North Carolina deer hunters continue to harvest a lot of young bucks, but they’re proportionally tagging more does and fewer bucks each season, according to a survey of 22,500 hunters by the N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission.

In theory, the harvest trends should lead to a more-balanced, healthier herd with more big bucks, but that isn’t always the case because of other factors, the Commission implied in the survey, which could point to more of a management focus on quality deer instead of just growing more whitetails.

The study divided North Carolina’s four whitetail regions — eastern, central, northwestern and western — into 10 parts and examined:

buck ages at time of harvest;

percentage of antlered bucks killed before the peak of breeding seasons;

dispersal of yearling (18-month-old) bucks; 

effects of buck harvest on optimal fawning dates;

the ideal buck-doe ratio;

effects of balanced sex ratios on breeding seasons;

effects of more breeding competition on hunters’ success.

Biologists point to 20 percent as a goal for the number of bucks that should be killed before the peak of the breeding season. The survey indicated that North Carolina hunters are killing well above that level, which may be negatively affecting the herd.

“The timing of the deer season is important (because) young bucks leave their birth area just before the rut begins to establish a permanent home range elsewhere,” said Dr. Jonathan Shaw, the Commission’s chief deer biologist. “Limiting buck harvests before peak breeding allows for this exchange of young bucks across the landscape to occur, which enables interested landowners to more effectively protect their yearling bucks.”

In eastern North Carolina, only in the coastal area from the Virginia border south to Carteret County, do hunters take less than 20 percent of bucks before the estimated Oct. 11 peak of the breeding season. Hunters in the northern and southeastern regions took 38 and 34 percent of their bucks early.

In the northern Piedmont, hunters took 39 percent of the total buck harvest before the estimated Nov. 8 peak of the rut, with 43 percent of all bucks taken in the southern Piedmont before the estimated Nov. 20 peak of the rut.

Hunters in northwestern North Carolina take about 43 percent of their bucks before the peak of the breeding season, which can occur from Nov. 8 to Dec. 5, depending on the county.

In western North Carolina’s mountains, hunters took 76 percent of all bucks before the Dec. 5 peak of the rut, with the exception of Avery, Mitchell and Cleveland counties, where the mark was 43 percent.

Shaw also said managing for a buck age-structure with older age-classes improves balance in the adult sex ratio and increases breeding competition.

“A biological objective is for no more than 30 percent of antlered buck harvest to be in the yearling (1 1/2-year-old) class,” he said.

North Carolina hunters have become more selective over the years, the survey showed. Thirty years ago, 60 percent of all bucks taken were yearlings, and only 2 percent were 4 1/2 years or older. By 2013, that figure had dropped to 30 percent, with 10 percent of the harvest made up of bucks 4 1/2 or older.  The survey said the trend of letting more young bucks walk has increased every year since 1985.

Doe harvests also need to be balanced, Shaw said.

“Balanced sex ratios mean shorter breeding seasons, so more fawns that are born around the same time may improve the odds of avoiding predators,” he said.

Doe harvests in the central, northwestern and western sections have hovered around 50 percent for the past 25 years, while hunters in eastern North Carolina have been taking 42-percent does annually.