Where Have All The Georgia Deer Gone?

WRD considers raising deer limit from 12 to 17, despite 2004 being another poor season and according to hunters, far fewer deer.

Brad Bailey | March 7, 2005

From Randolph County to Elbert County, from the mountains to the coast, the cry from deer hunters is the same: “The deer are all gone.”

Adam McGinnis hunts in Jasper County and has noticed a sharp decline in the number of sightings over the past several years.

“The deer population is down,” he said. “You just don’t see any deer. During the rut everybody was saying, ‘Where are the deer?’ You could sit there for three days and not see a deer.”

According to Adam, the reason for the decline is overharvest.

“The decline is totally related to the number of deer that can be harvested,” he said.

In Franklin County, Bart York agrees that the deer population has dropped.

“We don’t have the deer we used to, no doubt about it,” said Bart. “I have a food plot of pure alfalfa and clover and all that has been in it are two does and two fawns. The deer are just not there. You can walk around an old logging deck and look in the mud, and there won’t even be any tracks. It is pretty discouraging.”

That sentiment is echoed in Monroe County by Yancey Houston.

After the 2004 season, many Georgia hunters are saying they had difficulty seeing a doe — or even a deer track, last season.

“I took a friend to some property west of (Forsyth). He killed a doe on opening day. He hunted 24 more times and did not see another deer. The sign is not there, the sightings are not there — in the woods or in the fields. You used to be able to see deer in the hay fields or kudzu patches, but you don’t see them any more. In the popular hunting areas, the high limits have allowed the deer herd to be shot down.”

In south Georgia, hunter opinion is the same, said WRD biologist Wes Abler in Fitzgerald.

“Most of the clubs I have talked to say they had a marginal year in terms of deer sightings and harvest,” he said. “They swear that there are no deer anymore. But they had plenty of deer last year. Traditionally these clubs don’t harvest much, so I don’t imagine they have overharvested.”

In the January issue of GON, we asked our readers to rate their deer season. What we received was the highest-ever percentage of hunters rating the past season as “Poor” — 45.5 percent, compared to an average “Poor” rating of 19.9 over the past decade.

What Happened?

“The poor season was pretty much universal,” said WRD biologist Kent Kammermeyer in Gainesville. “The weather, deer-movement patterns, and a bumper crop of acorns all came together over a wide area. The WMAs were down, and a lot of the clubs were down, too.”

The harvest during the early part of the season is critical, says Kent. Last season the early harvest was off, due primarily to too-hot-to-hunt weather.

“If you don’t get them early in the season, the deer head for the thickets or start operating at night,” he said. “They get harder to kill. The does have adapted and learned to lay low, and they are not as easy to kill as they used to be.”

The expectations going into the season were high, which made the slow season a bitter pill to swallow.

“The 2003-04 season was exceptional,” said Kent. “We had a very high harvest, and it may have been the best year ever for antlers.”

One year after the exceptional year, harvest was apparently down significantly.

Deer-Cooler Numbers Drop

With few exceptions, the number of deer taken in by deer coolers across the state was down significantly. Most cooler operators that GON spoke with realized a decline of 20- to 30 percent.

In Jefferson, Don L. Sealey said the number of deer hunters brought to his facility were down about 25 percent, continuing a trend he has seen over the past three years.

“There are absolutely fewer hunters,” said Don. “And many of them are horn-hunters — they were just not shooting does.”

Don hunts a 1,000-acre Jackson County tract with 12 foot plots. He says he saw plenty of deer when he went hunting.

Bill Hilsman runs Hilsman’s Deer Cooler in Henry County. His numbers were off last season by 300 deer, or 15 percent from the preceding year.

“People were complaining that they were not seeing deer,” said Bill. “They aren’t passing up deer — they just aren’t seeing any. And I am not seeing them around the house. I have planted food plots, and they are not eating the plots.”

Bill feels that development in Henry County accounted for about half the drop in the deer he takes in.

Bill Fletcher is the new WRD Game Management chief.

“The numbers of deer turned in at coolers is a pretty good indication of what’s going on, and I expect that last season’s harvest will be down. We hit them pretty hard in some areas, and hunters are seeing the impact of that.”

The Deer Herd Is Down.

Are there fewer deer out there?

The answer is probably, yes.

The deer herd has likely been reduced, at least in some areas, after a record-high doe harvest during the 2003-04 season. The estimated 296,000 does made up 63.3 percent of the statewide harvest. In the Piedmont region alone, a record 165,400 does were killed (65 percent of the Piedmont harvest). That number is equal to the entire Piedmont harvest as recently as the 1994-95 season. The high percentage of does in the harvest likely had an adverse impact on recruitment of deer going into the past season.

Fluctuations in the number of deer, however, isn’t something new. Georgia’s record harvest of 509,500 deer in 1997-98 was followed by a kill of 427,000 in 1998-99, a decline of 16 percent.

The Weather Factor

In many ways, the weather that hit Georgia last deer season conspired to interfere with deer season. Three hurricanes passed across the state in late August and September, flooding many river swamps and hunt clubs in south Georgia.

“Our early hunt at Dixon Memorial was nearly a wash-out because the roads were washed out,” said Wes Abler. “The flooding affected harvest because access to habitat was limited. The roads were a mess.”

Mosquitoes were also a factor.

“At Horse Creek, you couldn’t get out of your truck without being swarmed by mosquitoes,” said Wes. “Hunters would get out of their truck, get swarmed, get back in their truck and leave.”

The flooding was followed by warmer-than-usual temperatures. Entries in the GON Truck-Buck Contest lagged throughout September and October as many hunters stayed out of the woods, apparently waiting for cooler weather. Truck-Buck entries jumped only after a cold snap the first weekend in November. Overall, Truck-Buck Contest entries were 529, the second highest in contest history.

The Acorn Factor

Deer reports gathered in October and November by GON said acorns were covering the ground in epic numbers. And abundant acorns has been one of the possible explanations for the reduction in deer sightings last year. The acorn crop across most of Georgia was excellent last year. Acorns poured from the trees and littered the ground in most areas. For deer, it was a food bonanza. It was not a bonanza for deer hunters.

According to a study of 20 years of data in West Virginia, published in the Wildlife Society Bulletin in 2004, there is a negative relationship between high hard-mast production and deer harvest. According to the study, in years of high acorn production, deer don’t have to move as much and are less vulnerable to hunters.

Conversely, in years of poor hard-mast production, deer must move to available food sources. Food plots, for instance, are more productive in poor hard-mast years. Last fall, many hunters reported that deer were not using green fields as much as they had a year earlier when acorns were less plentiful.

Changes In Land Use

Another confounding factor is the changes in land use — especially in heavily-hunted timberland counties across the Piedmont and Upper Coastal Plain regions.

According to Kent, during the late 80s and early 90s, extensive clearcutting knocked down big tracts of pine/hardwoods. For a few years there was a browse boom and deer populations flourished. More recently the pines have grown, the canopy has closed, and there is only pine straw for a deer to eat. The carrying capacity of these areas has dropped.

“Just drive across some places like Hancock County, and look at all the pine plantations,” said Kent. “Mile after mile of eight- to 15-year-old planted pines just isn’t good deer habitat, and it won’t be until they get in there and thin it.”

Environmental Issues Were A Key

While many hunters blame the high bag limit for the drop in deer numbers, an argument can me made that environmental factors — rain, temperature and acorns — had a big impact last year. Take a look at the harvest at Piedmont National Wildlife Refuge (NWR). The refuge, located in the heart of the Piedmont region just north of Macon, is 37,000 acres of high-quality habitat. According to Carolyn Johnson, assistant manager of the refuge, the average deer harvest over the past eight years at Piedmont was 525 deer. The number of hunters has been relatively stable over that period, and the two-deer bag limit has also been static.

Last season, Piedmont hunters killed 339 deer, a decline of 35 percent.

If the harvest at Piedmont NWR had been normal at around 525, it might have suggested some catastrophic event out in the counties that caused the sharp decline there. Because the Piedmont harvest was also down dramatically, it suggests that environmental issues, deer-movement patterns or hunter patterns had a lot to do with overall success at Piedmont — and elsewhere.

“We heard a lot of people at the check station saying, ‘Where did all the deer go,’” said Carolyn. “They weren’t seeing the number of deer they are used to seeing. They were getting discouraged, and a lot of them came out of the woods early. But the deer are here. Some hunters did well, and we are seeing deer when we are out on the refuge.”

The same sharp declines in harvest on managed lands is reflected on WMA land where access and harvest are also controlled (see chart on page 49).

“We have not overshot the deer on WMAs,” said Kent. “We are pretty conservative about doe harvest on WMAs. It was just a bad year almost everywhere, and the weather played a big part. At the first Cedar Creek WMA hunt it was hot. Hunter numbers were down 28 percent, and harvest was down 33 percent.

“But based on the WMA data and on data from clubs I manage in the eastern Piedmont, I don’t see a grand-scale decline. I know we didn’t kill all the does in the past two years, and the population will bounce back.”

A Combination of Things

WRD Assistant Director Todd Holbrook has been directly involved in setting deer-season regulations over the past decade.

“What do I think happened? I think the deer herd is slightly down,” said Todd. “We had a real good harvest year — a high-harvest year in 2003-04. We probably bit into the principle a little bit, which means that there are fewer deer around this year. Tacked onto that was the acorn situation and really warm temperatures. The deer were not burning up the calories they might have when the weather is cold. That meant that there wasn’t a whole lot of incentive for a deer to do a whole lot of moving, and people didn’t kill as many. It was a combination of things. We have had blips like this before. The 1997-98 year was a high-harvest year, and it was low the next year. I don’t think it is as dramatic as some people think.

“If the harvest dropped to 400,000, that’s 1.3 deer per hunter. Not so many years ago it was less than one deer per hunter.”

Bumping the Bag Limit Up

In an ironic bit of timing, at a time when many hunters are complaining about the current bag limit being responsible for decimating the deer herd, the state is considering an increase in the bag limit for deer. On February 16, Senate Bill 201 was introduced at the state capitol. Among provisions of the bill is an increase in the bag limit from 12 to 17 deer.

The increase in bag limit is being hotly contested by many hunters who perceive that raising the limit would further reduce the number of deer.

Deer biologists claim it won’t.

Len Sams owner of Trails End Taxidermy in Macon is against the increased bag limit.

“It is ridiculous,” said Len. “Where are they getting their motivation? From the insurance companies? Just look at the number of hunters who are complaining about not seeing any deer. If it was up to me, I would lower the limit.”

But as bag limits have increased, the impact on harvest and deer population has diminished.

According to Todd Holbrook, the antlerless bag limit increase for the 1980-81 season from two to three deer resulted in an increase of 60 percent in the antlerless harvest.

The 1991-92 increase from three to five antlerless deer resulted in an increase of 12 percent in doe harvest.

The 2000-01 increase from five to eight antlerless deer resulted in an increase of 9 percent in antlerless harvest.

The most recent increase from eight to 10 antlerless deer for the 2002-03 season resulted in only a 3 percent increase in doe harvest.

If the proposed jump from 10 to 15 antlerless is approved, Todd expects only about a 1 percent increase in doe harvest.

“You have to remember that the earlier increases were coupled with significant increases in either-sex hunting days,” said Todd. “We can’t do that any more.”

The state estimates that the higher bag limit will be achieved only by about 2 percent of hunters.

If the controversial increase has so little impact, why bother?

“In places like DeKalb County the higher bag limit gives the bowhunter the opportunity to kill more deer and maybe keep them off the front bumper,” said Todd. “In DeKalb County, that is important.

“In places like southwest Georgia, the big landowners need more flexibility in managing deer populations. For most hunters, the increase in bag limit will have no impact, but it is the easiest way to address special situations were more flexibility is needed.”

University of Georgia deer biologist Dr. Karl Miller hunts deer in Oglethorpe County.

“We saw plenty of deer,” said Karl. “My son shot three in the first three days of the season. We saw a lot of deer early, and then there was a lull when we didn’t see deer, but it picked back up at the end of the season. Our freezer is full, and our azaleas are still getting clipped.”

Karl said the increased bag limit will have little impact.

“The number of hunters who kill more than seven or eight deer is insignificant,” he said.

“There are any number of factors that might have contributed to a slow season. Hunters should be cautious about taking one year’s results and speculating that the deer are all gone. The deer population normally cycles, and one year doesn’t make a trend.”

Does the Bag Limit Matter?

According to WRD figures (printed on page 51) during the 2003-04 season, 40.6 percent of Georgia hunters killed no deer. At the other end of the harvest spectrum, only 2.5 percent of hunters killed eight or more deer.

Most hunters are self-regulating about the number of deer they kill, shooting only what they need.

Jack Crockford is the the former director of the Georgia Game & Fish Division of DNR. He was instrumental in the effort to bring Georgia’s modern deer herd back through an intensive capture-and-release program. At the time that effort began in the 1950s, Georgia’s deer herd was estimated at around 33,000 animals. Today, the population is estimated at approximately 1.2 million animals.

“I am sure the deer herd got too high,” said Jack. “The effort has been made to reduce the herd, and I presume that they have done that, at least in places. But (the increased doe days and higher bag limit) has only affected places. And that is the problem. The regulations that have become very liberal only affect those places that have a lot of hunting access. And the places where there are complaints about the deer eating the shrubs and the gardenias — you can’t hunt there. Bag limits don’t really affect the deer population if you don’t have access, and that is a tough nut to crack.”

Has The Herd Been Overshot?

“I am sure that there are some clubs that have overshot their deer,” said Jack. “If you take a club where maybe they are struggling to pay the rent so they get too many members, and if they all believe that you have got to shoot every doe that you see. And if you have enough of these guys shooting every deer they see, you are going to have a problem. That goes beyond deer biology and becomes simple arithmetic.”

Kent claims that most clubs regulate their members to protect their herd.

“Most clubs are self-regulating about the bag limit with their own bag-limit rules and peer pressure,” he said.

An exception might be big tracts of public land where hunters are non-selective. At Redlands WMA, which is open to state regulations, hunter numbers were down 7 percent and deer harvest was down 28 percent.

“The Oconee National Forest herd has probably been knocked back pretty hard over the past five or six years,” said Kent.

In mid-February, WRD officials were getting a hot earful from hunters at public hunting regulations meetings about the possibility of increasing the bag limit. Most were against the idea.

“Georgia’s deer hunting has been so good that it has spoiled a lot of people,” said Jack. “They think that if they don’t go straight out and shoot a deer and can be back for the football game that somebody has screwed up. It is not realistic to think that deer hunting is like that.”

Next Year: Rebound Or Decline?

The WRD will not have the harvest numbers on the 2004-05 season until April or May. With that information they will be better able to gauge the direction the deer herd is taking. Longterm, WRD’s goal is to reduce the statewide herd from about 1.2 million to 1 million animals.

Short-term, biologists expect a strong crop of fawns this summer after an excellent acorn crop, good browse conditions and a mild winter. The reproductive capacity of white-tailed deer is considerable, and the numbers of deer in Georgia, if down, should rebound quickly.

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