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Wednesday, August 21, 2013
I don't know about you, but I am seeing fewer deer this summer. I probably said the same thing this time last year. There are exceptions, but the general cry is this:
"Where have all the deer gone?"
Matt Knox., the top deer biologist for the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries, says he fielded that questions last fall "more than any year I can remember." It didn't surprise him, because his personal sightings were down 40 to 50 percent.
So what can be expected during the upcoming 2013-14 hunting season?
No record kill, that is for sure.
Knox doesn't make predictions, doesn't believe in them, but he told me this:
"If I were a gambler-and I am not-I would bet the kill will be down."
Hunters in Virginia reported killing 215,241 deer last year, a drop of 8 percent. A decline of that size is likely to occur this season.
Part of last year's drop can be credited to Hemorrhagic Disease (HD) which reduced the herd significantly in some areas.
Another factor is the sharp decline in both the deer herd and the number of hunters on national forest land in the mountains of the state. The public-land herd is down because timber management efforts, the kind that provide habitat for deer and other wildlife, have been cut back. Since the mid-1990s, the number of hunters on public land is off 40 percent, said Knox.
"The good news is that the public land deer herd decline has apparently bottomed out," he said.
It remains to be seen if management practices will bring back the George Washington and Jefferson National Forests deer herd. Officials have cut the number of either-sex deer hunting days significantly in an effort to rebuild the herd by decreasing the doe kill by 50 percent. The hoped-for decline has been a success.
"Doe kill numbers and levels on public lands in many western counties are the lowest in decades," Knox said.
Some hunters would add predators, namely coyotes, to the list of factors impacting the deer herd. That is an easy conclusion when you hear packs of them howling in the night amid the bleats of fawns.
The biggest reason for the decline often is overlooked or forgotten, yet is most obvious. Remember all the increasingly liberal doe hunting regulations that have been passed in recent years? They were designed to decrease the herd and they are working. So why should we be surprised?
"We have hit the antlerless deer kill very hard for the past five or so years," said Knox. "All of the record deer kills of a couple years ago were not really record deer kills at all. The buck kill did not go up. It was just us increasing the doe kill through regulations. As I have noted, this increased antlerless deer kill would eventually result in a reduced deer heard and deer kill. I think we are there."
Hunters who once were accustomed to a record kill nearly every year must now relate to a deer herd in many areas of the state that is stable, even dropping, rather than increasing. This will take some getting used to, and could lead to demands for more conservative regulations in the future.
All this isn't bad for hunting. It should mean healthier deer sporting more impressive antlers.
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