North Carolina hunters, especially those in counties hit by last year’s outbreak of epizootic hemorrhagic disease, may wonder whether or how it will affect the 2015 season.
In 2014, the statewide deer harvest fell by 18.3-percent, the largest single-season drop on record. But it was dropping from an all-time record of 188,130 deer taken in 2013, so the 2014 harvest was still the ninth-largest since the N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission started keeping records in 1976.
But those numbers are little consolation to hunters, who want to know what the 2015 might hold for them. Will it mirror 2014? According to Commission biologists like Evan Stanford, who oversees the state’s whitetail deer, probably not. But full recoveries in last year’s hardest-hit counties likely will take at least two years.
According to Stanford, the reason for 2014’s big drop in harvest was two-fold: the EHD outbreak, plus a near-record acorn crop that had deer spending most of their time in cover.
As for the disease, the virus — actually multiple strains of the same virus — spreads to deer by biting gnats, sometimes called midges or “no see ums.”
“It’s also a cyclical disease, affecting some deer every few years,” Stanford said. “Deer build up immunities to the virus, but a new strain may appear and infect deer. That happened in 2014.”
Stanford said the largest mast crop in 25 years — and the second-largest in 32 years — meant billions more acorns on the ground, and deer didn’t need to travel far to find food, which lowered the chances of them running into hunters.
“From the coast to the mountains, we heard hunters saw no deer,” he said. “If you hunted over bait, you probably didn’t see many deer.”
Stanford said areas affected by EHD that also had big acorn crops — the northern Piedmont and northeastern counties along the Roanoke River — experienced the biggest drops in harvest.
Brad Howard, who supervises regional biologists for the Commission, said whether or not the 2015 deer harvest will be larger than 2014 is a big question.
“It remains to be seen,” he said “Deer herds with EHD outbreaks tend to rebound quickly, and some of (the harvest) is compounded by mast crops. Last year, EHD also left a lot of deer dead before the season began.”
He did however, note that back-to-back years with heavy acorn crops are rare, and that EHD is cyclical. He said it may take herds in some areas a year to rebound, two years in others.
Howard specifically referred to the five-county area near Raleigh that saw the largest declines in harvests: Chatham, Durham, Franklin, Vance, Warren and Wake counties.
“Some may rebound quickly,” he said. “We had a severe 2012 EHD outbreak in (northwest North Carolina), and deer came back pretty quickly.
“We will continue to be observant and monitor what we see on properties,” he said. “But how quickly a herd rebounds will depend on how it was in local areas.”
Howard said if landowners or hunt clubs are worried about seeing fewer deer, they should reduce doe harvests. Some deer experts recommend removing more does in order to improve the quality of a specific herd, but that strategy can lead to fewer fawns.
“If hunters are more selective in what they kill, it shouldn’t take more than a couple of years to see a local deer population come back up,” Howard said.
On a positive note, hunters brought some fantastic, trophy whitetails to the Dixie Deer Classic in Raleigh last February. The quality of big bucks compared favorably with previous years, even if the quantity was down.
Two were of particular importance, both archery kills. Todd Lowe’s 175 3/8-inch Davie County trophy became No. 2 all-time non-typical bow kill, while Steven Davis arrowed the best North Carolina buck ever taken by a crossbow, a Davidson County non-typical whose antlers measured 173 7/8 inches.
Despite big drops in their harvest, counties in the northeastern corner of the state still produced the most deer tagged last season: Northampton County with 4,516, Halifax County with 3,921 and Bertie County with 3,798. The rest of the top 10 counties was a jumble of counties from all over the Piedmont, the coast and northwestern mountains.
For hunters who didn’t have access to private land, the state’s game lands offered decent opportunities, especially national forests, with hunters taking 5,402 public-land deer.
Montgomery County, home of the Uwharrie National Forest, produced 302 deer taken on its public lands last year, followed by Chatham County with 290 and Wake County with 262. Chatham is home to the Jordan Lake and shares the Shearon Harris game lands with Wake County, which is home to a large part of the Butner-Falls of Neuse game lands. Macon County in the extreme western corner of North Carolina, recorded 211 deer taken on the Nantahala National Forest, and Craven County reported 210 deer taken on public lands; it’s home to the Croatan National Forest, plus the Dover Bay and Neuse River game lands.
As expected, most of the deer taken in North Carolina last season were dropped by modern firearms — rifles and shotguns. Hunters toting blackpowder guns into the woods accounted for about 11 percent of the total harvest with 17,709 deer, while bow hunters took 11,003. Hunters took an additional 5,602 deer with crossbows, a drop that mirrored the overall harvest drop.
Top Counties, 2014 Deer Harvest
1. Northampton 4,516
2. Halifax 3,921
3. Bertie 3,798
4. Anson 3,583
5. Union 3,062
6. Wilkes 2,956
7. Randolph 2,917
8. Rockingham 2,818
9. Bladen 2,787
10. Beaufort 2,681
N.C. Deer Harvests
Top Counties by Square Mile
County Antlered bucks (sq.mi).
1. Mecklenburg 3.70
2. Northampton 3.69
3. Alleghany 3.51
4. Forsyth 3.48
5. Cabarrus 3.24
6. Gaston 3.23
7. Stanly 3.11
8. Anson 2.88
9. Edgecombe 2.83
10. Hertford 2.77