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2018 Virginia Deer Season Forecast

By Matt Knox

2017 Deer Season in Review

During the past deer season, 190,623 deer were reported harvested by deer hunters in Virginia (See Fig. 1). This total included 95,563 antlered bucks, 12,967 button bucks, and 82,093 does (43 percent). Archery (including crossbows) accounted for 15 percent of the deer harvest; muzzleloaders, 26 percent; and firearms, 60 percent.

Hunters who would like to know the annual deer kill totals by county dating back to 1947, including the county-specific 2017 totals, will find those numbers on the Department’s website.

What’s New for Fall 2018?

The city of Newport News, the town of Buchanan, and Stafford and Prince William counties have joined the urban archery deer season.

Hemorrhagic Disease (HD)

Good news: It was a fairly quiet HD year across most of Virginia in the fall of 2017. We received 137 HD calls, and the vast majority of them were from seven far southwest counties. The deer kill numbers were not significantly affected in this area. In southwest Virginia, we were on the eastern edge of a big HD event that spread across the Appalachian Plateau through eastern Tennessee and eastern Kentucky, and north through West Virginia into Ohio and Pennsylvania.

We also got enough HD reports and/ or DMAP HD data to be fairly sure that there was some HD activity in the central Piedmont in Buckingham, Charlotte, Cumberland, and Prince Edward counties and at the upper end of the Middle Peninsula (Caroline, Essex, King and Queen, and King William counties).

The best predictor for HD activity is drought. For more information, visit the HD section of the DGIF website.

Chronic Wasting Disease (CWD)

Bad news: There is a CWD bomb currently going off across the eastern two-thirds of the United States. Regrettably, this was not unexpected. The primary catalyst behind this unfolding tragedy is the past and current inter- and intra-state movement of live deer, particularly by the captive deer industry (deer farms, deer breeding facilities, and deer shooting preserves). Since Virginia does not have as many CWD risk or amplification factors as other states (e.g., a captive deer industry, feeding, baiting, etcetera), hopefully it will be spared the worst of this calamity. But only time will tell.

Last fall in our four-county CWD Containment Area (CA) in northwestern Virginia, 16 new CWD-positive deer were found among the 1,548 deer tested. This brings the CA total up to 38 CWD-positive deer since Virginia’s first such deer was found in 2009 in western Frederick County. Infected deer have been identified in western Frederick County (35) and the northern part of Shenandoah County (3). To date, the Department has tested approximately 8,140 deer in the Virginia CA area since 2005 when the first positive CWD deer was identified in Hampshire County, West Virginia.

This fall, the Department will begin a pilot program using cooperating taxidermists to initiate a statewide CWD surveillance program. For more information on CWD, go to the CWD section of the DGIF website.

Tidewater Forecast

Deer herds and deer kill numbers are down over the past ten years for most of the Tidewater Region. These declines were not unexpected. Approximately a decade ago, the Department implemented liberal either-sex deer hunting regulations over most of the region to address population objectives in the Deer Management Plan. These liberal regulations, combined with several HD events (particularly in the fall of 2014), have resulted in significantly reduced deer herds (down >=25 percent) in 17 of 26 (65 percent) Tidewater deer management units.

To address these declines, the Department has been cutting either-sex deer hunting days over most of the region during the past two regulation cycles. It is hoped that these reductions will allow Tidewater deer herds to stabilize or slowly recover. This may take several years.

The Department continues to maintain liberal seasons in most Tidewater counties south of the James River and east of I-95 but will be monitoring them closely in the future and will make adjustments as needed.

Continued high human population growth rates, crop damage, and deer-vehicle collisions remain important deer management issues in Tidewater. HD can play a major role here.

Southern Piedmont Forecast

HD hit the southeastern half of the southern Piedmont like a sledgehammer in the fall of 2014. Hence, deer populations are down over the last decade in the eastern half of the region. To address this big HD event, the Department reduced the number of firearms either-sex deer hunting days in many Southside counties back in the fall, 2015. These changes have been successful in reducing the female deer kill. Deer populations and deer kill numbers have remained stable in the western half of the southern Piedmont over the past decade.

Just like in Tidewater, HD can play a major role in the southern Piedmont. As long as there is not another big HD event this fall, deer herds over most of the region should be fairly stable or, hopefully, up slightly in the eastern half.

Northern Piedmont Forecast

This is the region where the Department continues to maintain liberal deer seasons. The female deer kill has been fairly high in this region for the past decade or more. Over most of this area, the Department continues to try to reduce the deer population to address population management objectives in the Deer Management Plan. The deer kill will hopefully be stable to slightly down in this region over the next several years. The good news is that deer herd reductions have been documented in Loudoun, Prince William, and Stafford counties. Continued very high human population growth rates and deer-vehicle collisions remain important deer management issues in the northern Piedmont. HD can also play a role here.

West of the Blue Ridge Mountains

Deer management in western Virginia remains a tale of two different management situations. Deer herds on private lands over most of western Virginia have been fairly stable over the past two decades (with an exception in the three Alleghany-Highland counties).

The biggest challenge in deer management in western Virginia over the past 20-plus years has been the decline in public land deer hunters, and thus, the public land deer kill in the mountains. To address this decline, the number of either-sex deer hunting days on western public lands has been reduced significantly over the past decade to very conservative levels. These changes have been successful in reducing the female deer kill, and the western public land deer kill decline appears to have hit its lowest point and is perhaps starting to increase, albeit very slowly.

Relative Deer Abundance Map

The best way to compare deer populations in Virginia is based on the antlered buck deer kill per square mile of estimated deer habitat. Figure 2 shows the relative differences among counties in the harvest of antlered bucks per square mile of habitat on private land averaged over the past three hunting seasons. This map indicates the relative densities of deer on private lands in counties across Virginia. This is the best map of “where” deer are in Virginia. The descriptions for each group (very low, low, moderate, et cetera) are subjective.

Top Issue: Declining Number of Deer Hunters

A major challenge in deer management in Virginia that cannot be overlooked continues to be the steady decline of the number of licensed deer hunters. From just under 300,000 licensed deer hunters in the early 1990s to an estimated 193,500 in the fall of 2017, the Department has lost more than one-third of its licensed deer hunters over the past 25 years. In the past decade, we have lost ~46,000 (19 percent); in the past five years, ~30,000 (13 percent); and just last fall, ~6,500 (3 percent).

In my opinion, this decline in deer hunters represents the biggest statewide deer management issue. The decline in deer hunter licenses will have a significant, negative impact on the Department’s finances and may have a negative impact on the Department’s ability to manage deer populations through recreational deer hunting over much of the commonwealth.

Today, there are many deer hunters in Virginia who think the Department has killed all the deer. In their defense, the Department hit the deer herd very hard over the past decade, especially on private land in eastern Virginia. As I have written earlier, in the not too distant future it is possible that the major deer management issue in Virginia will not be “where are the deer?” but “where are the deer hunters?”

Summary

So what is the forecast for the fall 2018 deer season? A major increase or decrease in the statewide deer kill from last fall (190,623) is not expected. We cannot expect to harvest approximately 200,000 or more deer annually with a continuing decline in deer hunters.

Lastly, past experience indicates that the ups and downs in annual deer kill totals are in part attributable to mast conditions and/or HD outbreaks. In years of poor mast crops, the deer kill typically goes up. In years of good mast crops, the deer kill typically goes down.

Persons interested in more information on Virginia’s deer management program will find the Department’s Deer Management Plan. Please support the Virginia Hunters for the Hungry program, do not feed the deer and, most importantly, be safe.

This white-tailed deer update was submitted by Matt Knox, who serves as the statewide deer project manager out of the Forest office.

This article originally appeared in Virginia Wildlife Magazine.

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