DEER SPECIAL: State of the Deer Herd

A biologist gives insight into the fluctuations of Georgia's deer herd over the last three decades.

White-tailed deer have had a rocky existence since European settlement in the eastern United States. Decades of market hunting, habitat destruction and lack of game laws ultimately exhausted the Georgia deer population by the turn of the 20th century with the exception of a few game preserves.

At this time both laws and attitudes began to shift. In 1937, the creation of the Federal Aid in Wildlife Restoration Act gave deer restocking programs the funding they needed to be successful. Georgia’s restocking program from 1928 until 1992 relocated 4,067 deer from other states and from remnant populations within the state.

In the 1960s, the newly established deer populations grew following the bulk of the stocking efforts. Success of the program was already evident, but game laws remained restrictive to protect the budding deer herd. By the 1970s, isolated deer populations began to merge and would ultimately form a single statewide population. This decade closed with a total statewide deer population in excess of 400,000 deer. Considering deer had been nearly extinct, this marked an amazing success in the program.

With restoration nearly complete, deer-herd management became the primary task at hand. Georgia had entered uncharted territory with a wildly expanding deer population. In a way, Georgia deer had an easy life with increasingly good habitat, few predators and an almost complete lack of winter mortality. Most native predators were extirpated, leaving hunters as the largest source of deer mortality.

Even disease had minimal impact on the population as a whole. Hemorrhagic disease, commonly referred to as blue tongue, was and remains the most important disease of whitetails and is capable of causing large die-offs in susceptible herds. Over the years, the high frequency of hemorrhagic disease in Georgia resulted in varying degrees of immunity. From there, it seemed the deer population had nowhere to go but up.

Over the next three decades, there were many interesting changes in deer populations, and many Georgians have hunted long enough to experience them. But what were the causes for these fluctuations, and how did they affect deer management? Using the figures, we’ll take a look at the deer population, hunter statistics and deer management over the last three decades to see how we got where we are today.

1980s: Death of the Doe Stigma

This decade began with a deer population of just fewer than 1/2 million deer and a renewed interest in deer hunting. The number of deer hunters in 1980 had doubled since 1965, and discussions of huge bucks likely dominated campfire talk. By this time, a reasonable chance at killing a deer had become a reality for more hunters.

Increasing hunter success has a way of luring in new or casual hunters, and better days were to come. By 1986, the deer population doubled to almost 1 million deer and was quite possibly larger than it was prior to European settlement. With such a substantial increase in deer, the population could sustain higher levels of harvest, which resulted in a bag limit increase from three to five deer in 1988.

Though the bag limit increase didn’t yield a much higher total deer harvest for a few years, the percentage of does in the harvest increased 25 percent. Hunter numbers also increased over the next couple of years. In those days, there was likely a strong correlation between hunter numbers and deer population. With respect to deer management, this decade saw a radical change in objectives.

For most of the state, the bulk of the harvest was shifting from bucks to does. Buck-only regulations and restrictive doe harvest are excellent tools for growing a population but not so great for controlling one. Still, it would take a few more years to diminish the stigma of killing does. As the 1980s came to a close, bucks comprised about 60 percent of the harvest.

1990s: The Advent of QDM

This decade experienced the most rapid changes in many aspects of deer hunting in recent years. For one, the number of deer hunters in Georgia hit an all-time high of about 350,000 in 1991. As a result, this also marked the first, and much needed, reduction in the deer population since the wildlife-restoration era began.

The early 1990s brought the first widespread mention of quality deer management (QDM) to many hunters, and the philosophy grew. This, too, likely had an effect on the reduction in the deer population. QDM encouraged hunters to balance the deer population within the limitations of the habitat, improve habitat and improve the age structure of the deer herd.

Through the desire for better quality bucks, QDM encouraged many hunters to become land managers. Interest in firmer measures for increasing buck age structure also increased. In the mid ’90s, Georgia developed an intensive public-participation process for individual counties to have self-imposed regulatory antler restrictions.

Even though the state deer population was brought to a relatively healthy level by 1994, it would be short-lived. As observed in the past, hunter numbers correlate with the deer population. With slightly fewer deer in the early 1990s, it is possible some casual hunters weren’t willing to put in the extra effort, and with fewer hunters through the mid-1990s, the deer population increased once again.

By the late 1990s, demanding jobs and limited free time had a negative affect on the retention and recruitment of hunters. At this point, hunting regulations were too restrictive to appeal to some landowners and hunting clubs that desired greater flexibility to meet management objectives. As a friend of mine once cleverly put it, “We picked our foot up off the throat of the deer herd and let it get away.”

The highest deer population ever documented in the state of Georgia, 1.4 million, occurred in 1997. Many deer hunters can recall that dodging road-crossing deer was a required skill in the late ’90s. To make matters worse, the relationship between hunter numbers and deer population was weakening. Even with a record harvest in excess of 500,000, the expected increase in hunter numbers that usually follows an increase in deer density was not observed. Recognizing the need for greater flexibility for deer managers and the potential of meeting annual harvest goals to manage a statewide deer herd, substantial increases in doe days were provided for many counties.

2000s: Stabilizing Hunter Numbers

The 2000s threw some interesting twists. Early on, hunter numbers were still declining, but with longer seasons and a flexible bag limit (to eight deer in 2000 and then 12 deer in 2002), harvest remained adequate to manage the statewide herd. It would take a sustained harvest of more than 400,000 deer for seven years and possibly some help from a new predator to see a notable decrease in population.

This illustrates how whitetails can dominate the landscape. Although 400,000 seems like a heap of deer to kill in one year, most Southeastern deer populations can sustain an annual harvest of 30 percent without decreasing. In fact, an annual harvest of 30 percent is generally necessary to keep a statewide deer herd stable.

In 2008, the statewide population was estimated at little less than 1 million deer, a mark not seen since 1986. This reduction frustrated some hunters; however, Georgia’s present deer population is very healthy and, by and large, in balance with available habitat.

To put this into perspective, a million deer statewide works out to a density of about 26 deer per forested square mile. The statewide deer population has been relatively stable for the last three years.

More good news finally began to surface around the middle of this decade; hunter numbers seemed to be stabilizing. By 2005, the dramatic decrease in hunter numbers seemed to level off and actually increased slightly before stabilizing around 300,000, which is comparable to 1980.

One can only suspect, and we all hope, hunter numbers have stabilized. Interest in QDM remains widespread. In fact, public demand affected a change in the statewide bag limit that requires one of the two allowable bucks to have at least four points on one side. It seems, and the data supports, that Georgia hunters already accomplished the goal of this change through voluntary self control in the years prior. The percentage of yearling bucks in the harvest had already dropped a whopping 27 percent in the 10 years prior to the restriction. Furthermore, the percentage of bucks 3 1/2 years and older rose 50 percent in the same time frame.

What Now?

Now that we’ve been through the rollercoaster ride that was the history of Georgia deer, where are we now?

For starters, we have a quality deer herd, stable population density and great habitat. Yes, the deer population is lower than at times in the past, particularly those herds witnessed by hunters in the 1990s. Aside from deer-vehicle collisions, agricultural damage and increasing social conflicts, a population of 1.4 million deer would be great. You could hang a stand virtually anywhere and always see deer.

Despite scouting requiring more effort these days, the benefits of balancing the herd size with the habitat are evident in the quality of deer. In 10 years, average scores for mature bucks have increased more than 22 percent. A 115-inch buck a decade ago was like a 140-inch buck today!

Georgia has also produced more record-book bucks than any other Southeastern state. Our current season length and bag limits allow for great flexibility. Hunters can carry out a management plan for their property, but the regulations do not limit harvest opportunities for the individual hunter.

This does not mean hunters should always try to fill the bag limit, even if it is possible. It does mean hunters should exercise their own good judgment in harvest decisions.

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