South Carolina has for decades been touted as one of America’s top whitetail states, but harvest numbers continue to decline in the Palmetto State, with 11 percent fewer animals collected in 2016 than in 2015. This decline has been ongoing for nearly 15 years, dating back to 2002.
The 2016 harvest was down 11 percent from 2015, to 172,315. State Department of Natural Resources deer project leader Charles Ruth said hunters took 99,678 bucks and 72,637 does, continuing the decline.
The state Department of Natural Resources released last week the results of its 2016 Deer Hunter Survey, noting the statistics were not surprising considering "poor hunting conditions last fall" due to Hurricane Matthew and persistent rains.
Increasing rapidly through the 1980s and 1990s, the deer population in South Carolina has generally been declining over the last dozen years and results from 2016 continued that trend. The reduction in harvest can likely be attributed to a number of factors including habitat change.
"Although forest management activities stimulated significant growth in South Carolina’s deer population from the 1970s through the 1990s, considerable acreage is currently in even-aged stands that are greater than 15 years old," Ruth said in a release. "According to forest inventory data, during the last 20 years, the states’ timberlands in the 0- to 15-year age-class dropped 34 percent while timberlands in the 16- to 30-year age class increased 104 percent. "These older stands are not as productive and simply do not support deer densities at the same level as younger stands in which food and cover is more available in the understory," Ruth noted.
He added that coyotes are a recent addition to the landscape and make for another piece of the puzzle.
SCDNR has recently completed a major long-term study with researchers from the United States Forest Service Southern Research Station at the Savannah River Site, investigating the affects coyotes are having on the survival of deer fawns. This research demonstrated that coyotes can be a significant predator of deer fawns, that predation by coyotes can be an additive source of mortality, and that efforts to increase fawn recruitment via coyote control provided only modest results and at high cost.
"Obviously, one cannot apply these results uniformly across the state because habitats, coyote densities, deer densities, etc. vary," Ruth said. "However, coyotes are now well established in South Carolina so they should be expected to play a role in deer population dynamics at some level."
Ruth said this "new mortality factor," combined with extremely liberal deer harvests that have been the norm in South Carolina, "are clearly involved in the reduction in deer numbers in the last decade."
Given this and the difficulty and high cost of coyote control, Ruth said its apparent that making adjustments to how the department manages deer, particularly female deer, is more important now than prior to the colonization of the state by coyotes.
"As it relates specifically to the decrease in harvest during the 2016 deer season, it should be noted that hunting conditions in South Carolina were poor during the fall of 2016," Ruth said. "This began the first week in October with Hurricane Matthew. The magnitude of this event forced a flood-related temporary season closure for all game species in a number of coastal counties."
Although these closures only lasted 5 to 10 days, the aftermath of Matthew "created access and other problems for deer hunters," Ruth said.
"The deer harvest in a number of coastal counties affected by the storm was down (more than) 25 percent, which dramatically affected statewide totals," Ruth said. "Additionally, hunting was negatively impacted across the state by unseasonably warm temperatures and what many called a record acorn crop, both of which negatively affected daytime movements by deer."
Ruth said that hunters faced similarly poor hunting conditions in 2015 as a result of the 1,900-year flood spawned and exacerbated by Hurricane Jouquin.
"Provided that hunting conditions are more normal, the deer harvest in 2017 is expected to increase because many deer that would normally have been harvested the last two years were not and should be carried-over at some level," Ruth noted.
Top counties for harvest in 2016 included Calhoun, Hampton, and Orangeburg in the coastal plain and Anderson and Spartanburg in the Piedmont, with each of these counties exhibiting harvest rates in excess of 12-deer-per-square-mile.
"This should be considered extraordinary," Ruth said. "Although the harvest has declined in recent years, South Carolina still ranks near the top among southeastern states in harvest per unit area."
Ruth added that all areas of South Carolina have "long and liberal firearms seasons" and the majority of deer - 137,163 - were taken with centerfire rifles in 2016. Shotguns - 16,025 deer - and archery equipment - 11,373 deer - also contributed significantly to the overall deer harvest.
"Muzzleloaders, crossbows and handguns combined - 7,754 deer - produced less than 5 percent of the total statewide harvest," he added.
Although the annual Deer Hunter Survey focuses on deer hunting activities, there are questions on the survey related to the harvest of wild hogs and coyotes in the State. Results of this year’s survey indicate that about 28,513 coyotes were taken incidental to deer hunting, down 2 percent from 2015. On the other hand, about 25,252 wild hogs were killed statewide, representing a 25 percent decrease from 2015 likely related to pig mortality as a result of major coastal flooding two years in a row.
Other survey statistics indicate that about 124,589 South Carolina residents and 14,408 non-residents hunter deer in the state in last year. Deer hunters reported an overall success rate of 65 percent.
"Overall hunting effort was estimated at more than 2 million days," Ruth said. "The number of days devoted to deer hunting in South Carolina is very significant and points not only to the availability and popularity of deer as a game species, but to the obvious economic benefits related to this important natural resource. About $200 million in direct retail sales is related to deer hunting in South Carolina annually."