The raw numbers jump out at you: the deer harvest in South Carolina declined for the eighth year in a row in 2010, down between 25 to 30 percent from the record harvest of 2002. The statewide deer population is estimated at 725,000 - about a quarter of a million animals less than the mid-1990s when herd numbers peaked at around a million deer.

But, according to the state's top deer biologist, the sky is not falling.

In fact, things are actually looking pretty rosy for deer and deer hunters, according to Charles Ruth, deer and wild turkey program coordinator for the S.C. Department of Natural Resources.

"Nothing is broken. We have plenty of deer, not nearly as much as the maximum, but that said, considering the changes we've seen, we are in good shape," Ruth said.

The "changes" are at the root of the recent decline in deer numbers across the state

"We went through a fair number of years in the late '90s going up to 2002 where the great population increase we saw throughout the '80s gradually decreased. What caused that decrease was a combination of primarily three things."

Those three factors were habitat change, hunter efficiency in harvesting deer and the predation on deer fawns by the growing population of coyotes.

"There was a lot of timber cut in the '80s and '90s, which created a lot of good deer habitat. Most of those areas were replanted in pines, and early on, there were vast areas of early successional vegetation where food and cover is more available," Ruth said. "Now, those areas support 10- to 20-year-old pine plantations and are not productive from a deer standpoint."

Hunters have done their part, too, in helping bring the one-time exploding population under control, Ruth said.

"We have shot a lot of deer in South Carolina in the last 15 years, especially with such a long season and liberal bag limits. We were fighting deer in the '90s, trying to stop that population increase, and the hunters did a really good job. It was a successful effort to stop that population growth, and the hunters deserve a lot of credit," he said. "Now, we are looking at different habitat conditions and need to throttle back on being too aggressive in the harvest."

And then there is the effect of coyotes on fawn survival, he noted. An ongoing study on the Savannah River Site has determined that 70 percent of fawns do not survive and coyote predation accounts for 80 percent of that mortality.

All three of these factors coming together at a fairly close point in time in recent years have had a dramatic effect on the deer population, Ruth said.

"A lot of folks want to worry about what we need to do about coyotes, but I think we have got to learn to live with them. At this point, it is much more important to focus on the other side of the equation: how we manage deer. That is something we can control to a large extent. We may not be able to control to a large extent what the coyotes are doing."

The question that must be asked, Ruth said, is that with the liberal seasons and bag limits how did the deer herd grow to the point it did in the '80s and into the '90s? The survey results show that hunters are asking themselves that question and also what changes are necessary to finally manage South Carolina's deer population, both for quantity and quality.

Last December, acting on the findings of a survey of deer hunters, the SCDNR Board voted to propose changes in the laws governing deer harvest to provide for a statewide annual limit of four bucks per hunter and a mandatory tagging program to include all harvested deer, both bucks and does.

The deer-hunting recommendations, which included a nominal fee of $5 per tag for residents and $25 per tag for non-residents, was based on support from hunters at public meetings and via mail, telephone and internet-based surveys. Those surveys determined that 70 percent of hunters supported the concept of a reasonable limit on antlered bucks and implementation of a tagging program to provide for enforcement of the limit.

Concerned about the effect of unregulated harvest on deer across the state, more than 70 percent of hunters surveyed also would agree to pay a modest fee to implement the program and to pay for deer research and management.

The deer hunting recommendations were included in the agency's Legislative Proposal for the 2011-2012 session, but it languished in the general assembly with no action taken. Unlike most other states, South Carolina's authority to establish limits and seasons rests with the legislature, not with SCDNR. Politics and tradition rule in all hunting and fishing areas in South Carolina, but especially with deer and turkeys.

That being said, South Carolina's deer population is healthy at this point and hopefully will remain that way, whether or not SCDNR is granted more authority to regulate hunting and deer management, Ruth said optimistically.

The 2010 season, like many seasons before, bear him out. Total harvest figures show 140,462 hunters harvested 222,649 deer, including 116,755 bucks and 105,894 does. When considering the estimated deer habitat available in South Carolina, the 2010 harvest statewide was 10.5 deer per square mile, down 3.9 percent from 2009 and 30.9 percent from the record harvest in 2002. Although the deer population has declined in recent years, that harvest rate compares favorably with most other states.

The top five counties for harvest per unit area were Bamberg, Allendale, Orangeburg, Anderson and Spartanburg, with each county exhibiting harvest rates above 15 deer per square mile, which is considered extraordinary. Very few areas in the United States yield comparable harvest figures.

"The top five counties for total deer harvest were very similar to what we have been seeing the past six to eight years: all large rural counties which have more land for people to hunt," Ruth said.

In total harvest, the top counties were Orangeburg, Williamsburg, Colleton, Bamberg, Laurens and Florence.

The harvest rate on all state Wildlife Management Areas was down 8.1 percent over the 2009 rate. More deer were harvested on the Mountain Hunt Unit (1,255) than the total on the 17 smaller Coastal WMAs (1,248).

The top WMAs for total harvest included the Central Piedmont Hunt Unit (3,337), Western Piedmont Hunt Unit (1,970), Mountain Unit (1,255), Francis Marion WMA (349) and Hamilton Ridge (118). However, the top three WMAs based on deer harvested per square mile were in the Coastal Plain, with the fourth- and fifth-ranked WMAs in the Piedmont. The top five in that group included Botany Bay WMA (21.3 deer/square mile), Bear Island WMA (19.0), Cross Generating Station WMA (16.6), Central Piedmont (13.4) and Western Piedmont (10.6).

While overall harvest numbers are down in some areas - although some counties are actually up over last year - the quality of the deer harvested is up considerably, Ruth said.

"Where we had a lot of deer in the Piedmont and lower Coastal Plain, we don't have as many as we did, but that is not a bad thing, because in a lot of those areas, we were fighting the deer population in years past," he said. "And I have to give the hunters credit. Most of them realize the relationship between deer numbers and quality. You can't have a lot of deer and have a lot of big deer at the same point in time –- it just does not work that way. Most hunters recognize that, and most hunters now are okay with sacrificing quantity to get better quality."

The place where that really stands out, he noted, is in the state deer records program.

"The number of antlers going into the records program is really high the last three to five years. That is pretty notable here in South Carolina when you look at the history of our records program."

Ruth is optimistic that deer hunting will continue to be a great South Carolina tradition far into the future despite - or perhaps because of - the decreases in the deer population.

"We still have a great resource in our deer population, even though we are not carrying as many deer as we once did - which by all accounts is a good thing. But I think unless we make some changes in our management approach, we are probably going to see decreases at least to some point and we don't know what that point will be," he said.

"If we do make changes, I think we can staiblize what has been a decreasing trend and, at that point, some of it will depend on hunters' desires. If they want to see a few more or a few less, we would have the opportunity then to manage it at a more reasonable level by manipulating the antlerless deer harvest."