Statewide deer hunting survey underway

Jul 12, 2016

Credit Melissa McGaw, NCWRC

The North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission is calling on hunters to help out with a statewide deer hunting survey to help improve deer management.  The current study expounds on another conducted in 2006 with 10,000 hunters.  Officials hope to reach over 220,000 this time.

Whether they’re eating your lilies or darting in your path, one thing is for sure, our local deer population is active.  During the sweltering heat of summer, does are foraging for food and caring for their fawns.  Bucks are out searching for berries, leaves and nuts, and can sometimes be spotted stealing a meal from agricultural fields.

Now, the North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission is calling on local hunters to help improve the management of the deer heard throughout the state.   Deer Biologist Jonathan Shaw.

“The purpose of this study is to look at deer hunters statewide and get a good handle on what deer hunters want to see out of the deer population and what strategies they would be willing to accept to achieve what they want.”

In North Carolina, there are about a million white-tailed deer.  It’s difficult to get an accurate count, but Shaw says harvest trends are a fairly accurate indicator of the population.  He says harvest trends have been stable across much of the state, while eastern North Carolina’s harvest numbers have noticed a slight decline over the past couple years.  And, that may not be a bad thing.

“There are parts of the state where we did have too many deer, more deer than what we needed for the habitat that was available to them.  We did have significant harvest or crop damage issues.”

According to the 2015 Deer Harvest Report, the antlered buck harvest in eastern North Carolina was highest in Bertie County, followed by Edgecombe, Duplin, Craven, Pitt, and Beaufort counties.  However, distribution of white tailed deer was highest in Craven County, with 30 to 44 deer per square mile.  That means herds are not unheard of.

“Historically, Craven County antlered buck harvest has been high for that part of the state.  And that’s likely due to the fact that there’s really good deer habitat in the western part of the county where you have a lot of agriculture and there are good parts of Croatan National Forest where they do a lot of thinning and burning, creating a lot of good habitat there as well.”

Credit Melissa McGaw, NCWRC

In 2006, the Wildlife Resources Commission conducted a statewide deer survey with around 10,000 hunters.  This year, a couple of the same questions will appear on the survey.  But Shaw says they plan to reach more big game license holders, about 220,000 in all. 

“We ask questions about buck bag limits, ask questions about the timing of the season, also the length of the season, and pretty much everything is on the table at this point.”

The WRC completed a biological evaluation in February 2015 which found deer management across the state is, for the most part, okay.  But improvements could be made.  Shaw says the study found year-and-a-half old bucks account for more than 30 percent of the antlered-buck harvest.  He says he would like to see that number less than 20 percent.  

“We also looked at the doe age structure and that tells us how much pressure we’re putting on the female section of the herd. There may be parts where we need to adjust our doe harvest rates, it could be up or down or continue doing what we’re doing.”

One of the salient findings of the biological evaluation is that the deer hunting season may start too soon in some parts of the state.  Shaw says there can be more than a two month disparity between peak breeding periods in the mountains and the coast.  For example, in Hyde County, the peak is around October 2nd and in the western part of the state, it’s in early December.

“The timing of the season should be anchored around the rut, around the peak breeding period.  Ideally, we’d like to limit buck harvest before peak rut, which allows your young bucks to disperse across the landscape. 

Young bucks leave the area they grew up in just before breeding.  If they aren’t allowed time to disseminate to new territory, it often leads to unbalanced breeding season sex ratios. 

“You also want to have a fairly balanced adult sex ratio which enables your does to be bred during their first cycle and allows those fawns to hit the ground at the optimal time.”

Shaw says getting the timing is important, because there’s more competition between bucks during the rut which makes for an exciting hunting experience.

One of the benefits of the scientific survey is that it allows WRC staff to make inferences about deer at the county level, which could lead to more local, and relevant management decisions. The 220,000 hunters that were selected to take the survey will be contacted either by email or postcard.  Correspondence will include instructions on how to access the online questionnaire, which Shaw says will take about 20 minutes to complete.

“We tested this out with a small group of hunters and some of the feedback we got from the hunters is that it was a long survey.  But most of them feel like it was good and the questions that we had in there were necessary to have in there.”

In addition to questions about harvest limits, season length, and deer density, the survey goes into detail about different strategies that hunters agree with or find least objectionable when it comes to deer hunting.

“It randomly generates three scenarios for the deer hunters.  And the surveyor looks at these three randomly generated scenarios and has to choose the one they most prefer even though none of them might be ideal to the deer hunter. And through lots of iterations and lots of different hunters taking that survey and answering those questions, we get an idea about what attributes are most important to the hunters.”

Deer hunting with guns this season is October 15th to January 2nd.  For more information on the statewide deer hunting survey and current regulations, go to http://www.ncwildlife.org/Learning/Species/Mammals/WhitetailDeer.aspx.