deer. Crossbow hunter numbers totaled 21,454, a decline of 6 percent, and they took 9,564 deer, an increase of 2 pecent. Crossbow harvest comprised 19.7 percent of the archery harvest but only 3 percent of the overall season harvest.

Smokepole Hunters
The percentage of Georgia hunters who hunted with a muzzleloader at any time during the season was up slightly last year at 22 percent. But with overall hunter numbers down, the number of muzzleloader hunters was down by 4 percent to 52,206. Muzzleloader hunters killed 13,709 deer (down 1 percent). Muzzleloader hunters averaged 14.4 days in the woods to take a deer. Surprisingly, the muzzleloader success rate of 22 percent was lower than the success rate for bowhunters. About 4.3 percent of the season harvest total fell to muzzleloader hunter.

Harvest Summary by Weapon, 2005-06
(resident hunters, non-resident, and honorary license hunters)

Modern Firearms
Hunters Using This Weapon*: 228,848
Percent of Hunters*: 96%
Hunter Success Rate: 54%
Deer Harvest: 274,175
Percent of State Harvest: 85.9%
Total Bucks: 112,412
Total Does: 161,763
Percent Does: 59%
Average Deer Per Hunter: 1.2
Average Days Hunted To Kill a Deer: 13.1
Average Days Hunted: 15.5

Hunters Using This Weapon*: 52,206
Percent of Hunters*: 22%
Hunter Success Rate: 22%
Deer Harvest: 13,709
Percent of State Harvest: 4.3%
Total Bucks: 4,661
Total Does: 9,048
Percent Does: 66%
Average Deer Per Hunter: 0.3
Average Days Hunted To Kill a Deer: 14.4
Average Days Hunted : 3.8

Hunters Using This Weapon*: 81,050
Percent of Hunters*: 34%
Hunter Success Rate: 24%
Deer Harvest: 30,924
Percent of State Harvest: 9.7%
Total Bucks: 1 7,422
Total Does: 23,502
Percent Does: 76%
Average Deer Per Hunter: 0.4
Average Days Hunted To Kill a Deer: 28.2
Average Days Hunted: 10.7

*Hunter numbers do not add up to state total, and percentages do not add up to 100, because many individual hunters use a combination of weapons, or all three.

Overall Deer Hunter Success Summary
Last year, more than 42 percent of Georgia hunters — or 100,120 hunters — did not kill a deer. The highest percentage of successful hunters were the 22.1 percent, or approximately 52,682 hunters, who killed one deer. The state’s numbers below deflate the arguement that liberal bag limits will wipe out the deer herd. Most hunters kill only what they can use, or may not have the time to spend afield to kill additional deer.
44.2% of hunters killed 0
22.1% of hunters killed 1
16.3% of hunters killed 2
7.4% of hunters killed 3
4.2% of hunters killed 4
2.2% of hunters killed 5
1.1% of hunters killed 6
0.6% of hunters killed 7
1.8% of hunters killed 8 or more

Josh Tinsley of Cumming started the 2006-07 season with a Forsyth County Pope & Young buck. The 10-pointer, shot Monday evening, September 11, was feeding on acorns. “It’s the biggest buck of my life,” he said. “My hunting will be downhill from now on.” The buck grossed 142 1/8 inches.

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