New deer regulations are coming to South Carolina, and most hunters agree that this is long overdue. While the new regulations have not yet been enacted, or even completely decided upon, you can bet that the 2016 deer season will come with rules that are vastly different than what South Carolina hunters have ever seen.

These changes have been in the making for several years, and if you’ve been around a deer hunting camp or a QDMA meeting in South Carolina in the past decade, you’ve likely heard someone ask the question of why the SCDNR hasn’t already made some changes to the Palmetto State’s deer hunting regulations, especially concerning the limit on bucks and the lack of a tagging or reporting system to make the very few limits enforceable.

The answer to that question is simple, but not common knowledge to a lot of hunters, including many hunters who are well-versed in the SCDNR’s hunting regulation booklet, which is updated yearly. The SCDNR does not have the authority to change our deer hunting regulations; enforcement is their job, but the regulations are set by lawmakers. This makes the procedure long and, no pun intended, political.

The SCDNR does make recommendations once a politician has introduced a bill to change certain hunting or fishing regulations, and they have done that with Senate Bill 454, which was passed by the S.C. Senate last spring, and will be taken up by the S.C. House when they reconvene in January. 

Through public meetings, the SCDNR heard from hunters and other folks interested in the agency’s recommendations, and recently released to the public their suggestions for what the new deer hunting regulations should look like. 

Charles Ruth, biologist and Deer Program Manager for SCDNR, said the main purpose of those meetings was to determine if hunters support a limit on antlered bucks, a tagging system for all deer, and using changes in the state’s deer population that will help in managing the deer with a better hunting future in mind.

Ruth pointed out that there is virtually no limit on bucks in Game Zones 1 and 2, which include the Piedmont and Mountains. While the law states a 5 buck limit is in place here, no tagging or reporting system exists, so hunters are not bound in any realistic way to follow this limit, and it is not possible for officials to prosecute anyone who disregards this limit.

Game Zones 3 and 4, said Ruth, have no daily or season limits, so hunters can literally kill as many bucks as they choose. This is in stark contrast to every other state in the nation that has a whitetail deer population. It is also the complete opposite of all other wild fish and game regulations within South Carolina. Ruth said this is baffling, considering the buck deer is probably South Carolina’s most valuable resource.

Ruth also compared our lack of buck limits with the limits on bucks in other states throughout the southeast. North Carolina has a two buck limit in the western part of the state, while the eastern part has a four buck limit, which is the highest limit throughout the region, other than South Carolina’s. The buck limits in the other southeastern states vary from one to three, making South Carolina’s lack of a limit even more questionable.

Nationwide, the limit on bucks is even more conservative in some states. Additionally, all but two  other states have some sort of physical tagging system. Mississippi and Florida are the two other states without physical tags, but they have antler restrictions on all bucks killed, giving hunters and DNR officers an easy way of knowing if a buck is legal or not. South Carolina, said Ruth, is clearly the outsider in deer management, and he said it is clear to see why our state’s deer population is down.

This decline, according to SCDNR, is due to a few main reasons. Changes in habitat, especially the increase in planted pines throughout the state, and all the planting practices involved, is one reason. Another reason is the proliferation of coyotes, which feast on young deer, throughout the state in the past 20 years. The third reason, and the one the SCDNR can most easily manage, is the extremely liberal harvest numbers throughout the state.

Through extensive surveys and other data-collection practices, the SCDNR has learned that only seven percent of all hunters kill more than four bucks per season, which would lead some to argue that no changes are needed to current regulations. A closer look, however, reveals that those seven percent kill far more than four per year, and account for a total of thirty percent of all bucks killed. Those same hunters also kill far fewer does (79% more) than bucks.These are the hunters that the new regulations are geared toward impacting, and realistically the only hunters who will feel, in their minds, negatively affected by any changes. 

So what does the SCDNR recommend for the new deer hunting regulations? Ruth said the agency had to come up with a single plan that enough hunters support for the legislature to consider it. This means, said Ruth, that the proposal is a compromise, and not exactly what everyone wants. “Some will will argue that the proposed buck limit is either too high or too low, or that we need antler restrictions, however, at this point, any move toward a more modern approach is a move in the right direction,” he said.

The new regulation would make limits enforceable through a tagging system, and would allow hunters to kill a limit of four antlered bucks per hunter, per season. Each licensed hunter would also be allowed to kill a maximum of four antlerless deer per season. Tagging would be required on all deer, making these limits easily enforceable. Doe days, at least in the traditional sense, would be eliminated so that no deer killed by a hunter in South Carolina will be untagged again. As long as a hunter has antlerless deer tags, however, any day after Sept. 14 would be a legal day to kill a doe.

The Antlerless Deer Quota Program, which gives a number of tags to hunters and farmers with large tracts of agricultural land, will be changed to the Deer Quota Program under the new regulation. This change would add bucks to the program, which historically has only included does. Limits on these properties would be different (maybe higher, maybe lower) than the state limits, and would be based on the size of the property and harvest rates for the county.

What is this going to cost each hunter? Aside from the annual hunting license, resident hunters will pay a total of $15 to receive four buck tags and four doe tags. This is less than what hunters currently pay ($20) for four doe tags. Non-resident hunters will pay $30 for their first tag, and $10 for each additional tag.

If you would like the complete the SCDNR questionnaire on the proposed changes to South Carolina’s deer hunting regulations, visit their deer survey website.