S.C. deer harvest increased slightly in 2020

deer harvest

South Carolina deer harvest data for 2020 hunting season

During the 2020 deer season it is estimated that a total of 107,212 bucks and 90,681 does were harvested for a statewide total of 197,893 deer. This represents a 2.4 percent increase in harvest from 2019 (193,073) and is 38 percent below the record harvest established in 2002 (319,902). After many years of rapidly increasing from the 1970’s to the mid-1990’s, the deer population in South Carolina exhibited relative stability between 1995 and 2002. Between 2003 and 2015, however, the population trended down with the overall reduction in harvest likely attributable to a number of factors, including habitat change, two decades of aggressive antlerless deer harvest, and the complete colonization of the state by coyotes and their impact on fawn survival. Since 2016 the states’ deer harvest has increased possibly as a result of declining coyote densities that would naturally occur following colonization.

The fall of 2020 was the fourth season of the “all deer” tagging system and statewide limit on antlered deer. Although the harvest has increased (15%) since 2016, this increase is primarily a result of an increase in doe harvest (25%) rather than an increase in the harvest of bucks (7%). Prior to the tagging program, increases in harvest were normally the result of increases in the buck harvest or a more equal increase in buck and doe harvest. This disproportionate increase in harvest between the sexes may be indicative of the new buck limit having the desired effect of decreasing pressure on bucks and increasing the harvest on does. It will likely take a few more years for this to become clearer.

Harvest per unit area county rankings

Comparisons can be made between deer harvests from the various counties in South Carolina if a harvest per unit area is established. Harvest per unit area standardizes the harvest among counties regardless of the size of individual counties. One measure of harvest rate is the number of deer taken per square mile (640ac. = 1 mile2). When considering the estimated deer habitat that is available in South Carolina, the deer harvest rate in 2020 was 9.3 deer per square mile over the entire state. Although the deer harvest in the state has generally declined in recent years, South Carolina remains at the top among southeastern states, many of which have also noted a declining trend. The top 5 counties for harvest per unit area were Anderson (18.1 deer/mile2), Spartanburg (17.1 deer/mile2), Bamberg (16.4 deer/mile2), Orangeburg (15.3 deer/mile2), and Saluda (13.8 deer/mile2).

Deer harvest rankings by county

Total deer harvest by county is not comparable among counties because counties vary in size and are, therefore, not directly comparable. However, it has become customary to rank the counties based on number of deer harvested. The top 5 counties during 2020 were Orangeburg, Colleton, Spartanburg, Williamsburg, and Hampton.

Deer harvest on Wildlife Management Areas

Deer hunting on Wildlife Management Areas (WMAs) remains popular in South Carolina with approximately 60,000 licensees having a WMA Permit. Wildlife Management Areas represent lands owned by SCDNR, other state-owned lands enrolled in the WMA Program, US Forest Service lands enrolled in the WMA Program, and private and/or corporate lands that are leased by SCDNR as part of the WMA Program. Deer harvest figures for coastal WMAs are from check stations and are presented only for those WMA properties that have a deer check-in requirement. Deer harvest figures for upstate WMAs (Mountain and Central and Western Piedmont Hunt Units) were estimated by extrapolating the county deer harvest rates (deer/mi2) to the acreage of WMA land that falls within the respective counties comprising the WMA. This assumes that hunters on WMA lands exhibit effort and deer harvest patterns similar to those of the general licensee database that was surveyed. Finally, the estimated deer harvest on WMA lands is included in, not additive to, the county and statewide estimates found throughout this report.

During the 2020 season it is estimated that 4,113 bucks, 3,245 does, and 9 deer of unknown sex were harvested for a total deer harvest on Wildlife Management Areas of 7,367. This figure represents a 5 percent increase from 2019.

Hunter opinion regarding the deer population

The 2020 Deer Hunter Survey asked participants their opinion regarding the following question. Compared to past years, how would you rate the number of deer in the area that you hunt most often? Survey participants were given 3 choices; increasing, about the same, or decreasing. Most hunters (59%) indicated that the number of deer in the area they hunted most often was about the same as in past years. Slightly more hunters (23%) believed that the deer population was decreasing than increasing (16%). On a scale of 1 to 3 with 1 being increasing, 2 being neutral, and 3 being decreasing, the overall mean rating of 2.0 suggests that hunters viewed the deer population about the same as past years.

Number of deer hunters

Even though all individuals receiving a survey were licensed to hunt deer, only 88 percent actually hunted deer. For residents, 87 percent of sampled licensees hunted deer and for nonresidents 94 percent hunted deer. Extrapolating to the respective licensee populations yields 134,675 residents and 15,488 nonresidents for a total of 150,163 deer hunters statewide during 2020. This figure represents a 6 percent increase from the 141,116 hunters in 2019. Counties with the highest estimates for individual hunters include Orangeburg, Colleton, Fairfield, Laurens, and Newberry for resident hunters and Hampton, Allendale, Chester, Fairfield, and Bamberg for nonresidents.

Hunting success

For determination of hunting success only those individuals who actually hunted deer were included in the analysis and similarly, success was defined as harvesting at least one deer. Overall hunting success in 2020 was 69 percent, which should be considered very good. Success rates for residents (69%) were slightly lower than nonresidents (70%).

Hunter effort

For the purposes of this survey hunter effort was measured in days with one day being defined as any portion of the day spent afield. Resident hunters averaged 15 days afield for a total of 2,011,594 days deer hunting and nonresidents averaged 13 days for a total of 203,539 days. Total effort expended deer hunting in South Carolina during 2020 was estimated at 2,215,133 days, a 7 percent increase from 2020. The number of days devoted to deer hunting in South Carolina is very significant and points not only to the availability and popularity of deer as a game species, but to the obvious economic benefits related to this important natural resource. Previous surveys conducted by the United States Fish and Wildlife Service indicate that approximately 200 million dollars in direct retail sales are related to deer hunting in South Carolina annually.

The top 5 South Carolina counties for overall days of deer hunting during 2020 were Orangeburg, Colleton, Kershaw, Spartanburg, and Aiken. Resident hunters expended the most hunting effort in Orangeburg, Colleton, Spartanburg, Aiken, and Laurens counties. Nonresidents hunted the most in Hampton, Allendale, Lancaster, Chester, and Colleton counties and these 5 counties totaled 38 percent of all the nonresident deer hunting effort that took place in South Carolina in 2020. There was more hunting effort in Hampton County by nonresidents than by residents.

Resident hunters who were successful at harvesting at least one deer averaged nearly twice as many days (17 days) afield as unsuccessful residents (9 days). Similarly, successful nonresidents (15 days) averaged more days afield when compared with unsuccessful nonresidents (8 days).

The amount of effort required to harvest a deer varied between residents and nonresidents and by the county hunted. On the average it took less time for nonresidents to harvest a deer (9 days) compared to residents (11 days). This may be due to the fact that many nonresidents hunt commercially where considerable preparation is done prior to the hunter’s arrival. Also, there may be less selectivity with respect to deer harvested by nonresidents. Counties requiring the least effort to harvest a deer included Beaufort, Orangeburg, Bamberg and Allendale, Barnwell, Hampton, and Jasper (tie) counties for resident hunters. On the other hand, nonresidents spent less time to harvest a deer in Pickens, Lee, Darlington, Spartanburg, and Anderson and Williamsburg (tie) counties, however, none of these counties experienced what should be considered a high level of nonresident hunting activity.

Deer harvest by weapon type and weapons utilization and preference

All areas of South Carolina have long and liberal firearms seasons and the majority (81%) of deer were harvested with centerfire rifles. Shotguns (7.6%) and archery equipment (6%) also contribute significantly to the overall deer harvest in the state, whereas muzzleloaders, crossbows, and handguns combine to contribute 5 percent to the total harvest.

Although rifles are used by over 90 percent of hunters, nearly 80 percent of hunters use multiple weapons during the deer season. Resident hunters appear to be more flexible than nonresidents in their use of multiple weapons and significantly more residents use archery equipment (19%) and shotguns (18%) than nonresidents (12% archery and 7% shotguns). This finding has been consistent for many years and two points can likely be made. First, since most aspects of deer hunting (travel, accommodations, etc.) are typically more convenient for residents, they may have more time to devote to becoming comfortable or proficient with additional weapons, in this case archery equipment. Second, shotguns are the customary weapon related to hunting deer with dogs and the argument can be made that dog hunting is being practiced more by residents than nonresidents. The weapons utilization data supports this contention.

On the other hand, nonresidents (13%) used muzzleloaders more frequently than residents (10%). Keep in mind that muzzleloader or primitive weapons seasons on private land are only available in Game Zones 1 and 2 (the Upstate). It is suspected that the high utilization of muzzleloaders by nonresidents is related to the availability of this special season at an earlier date in South Carolina than in neighboring states. Also, the argument can be made that muzzleloaders require less commitment than archery equipment and would allow nonresidents a comparatively easy method of harvesting deer during the special season. This finding has been consistent for many years.

Unlike weapons utilization, weapons preference is the single weapon that a hunter prefers. Obviously, a majority (81%) of deer hunters prefer rifles. Bows (10%) are the second most preferred weapon which is interesting because compared to other states, there are limited exclusive opportunities for bow hunters in South Carolina. Nonetheless, the number of hunters indicating that bows are their preferred weapon has increased over time. Finally, there are several interesting points that can be made about preferences for other weapons based on residency. Shotguns are preferred significantly more by residents (6%) than nonresidents (2%) and muzzleloaders are preferred more by nonresidents (2.7%) than by residents (1%). The explanation of this situation is similar to that for weapons utilization in that, (1) residents do most of the dog hunting in the state and tend to use shotguns, and (2) nonresidents use muzzleloaders to take advantage of a special season that is not available as early in their home state.

Deer harvest by month of season

The 2020 Deer Hunter Survey asked hunters to provide information on the month of kill for deer taken during the 2020 season. Although South Carolina is noted to have the longest firearms deer season in the country, the relationship between season length and deer harvest is often misunderstood. Deer naturally increase their movements during the breeding season or rut making them more susceptible to being seen and harvested by hunters. In contrast, outside of the breeding season deer movements are reduced, therefore the chances of hunters seeing and harvesting deer are reduced.

Deer harvest by month of season demonstrates this phenomenon. Although firearms seasons are not open in all parts of the state in late August and early September, relatively few deer are harvested during that time where the season is open. On the other hand, a disproportionately high number of deer are taken during October and November. October and November encompass the majority of the breeding season in South Carolina with over 80 percent of does conceiving during that period. Ultimately, timing of the season is a more important factor in determining deer harvest and quality hunting than the length of the season. Although South Carolina offers early opening seasons, there may be negative consequences as it relates to deer harvest. Hunters should understand that hunting pressure that builds prior to the breeding season can suppress daytime movements of deer during the breeding season when deer movements and hunter harvests should be greatest.

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