The Department of Natural Resources has released its final numbers on the 2014 deer seasons and it reflects an across the board decline in all the harvests. The antlerless take was down by 30 percent, while muzzleloader hunters were down 32 percent and archers were off by 28 percent. The revised buck gun season total of 37,766 was down about 33 percent. The overall harvest of 104,223 was off the 2013 total (150,877) by 31 percent.
So, does this single year decrease reflect an anomaly, an unusual drop in deer population, or is it a sign of a long term, spiraling downward trend in the statewide deer herd?
In the late 1990s, the gun buck harvest averaged around 100,000 per year. The most recent five-year average would be about 50,760 or off by almost 50 percent – a significant decrease by anybody’s standards.
Who is to blame for the falling deer crop? What is the problem with the deer herd?
There are many possible answers to these questions, and the DNR plays a prominent part here in all of them.
From its beginning in the early 1900s, the DNR was tasked with the job of growing the deer herd as well as other wildlife species. Gradually the herd grew and hunting became a major business and tradition in the state. In fact, with cooperation of sportsmen and landowners, they may have done their job too well. The massive herd was unsustainable. No one could have imagined the huge populations of deer and the fruitful harvests that came about. We probably will never see deer numbers like that again. They had reached a point where they didn’t have to grow the herd anymore.
In fact, those same deer herds were now a scourge on the landscape. Deer-auto collisions were a real health and safety problem as well as a plague for insurance companies. Farmers and landscapers suffered great losses. The forests in general could no longer regenerate after over browsing of deer.
The DNR was now tasked with sustaining a reasonable herd. They have done that by expanding antlerless season and increasing permits for hunting, as well as damage control on farms and gardens. Finding that sustainable level is the hard part but there are many other dynamic processes at work.
Chief among those uncontrollable factors would be the arrival of the coyote. Twenty years ago, they probably didn’t have much impact, but as their numbers grew, the deer herd thinned and got older. They have turned into a better top predator than man, though most of their damage is done by taking fawns. Many folks have noticed a lesser number of fawns in recent years.
Another factor last winter possibly was the extreme cold temps. Snow wasn’t bad last year, but record cold was certainly hard on the yearlings that weren’t able to put on enough fat to carry them through the winter. Winter kill is always hardest on the yearlings.
Deer populations are also affected by forest dynamics, the slow but constant changes in our woods that may go unnoticed. The great virgin forests were largely logged out in the early 1900s. Much of the regenerating white pine and spruce was suppressed by fires allowing the oak to dominate the new growth and there were few deer to browse it down. Another prominent forest stalwart, the American chestnut, was also being decimated then by disease and oak filled in there also.
By the late 1900s, oak was the dominant member of the forest community and was in its prime. Yearly mast crops were huge. Often walking through oak woods was like walking on marbles as acorns covered the ground. Deer, turkey and squirrel populations exploded in response and hunters had some of their best days. Acorns could be found under the leaves well into the spring. We may never see oak forest like that again.
But the mature oak was at its peak value and much of it has been harvested over the last 30 years. And recovery and regeneration has been slow to non-existent as it happens to be a favorite browse of deer.
Mast, fruit of the oaks and other forest trees, is also affected by environmental factors. In fact late spring frosts and summer droughts have both greatly reduced the acorn crop. In recent years, it is hard to remember a really good mast yield. Another dynamic that cannot be discounted is the loss of the beech. Over the last 20 years, this wildlife favorite has been lost to beech blight.
Much of the forest is in an old growth state and has become less productive. There is no understory, and cover for wildlife is in short supply.
All of these things and more can affect deer populations, not to mention an aging and less active force of hunters.
But can the harvest numbers be turned around?
The harvest of 2014 was comparable to 2010 when mast was well scattered. The following year, 2011, the overall statewide take went up eight percent.
It may take a couple of years for the deer herd to recover, or not.
We will see.
Dave is a telescope operator at the Green Bank Observatory and can be reached at davecurry51@ gmail.com