North Carolina hunters tagged 162,558 whitetails during the 2015-16 season, a 5.8-percent increase over the previous season and the kind of modest jump that Jonathan Shaw, the N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission’s top deer biologist, had expected.

Shaw said he thought hunters would do much better than in 2014-15, when hemorrhagic disease and a huge acorn crop dropped the harvest by a stunning 18.3 percent.

“We had a large outbreak of (hemorrhagic disease) two seasons ago, plus a large mast crop,” he said. “The HD took out a lot of deer, many deer stayed in the woods because of the large acorn crop, and hunters didn’t see many at open fields.”

Shaw said several factors contributed to the recovery.

“With the expansion of archery to gun hunting on Sundays on private lands, hunters harvested an estimated three times more deer on Sundays compared to the 2014-2015 season” he said.

Although the harvest was 3.9 percent below the previous 10-year average, it was within average annual fluctuations and didn’t cause great concern for Shaw.

One point of worry was the drop in the coastal region kill.

“Every district in the east had a harvest decrease, including an 8.4-percent decline in (northeast North Carolina),” Shaw said. “Some of the declines may be related to outbreaks of HD, but many deer that survived (last year) build up immunity. We don’t fully understand if deer fight off one strain of HD but can’t fight off new strains.

“I think the high point of coastal deer occurred in the late 1980s and early 1990s, although in some places (they) were needed (to prevent crop damage).”

Roanoke River neighbors Northampton and Halifax counties led the harvest with 4,499 and 4,151 deer reported, with Bertie, another county on the big river, fourth with 3.642. Two southern Piedmont counties, Anson and Randolph, were third and fifth with 3,766 an 3,423 deer, respectively. Wilkes County from northwest North Carolina was sixth with 3,402, followed by Rockingham County with 3,252 and Ashe in the northwestern mountains with 2,891. Moore County in the Sandhills was ninth with 2,869, and Edgecombe County was 10th with 2,832.

Counties in the northern Piedmont had the biggest increases last season, 16 percent, in part because they had taken such a big hit with hemorrhagic disease the previous season.

Shaw said deer populations on private lands in the mountains are rising, with harvest increases of as much as 33 percent in some areas. 

“But there’s a lot of private land in the mountains, and habitat changes have been good,” Shaw said. “Lots of (field) edges remain, and there’s a lot of early-successional habitat. At private mountain lands, deer numbers are taking off.”