Wildlife - 2007 Deer Harvest Report

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Introduction

The white-tailed deer is the most popular, sought after, economically important, and controversial game animal in South Carolina. The 2007 Deer Hunter Survey represents the South Carolina Department of Natural Resources' (DNR), Wildlife Section's ongoing commitment to conduct pertinent research related to the state's white-tailed deer resource. The primary objectives of this survey research were to obtain valid estimates of; (1) the statewide deer harvest in 2007, (2) the harvest of deer in the constituent counties of the state, (3) hunting effort related to deer, (4) resident and non-resident hunter activities, and (5) weapons use, weapons preference, and harvest rates by weapon type. Information on hunter opinion related to certain aspects of the deer resource as well as estimates of the wild hog and coyote harvest in the state is also presented.

Due to the importance of deer as a state resource, DNR believes that accurately assessing the harvest of deer, as well as hunter participation in deer hunting, is key to the management of this species. Proposed changes in deer-related laws and regulations should have foundations in biology, therefore, the population dynamics associated with annual hunting mortality cannot be ignored. Similarly, when issues arise that do not involve biological parameters, it is important to have information related to deer hunter activities afield because they too form an important basis for managing deer.

Since the inception of the Statewide Deer Research and Management Project (Deer Project) the methods used to document the state's deer harvest have changed. Historically, deer harvest figures were developed using a system of mandatory deer check stations in the 18 county Upstate (Game Zones 1 and 2) in conjunction with reported harvests from properties enrolled in the Antlerless Deer Quota Program (ADQP) in the 28 county Coastal Plain (Game Zones 3-6). This system yielded an actual count of harvested deer and was, therefore, an absolute minimum harvest figure. Shortcomings in this system included deterioration of check station compliance in the Upstate and failure to report by ADQP cooperators in the Coastal Plain. Also, since the acreage enrolled in the ADQP tends to be about one-half of the deer habitat in the Coastal Plain, past harvest figures have not documented deer harvests on non-quota lands (+- 4 million acres) because there was no legal requirement to report harvested deer in the Coastal Plain. Therefore, it is suspected that historic deer harvest figures only accounted for about one-half of the total deer harvest that occurred annually in the state.

Survey Methodology

The 2007 Deer Hunter Survey represents a near random mail survey that involved a single mail-out. The questionnaire for the 2007 Deer Hunter Survey was developed by Wildlife Section personnel (Figure 1). The mailing list database was constructed by randomly selecting 25,000 known Big Game Permit holders that included 5 license types, the first 3 of which have a Big Game Permit included. The license types included: (1) Resident Sportsman's, (2) Resident Combination, (3) Resident Junior Sportsman's, (4) Resident Big Game Permit, and (5) Non-resident Big Game Permit. The number of individuals associated with each license type was based on an attempted sampling rate of approximately 15 percent for licenses purchased through December of 2007. Since deer seasons statewide end on January 1 there was no need to sample individuals that were licensed thereafter.

Statistical analysis was conducted using Statistix 7 (Analytical Software, Tallahassee, FL).

Acknowledgments

Special thanks are due DNR Licensing personnel for their cooperation in building the licensee database and data entry associated with the completed surveys. Specifically, thanks go to Bryan Kyzer for his overall cooperation as Licensing Coordinator and Chereice Dowdy, Alicia Pearson and Veda Starks for their outstanding data entry. Thanks to Jay Butfiloski, DNR Furbearer Project supervisor, for his considerable efforts in data entry form design.

Thanks to South Carolina deer hunters. Funding for this report, as well as all activities related to the Statewide Deer Research and Management Project, is made possible through hunters' participation in antlerless deer tag programs.

Results and Discussion

As with any mail survey, a portion of the attempted sample (25,000) was returned as undeliverable mail (1,563). Therefore, the actual attempted sample was 23,437 representing 14.2 percent of the entire population (164,524) of license holders. A total of 6,351 completed surveys were returned yielding a 27.1 percent response rate and 3.9 percent sampling rate on the entire licensee population. Response rates for resident hunters were less (26.1 percent) than for non-residents (33.4 percent).

Deer Harvest

During the 2007 deer season it is estimated that a total of 124,522 bucks and 114,671 does where harvested for a statewide total of 239,193 deer (Table 1). This figure represents a 7.5 percent increase in harvest from 2006 (221,320) and is 25 percent below the record harvest established in 2002 (319,902). After many years of rapidly increasing during the 1970’s and 1980’s, the deer population in South Carolina exhibited relative stability between 1995 and 2002. Since 2002, however, the population has trended down, with 2007 being the first year since 2002 with an increase in harvest. The reduction in harvest seen since 2002 can likely be attributable to one main factor, habitat change. Although timber management activities stimulated significant growth in South Carolina’s deer population in the 1970’s and 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. The slight increase in harvest in 2007 is likely related to the fact that there was a slight increase in number of hunters and man-days of hunting effort compared to 2006, rather than to a significant increase in deer numbers.

Harvest Per Unit Area County Rankings

Comparisons can be made between deer harvests from the various counties in South Carolina if a harvest per unit area is established. Harvest per unit area standardizes the harvest among counties regardless of the size of individual counties. One measure of harvest rate is the number of deer taken per square mile (640ac. = 1 mile²). When considering the estimated deer habitat that is available in South Carolina, the deer harvest rate in 2007 was 11.2 deer per square mile over the entire state (Table 2). Although the deer population in the state has moderated in recent years, this harvest rate should be considered extraordinary in comparison with many other states. The top 5 counties for harvest per unit area were Bamberg (21.0 deer/mile²), Union (18.1 deer/mile²) Spartanburg (17.0 deer/mile²), Allendale (16.0 deer/mile²), and Newberry (16.0 deer/mile²) (Table 2).

Deer Harvest Rankings by County

Total deer harvest by county is not comparable among counties because counties vary in size and are, therefore, not directly comparable. However, it has become customary to rank the counties based on number of deer harvested (Table 3). The top 5 counties during 2007 were Orangeburg, Williamsburg, Colleton, Fairfield, and Newberry.

Deer Harvest on Wildlife Management Areas

Deer hunting on Wildlife Management Areas (WMAs) remains popular in South Carolina with approximately 47,000 licensees having a WMA Permit. Wildlife Management Areas represent lands owned by DNR, other state owned lands enrolled in the WMA Program, US Forest Service lands enrolled in the WMA Program, and private and/or corporate lands that are leased by DNR as part of the WMA Program. Deer harvest figures for coastal WMAs are from check stations and are presented only for those WMA properties that have a deer check-in requirement. Deer harvest figures for upstate WMAs (Mountain and Central and Western Piedmont Hunt Units) were estimated by extrapolating the county deer harvest rates (deer/mi²) to the acreage of WMA land that falls within the respective counties comprising the WMA. This assumes that hunters on WMA lands exhibit effort and deer harvest patterns similar to those of the general licensee database that was surveyed. Finally, the estimated deer harvest on WMA lands is included in, not additive to, the county and statewide estimates found throughout this report.

During the 2007 season it is estimated that 4,901 bucks and 4,336 does were harvested for a total deer harvest on Wildlife Management Areas of 9,237 (Table 4). This figure represents an increase of approximately 8.2 percent from 2006. It is estimated that approximately 18,445 hunters spent 217,651 days hunting on WMAs in South Carolina in 2007.

Hunter Opinion Regarding Deer Numbers

The 2007 Deer Hunter Survey asked participants their opinion regarding one topic: compared to past years, how would you rate the number of deer in the area that you hunt most often. Survey participants were given 3 choices; increasing, about the same, or decreasing. About half (53.7%) of hunters indicated that the number of deer in the area they hunted most often was about the same as in past years (Table 5). More hunters (28.4%) believed that the deer population was decreasing than increasing (17.1%). Significantly more residents (18.9%) than non-residents (13.0%) indicated that the population was increasing. On a scale of 1 to 3 with 1 being increasing, 2 being neutral, and 3 being decreasing, the overall mean rating of 2.1 suggests that hunters viewed the deer population as slightly decreasing. The opinion among hunters that the deer population is decreasing has been consistent the last few years. Harvest data and population reconstruction modeling supports this opinion.

Number of Deer Hunters

Even though all individuals receiving a survey were licensed to hunt deer, only 87.8 percent actually hunted deer. For residents, 87.2 percent of sampled licensees hunted deer and for non-residents 97.0 percent hunted deer. Extrapolating to the respective licensee populations yields 127,699 residents (Table 6) and 17,537 non-residents (Table 7) for a total of 145,236 deer hunters statewide during 2007. This figure is a 9.3 percent increase from the 134,965 hunters in 2006. Counties with the highest estimates for individual hunters include Orangeburg, Laurens, Fairfield, Newberry, and Colleton for resident hunters (Table 6) and Hampton, Allendale, Union, Chester, and Fairfield for non-residents (Table 7).

Hunting Success

For determination of hunting success only those individuals that actually hunted deer were included in the analysis and similarly, success was defined as harvesting at least one deer. Overall hunting success in 2007 was 71.6 percent, which should be considered extraordinary. Success rates for residents (71.7%, Table 6) and non-residents (71.2%, Table 7) were the same. Estimates for resident and non-resident success rates for all counties are presented in Tables 6 and 7. Success rates for resident hunters were highest in Williamsburg, Lancaster, Clarendon, Orangeburg, and Bamberg. Non-residents experienced the highest success in Lexington, Florence, Dorchester, Union, and Clarendon counties. However, only Union county had appreciable numbers of non-resident hunters.

Hunter Effort

For the purposes of this survey hunter effort was measured in days with one day being defined as any portion of the day spent afield. Resident hunters averaged 15.4 days afield for a total of 1,968,499 days deer hunting and non-residents averaged 13.3 days for a total of 233,454 days (Table 8). Total effort expended deer hunting in South Carolina during 2007 was estimated at 2,201,942 days (Table 8), up approximately 9.4 percent from 2006. 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. Previous surveys (2001) conducted by the United States Fish and Wildlife Service indicate that approximately 200 million dollars in direct retail sales are related to deer hunting in South Carolina annually.

The top 5 South Carolina counties for overall days of deer hunting during 2007 were the same as in 2005; Orangeburg, Colleton, Fairfield, Newberry, and Laurens counties (Table 8). Resident hunters expended the most hunting effort in Orangeburg, Colleton, Fairfield, Laurens, and Berkeley counties. Non-residents hunted the most in Hampton, Allendale, Union, Chester, and Fairfield counties and these 5 counties totaled 36 percent of all the non-resident deer hunting effort that took place in South Carolina in 2007.

Resident hunters who were successful at harvesting at least one deer averaged twice as many days (17.8 days) afield as unsuccessful residents (8.9 days) (Table 8). Similarly, successful non-residents (15.2 days) averaged about 2 times the days afield when compared with unsuccessful non-residents (7.6 days).

The amount of effort required to harvest a deer varied between residents and non-residents and by the county hunted. On the average it took less time for non-residents to harvest a deer (8.6 days, Table 7) compared to residents (9.2 days, Table 6). This may be due to the fact that many non-residents hunt commercially where considerable preparation is done prior to the hunter’s arrival. Also, there may be less selectivity with respect to deer harvested by non-residents. Counties requiring the least effort to harvest a deer included Jasper, Hampton, Williamsburg, Union, and Bamberg for resident hunters (Table 6). On the other hand, non-residents spent less time to harvest a deer in Abbeville, Marion, Lee, Saluda, and Williamsburg, counties (Table 7), however, none of these counties exhibited what should be considered a high level of non-resident hunting activity.

Deer Harvest by Weapon Type and Weapons Utilization and Preference

All areas of South Carolina have long and liberal firearms seasons and the majority (79.0%) of deer are harvested with centerfire rifles (Table 9). Shotguns (11.2%) and archery equipment (6.0%) also contribute significantly to the overall deer harvest in the state, whereas, muzzleloaders, crossbows, and handguns combine to contribute less than 5 percent of the total harvest (Table 9).  

Although rifles are used by approximately 90 percent of hunters, nearly 80 percent of hunters use multiple weapons during the course of the deer season (Table 10, Table 11). Resident hunters appear to be more flexible than non-residents in their use of multiple weapons and significantly more residents use archery equipment (24.9%) and shotguns (33.8%) than non-residents (17.8% archery and 14.5% shotguns) (Table 11). This finding has been consistent the last few years and two points can likely be made. First, since most aspects of deer hunting (travel, accommodations, etc.) are typically more convenient for residents, they may have more time to devote to becoming comfortable or proficient with additional weapons, in this case archery equipment. Second, shotguns are the customary weapon related to hunting deer with dogs and the argument can be made that dog hunting is being practiced more by residents than non-residents. The weapons utilization data supports this contention.

On the other hand, non-residents (25.2%) used muzzleloaders more frequently than residents (16.1%). Keep in mind that muzzleloader or primitive weapons seasons are only available in Game Zones 1 and 2 (the Upstate). It is suspected that the high utilization of muzzleloaders by non-residents is related to the availability of this special season at an earlier date in South Carolina than in neighboring states. Also, the argument can be made that muzzleloaders require less commitment than archery equipment and would allow non-residents a comparatively easy method of harvesting deer during the special season. This finding has been consistent the last few years.

Unlike weapons utilization, weapons preference is the single weapon that a hunter prefers. Obviously, a majority (77.0%) of deer hunters prefer rifles (Table 12). Bows (12.0%) are the second most preferred weapon which is interesting because compared to other states, there are limited exclusive opportunities for bow hunters in South Carolina. Nonetheless, the number of hunters indicating that bows are their preferred weapon continues to increase. Finally, there are several interesting points that can be made about preferences for other weapons based on residency. Shotguns are preferred significantly more by residents (9.4%) than non-residents (2.8%) and muzzleloaders are preferred more by non-residents (4.1%) than by residents (1.4%) (Table 12). The explanation of this situation is likely similar to that for weapons utilization in that, (1) residents do most of the dog hunting in the state and tend to use shotguns, and (2) non-residents use muzzleloaders to take advantage of a special season that is not available as early in their home state.

Wild Hog Harvest

The 2007 Deer Hunter Survey also asked hunters to provide information on their wild hog and coyote harvesting activities. Documenting the hog harvest became customary several years ago because wild hogs commonly taken incidental to deer hunting. Wild or feral hogs are often though of as "game" and there is a certain amount of sport associated with harvesting hogs. Wild hogs provide quality meat for the hunter and mature hogs can make a highly sought-after "trophy". Wild hogs are not native to South Carolina or any part of the North American continent. They are descendants of European domestic hogs that escaped or were released dating back as far as the early Spanish explorers. Also, closed-range or fencing requirements for livestock did not arise until the 1900's and letting hogs "free-range" was common prior to fencing laws. Wild hogs were historically associated with the major river flood plain systems in Coastal South Carolina. Unfortunately, recent relocations of wild hogs by hunters appear to be responsible for the species populating areas where they were not found in the past. Wild hogs directly compete with native species like deer and wild turkey for habitat and food, and hogs can do significant damage to the habitat and agricultural production through their rooting activities. Legislation passed during the 2005 session of the South Carolina General Assembly prohibits the release of hogs in the state (SC Code Section 50-16-25).

During 2007 an estimated 27,971 wild hogs were harvested by deer hunters in South Carolina (Table 13), a 4.1 percent increase from 2006 (26,843 hogs). Evidence of the presence of hogs in 42 of 46 counties was made by hunter harvest activities (42 of 46 counties in 2006). Statewide, approximately 1.28 hogs/mile2 were harvested, however, this figure is deceiving because hogs only inhabit a relatively small portion of the state as a whole. The top 5 counties for wild hog harvest per unit area were Allendale (4.26 hogs/mile2), Richland (3.74 hogs/mile2), Darlington (3.27 hogs/mile2), Dorchester (3.26 hogs mile2), and Calhoun (3.07 hogs/mile2). With respect to river drainage systems, top counties for wild hog harvest per unit area include Allendale, Hampton, and Jasper in the lower Savannah River drainage and Calhoun, Richland, and Sumter counties in the Congaree/Wateree drainage.

Coyote Harvest

Unlike wild hogs which are treated like game to some degree, coyotes are typically thought of as varmints that pose a threat to native game species. Like wild hogs, coyotes are a non-native species in South Carolina. Although a popular notion among hunters is that DNR released coyotes, the agency has never released coyotes in South Carolina. The occurrence of coyotes in the state is more recent than hogs and they appear to have gotten to the state by two methods, (1) natural movements from western states and (2) illegal importation. Coyotes were first documented in Oconee and Pickens Counties in 1978 and were thought to be linked to animals that were illegally imported for hunting purposes. Evidence for this includes an illegal importation case that was made and the fact that coyotes had not been documented in adjacent counties in Georgia and North Carolina. Within a few years coyotes began to appear in the western piedmont counties of Anderson, Abbeville, McCormick, etc. indicating a southeastern expansion from the original site. In the early 1980's coyotes were documented in Allendale County and were thought to be natural immigrants from Georgia since they had previously been documented in the adjacent Georgia counties. Coyotes from this source apparently populated to the Northeast until they encountered the Santee Cooper Lakes. In the late 1980's coyotes were documented in the Pee Dee Region, again associated with illegal imports. In any event, by the mid-1990's coyotes had been documented in all South Carolina counties.

Sportsmen often voice concern over the presence of coyotes and the potential impact they have on game species such as deer. Though coyotes are one of the most adaptable animals, they are not designed to prey on big game. The coyote=s diet is chiefly composed of small mammals (rats and mice), insects, and a variety of vegetable matter including fruits. Clearly, coyotes will take very young deer and deer that are sick or injured. However, there is no reason to believe that coyotes constitute a major threat to the deer population in South Carolina because they have not decimated deer in other Southeastern states as they have expanded from the west. On the other hand, since coyotes share the same habitat and food requirements as foxes, competition between them can be important. For example, there has been a documented decline in the red fox population index as the coyote population has increased. In any event, DNR is currently participating in a multi-year study with researchers at the Savannah River Site in Aiken and Barnwell Counties concerning the impact that coyotes may be having on deer. Specifically, the objective of this study is to determine potential impacts on deer fawn survival and recruitment.

Coyotes are not protected animals in South Carolina and hunters are allowed to harvest them throughout the year during daylight hours. During 2007 it is estimated that approximately 23,957 coyotes were harvested by deer hunters in South Carolina (Table 13), an increase of 15.8 percent from 2006 (20,194 coyotes). As in past years, there was evidence of coyotes being harvested in all counties. Although the number of coyotes killed by deer hunters increased beginning in the late 1990’s, it had somewhat stabilized the last few years. The increase in coyote harvest in 2007 was the first notable increase in three years. This “moderation” in coyote harvest may indicate that coyote numbers have stabilized in many areas or that deer hunters are loosing interest in killing them. Statewide approximately 1.09 coyotes/mile² were harvested and the top 5 counties for coyote harvest per unit area included Saluda (2.13 coyotes/mile²), Lancaster (2.09 coyotes/mile²), Chester (2.06 coyotes/mile²), Greenwood (1.86 coyotes/mile²), and Spartanburg (1.82 coyotes/mile²).

Supplementary Information

The following section is not related to the 2007 Big Game Hunter Survey, but is offered as information relevant to the state's deer population.

According to the South Carolina Department of Public Safety (SCDPS), the number of reported deer-vehicle collisions for 2007 was 1,560 (Table 14). Since reporting of deer vehicle collisions is contingent upon notification of some law enforcement agency and then SCDPS, this figure should be considered a minimum. Also, the reader should bear in mind that reporting criteria have changed over time.

Average body weights and antler characteristic of deer vary among the constituent counties in South Carolina and are dependent on deer density and available nutrition (Tables 17 and 18). Statewide averages for male deer indicate that 1.5 year old bucks average about 107 lbs. and 3.6 antler points while bucks 2.5 years old and older average about 138 lbs. and 6.5 antler points. Yearling (1.5 years old) females average approximately 88 lbs. while does 2.5 years old and older average nearly 101 lbs. This information is based on sampling completed between 1987 and 1994.

Peak breeding in the Upstate and Coastal Plain occurs during late October and early November (Figure 2). Harvest dates for deer in the piedmont mirror the breeding season with the vast majority of deer being harvested during the relatively short peak of breeding (Figure 3). In the Coastal Plain, however, the relationship between peak breeding and hunter harvest appears to be undermined by the early opening buck only seasons found in Coastal Game Zones. Opening early, coastal plain buck only seasons find deer in summer movement and behavior patterns, therefore, the animals are not as vulnerable to harvest as they are during the breeding season when movements are greatest. It is suspected that hunter disturbance during the early buck only season leads to a suppressed harvest during the breeding season when deer movements and hunter harvests should be greatest.

The history of the deer population and harvest in South Carolina demonstrates a trend typical of a species that initially expands into available habitat, stabilizes, and begins to decline as habitat changes (Figures 4 and 5). It is important to recognize that habitat is the primary factor controlling deer density in South Carolina, though regulated harvest is important as well. Keep in mind that between 1750 and 1900 the deer population in South Carolina experienced a tremendous decline as it did in most of North America. Although unrestricted subsistence and commercial harvest of deer was important in the decline, major changes in habitat related to clearing of land for agriculture was the controlling factor.  

By 1900 deer numbers in the State were very low, perhaps 20,000. However, in the 1920’s, significant drought and the cotton bowl weevil had devastating consequences for farming. With the decline in farming, reforestation of the state began and was largely complete by the 1970’s. Timber harvest activities that followed into and throughout the 1980’s created vast areas of early successional habitat that allowed for a dramatic increase in the State’s deer population. South Carolina’s deer population peaked in the mid to late 1990’s at just over 1,000,000 deer.

Over time, deer hunters have gained a better understanding of the relationship between deer numbers, habitat, and deer quality leading to more aggressive female harvests in many parts of the state. This increased emphasis on harvesting female deer as a means to control deer densities has played a role in the stabilization in the State’s deer population. However, the overriding factor is habitat. Keep in mind that the same timber management activities that stimulated the growth in South Carolina’s deer population in the 1980s have resulted in considerable acreage currently being in even-aged pine stands that are greater than 10 years old. This habitat type simply does not support deer densities at the same level as habitat in early stages of ecological succession. As a result, the deer population has trended down since 2000 and currently the population is estimated at about 800,000 deer, a level comparable with the mid 1980’s.

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