Since 2002, the deer harvest in South Carolina has dropped dramatically, more than 36 percent, causing many hunters to ask why and what’s being done. The quick answer is a trio of factors combined in a perfect-storm scenario to create the downward spiral, and the state legislature’s lack of definitive corrective action has allowed it to continue.
Charles Ruth, deer and turkey project supervisor for the S.C. Department of Natural Resources said the drop in harvest numbers are a result of three separate factors occurring at nearly the same time.
“These issues converged around the turn of the century, combining to create major problem our deer herd,” he said.
“The first issue was a dramatic change in habitat. Much habitat in South Carolina is dominated by commercial pines, and that’s not a bad thing, it’s just the nature of pine forests,” he said. “For the first 10 years, it’s an extremely productive habitat. A tremendous amount of land was in that stage in the 1980s and 1990s, and the deer population exploded. When pines get over 10 years old, their productive habitat for deer significantly decreases. We experienced a habitat change from one that supported a high deer population to one that didn’t.
“A second issue is hunters were harvesting a tremendous number of deer,” he said. “This aggressive harvest was necessary at that time because the expanding population created cultural issues such as crop depredation and vehicle /deer incidents. We needed an aggressive doe harvest to counter the rapidly expanding deer population. But when the growth boom stopped because of habitat, the harvest didn’t.”
Ruth said that around the same time, the third problem began to unfold and was more of an issue than SCDNR had thought it would be.
“Coyotes got entrenched, and now they’re found throughout the state,” Ruth said. “We’ve established a significant coyote impact on fawn survival, and they are an issue to be reckoned with. Around the turn of the century, we talked with biologists from western states, and they said the coyote issue would stabilize over time.
“One reason we underestimated the impact of coyotes was the deer harvest in many of those states is very conservative compared to our very aggressive harvest. We didn’t fully comprehend the impact of the conservative vs. aggressive harvest in terms of managing the herd with the addition of coyotes to the overall management.”
Ruth said by the time SCDNR realized the impact of coyotes in conjunction with the other two issues, the convergence of the three separate issues combined to cause the downward spiral in harvest.
“We’ve began decreasing doe days the last several years since we have that authority, but I think we need broad management changes approved by the legislature to properly manage the herd,” he said.
Ruth said managing the deer herd in South Carolina is different than in most states because the state legislature, not SCDNR, sets laws governing deer hunting. In most states, the legislature has provided authority to the wildlife agency, and the agency makes management and regulation changes when they are needed.
Ruth said that many hunters don’t understand the process in South Carolina and may not understand the difference between regulations and laws.
“Laws are set by the state legislature and can only be changed by the state legislature,” Ruth said. “Regulations, on the other hand, can best be described as a situation in which the legislature recognizes that an agency knowledgeable in something like wildlife needs flexibility to make management decisions as needed by the resource or as based on desires of constituents as long as it does not negatively affect the resource.”
“Outside of WMAs in South Carolina, SCDNR does not set deer seasons, limits or other restrictions related to hunting and management of deer,” Ruth said. “The agency’s role is to provide recommendations to the legislature, but ultimately, decisions related to deer hunting and management are up to the legislature.”
“A good example is the deer management changes that most hunters have been talking about,” he said. “SCDNR has been through a decade long process of measuring hunter opinion, as well as studying deer-harvest trends and research from various studies including coyote predation on deer fawns. With obvious changes in the deer population and changes in hunters desires, we’re often asked why (we haven’t) made the changes everyone has been talking about.
“Again, it is not as simple as SCDNR turning a switch” said Ruth. “SCDNR has had recommendations on the table, and this year the recommendation rose far enough to the surface that they are now being considered by the legislature. At this point, it is up to the legislature to determine if the information SCDNR has provided related to changes in the state’s deer population and hunter desires is sufficient to justify making deer management changes for the future.”