The 2010 deer season will wipe away the traditional August 15 start date for hunting in the Francis Marion National Forest just north of Charleston. Due to hunter concern and biological data that reveals decreasing deer numbers, the hunting season will not open until Sept 1 in the Francis Marion.

The month of September will be bow hunting only, except for a few previously scheduled dog drives, in an attempt to match the best harvest technique with the current deer population

"We have been hearing from hunters that the deer just aren't here like they used to be," said Sam Chappelear is a DNR wildlife biologist who is regional coordinator for nine counties, including the Francis Marion. "So we went out and conducted spotlight surveys at night to shore up those beliefs.

"We didn't want to take away any hunting opportunity, but we are now stressing archery as a better early season management tool."

As a result, another change in the 2010 Francis Marion season is the decrease in the annual bag limit from eight deer per season to four deer per season.

These changes apply to all SCDNR-monitored wildlife management areas within the forest: Hellhole, Wambaw, Northampton, SanteeĀ and Waterhorn. Firearm hunting is allowed from Oct. 1 until Jan. 1 in the Francis Marion National Forest.

Dog-drive hunts originally scheduled for August have now been rescheduled for October, and dog drives scheduled for September will be conducted on these specific dates: Santee WMA on Sept. 10-11, Wambaw WMA on Sept. 24, and Northampton WMA on Sept. 25.

Deer harvest data shows that August represents only 1.6-percent of the total harvest at Francis Marion, while other data suggests that the Francis Marion has the lowest deer harvest per square mile of any WMA in the state.

"When our Low Country deer density is on par with the mountain units of the upstate, we know something has changed," Chappelear said.

Factors contributing to deer population decrease are coyote predation, an increase in feral hogs and even the fact that the forest is reaching a mature status 20 years after Hurricane Hugo transformed it overnight into the kind of thick habitat that deer thrive in.

"Habitat degradation is directly related to the carrying capacity of the land – or its ability to support a large deer herd," Chappelear explained. "There is no doubt that that maturation of the National Forest is going to continue."

He also pointed out that it is legal to shoot a coyote or a hog in the forest during any hunting season.

"Coyotes in the Francis Marion and predation is still a major questions mark," Chappelear said. "The research out of the Savannah River Site shows coyotes having a tremendous effect on fawn mortality. Here in the Francis Marion, hunters report packs of coyotes howling in certain pockets, but we can't say if their population has increased.

"It's the same with feral hogs: There is no way to keep a count of them, but we do know that they compete with deer for similar habitat."