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The lack of a good acorn crop could concentrate game and play into hunters’ hands this year.
The Roanoke Times | File
Fewer acorns in the woods can drive whitetails like this buck into open fields.
Saturday, September 28, 2013
Will Virginia deer hunters go from famine to feast this season?
Actually, deeming last year a famine is harsh. The statewide deer kill of more than 215,000 whitetails was among the top 12 recorded takes of all time.
But hunters have short memories, and there was no disputing that the number was a big dip from recent years, particularly the astounding kill of nearly 260,000 in 2009.
The decline wasn’t unexpected, at least in the eyes of the biologists who manage Virginia’s wildlife programs.
Years of liberal regulations appear to have accomplished the goal of reducing the state’s deer population across much of the state.
Another modest kill, possibly even lower than last season’s, might be the bettor’s pick for this season, were it not for natural conditions that could play into hunters’ favor this fall.
All indications are that acorn crop is a failure, which often correlates to an increased deer kill.
Virginia’s deer population objectives are outlined in a Deer Management Plan developed by the Department of Game and Inland Fisheries.
The plan takes into consideration not only the number of deer that can be supported by the landscape (biological carrying capacity), but the number of deer that the state’s residents can tolerate (cultural carrying capacity).
The plan has established that stable populations are desired in most counties, with some counties needing the herd to be reduced.
Stabilizing populations has required liberal regulations because the populations were expanding, evidenced by steadily increasing deer kills.
Matt Knox, co-leader of the DGIF’s deer program, said that while disease, predators and even the harsh winter in 2009/2010 had an impact on reducing the statewide herd, he believes that hunters putting the hammer down got the job done across much of the state.
“We finally got the ship turned around,” Knox said. “Those record kills were record doe kills.”
In fact, the ship might have been turned a little too much in some cases.
Last spring the DGIF’s board heeded the agency’s staff suggestions and cut back on either-sex hunting days in many counties on both public and private land.
Knox said that trend may continue.
“I think you’ll see more of that in the future,” Knox said of reduced either-sex days.
Hunting is the primary driver of deer population fluctuations, but not the only one.
Disease had an impact on Virginia’s deer herd last year.
Knox said the state experienced the worst outbreak of epizootic hemorrhagic disease seen in some time.
Spread by the bite of tiny midge flies, EHD typically doesn’t have a statewide impact. Rather, it hits hard in some pockets while deer in other areas are unscathed.
That’s what happened last year. It’s just that the hits were more widespread.
Patrick and Franklin counties both suffered suspected large deer losses from EHD, with both counties tallying steep declines in the deer kill as a result of the reduced whitetail population. Both counties, until recently featuring booming deer herds, were subsequently dropped from the list of counties with an earn-a-buck requirement.
As this fall loomed, Knox wasn’t sure what to predict.
The EHD-spreading midges thrive in mudflats, and there is some evidence to suggest that outbreaks are especially bad in years with dry summers.
This wasn’t a dry summer, obviously. But there was plenty of mud.
“The whole state was a mudflat,” Knox said. “It was such an extraordinarily odd weather year I didn’t know what to predict.”
The good news is that it appears that EHD was not a problem.
“It was very quiet,” Knox said. “I’m talking about getting two to five reports [of possibly sick deer] statewide.”
Knox and his staff will continue to monitor the herd for another disease, chronic wasting disease.
There will not be a statewide CWD monitoring program this fall. Rather, the testing focus will focus on the designated CWD surveillance zone where Virginia’s few cases have been confirmed.
If there is good news on the CWD front, it is that the cases have been isolated within a small area close to the hot spot in West Virginia where the disease was first confirmed in that state several years ago.
Hunting’s impact on population
A paradox to the state’s county-by-county deer management approach stems from the disparity between deer populations on private and public lands.
In general, the deer population density is much higher on private land than it is on public land.
The primary driver in the equation is habitat.
Most public land, including national forest and state wildlife management areas, consist of mature hardwood forests.
While those areas can produce a lot of deer food in good hard mast years, a general lack of early successional plant growth limits the land’s year-round productivity.
The challenge comes in counties that have both public and private land, when trying to establish regulations to stabilize robust herds on private land while trying to increase deer herds on public land.
Because the deer can go back and forth between private and public land, Knox believes that liberal either-sex hunting regulations on private land have contributed to reducing herds on public land.
The result was tightening of private land either-sex hunting days in some counties that have both public and private land. At the same time, those counties feature some of the strictest doe-hunting rules seen in years.
Another wildcard in the public land hunting management challenges is a trend of reduced hunting. Hunter pressure has declined by 60 percent or more on public land over the past two decades, Knox said.
The decline in pressure is certainly reducing the deer kill on public land, and it’s possible the drop in the hunter kill has given the appearance that the public land herd is even smaller than it is in reality.
The acorn factor
While the overall deer population plays a huge roll in shaping a hunting season, the acorn mast crop is another important factor.
Heavy acorn years are a boon for wildlife, which benefits mightily from the nutritious tree nuts. For hunters, it can make things challenging.
Deer, as well as other game that feed on acorns, tend to be scattered during heavy mast years.
Knox pointed out that 80 percent of the landscape in Western Virginia is hardwood forest.
During poor mast years, not only are game concentrated — at least when feeding — on the 20 percent of the landscape that is more open, but the game are also easier to spot because of the nature of that landscape.
“When there is not mast in the woods, deer go to the fields,” Knox said. “Our experience is that it increases the deer kill.”
That appears to be what could happen this fall.
Knox is still crunching numbers from field observations, but said it’s pretty clear that the acorn crop is poor.
Knox deemed this year’s acorn crop as “horrific” and “historically bad.”
It’s more difficult to say what causes a mast failure.
“Some people say drought,” Knox noted. “Some people say rain. Some people say winter. I call it the God Factor.
“I don’t think anyone can predict mast years.”
While mast failures can make it easier to spot deer, and increase overall hunting success, hunters willing to put in scouting time still have an advantage.
Hunters who are able to find oak trees that produced stand the best chance of success. Deer will have found those trees, too. The acorns won’t last long, but while they are falling during bow season, those areas can be extraordinary hot spots.
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