Gerald Almy: Va. deer harvest plummets

Gerald Almy

If you thought you were seeing fewer deer in the woods this past hunting season, you weren’t alone. Preliminary harvest figures for the state show the recently completed season was one of the worst in recent memory.

A total of 190,745 deer were killed by hunters in the Old Dominion. This figure included 87,937 does, 88,148 antlered bucks, 14,592 button (fawn) bucks, and 68 uncategorized deer. The 2014-15 kill was down a whopping 22 percent from the 244,440 harvested the previous year. It is also down 18 percent from the last 10-year average of 233,350.

Breaking down the kill further, some 1,890 deer were taken during the Youth Deer Hunting Day held in September. Archery hunters arrowed 15,178 deer, accounting for 8 percent of the kill. Crossbow hunters collected 10,852 whitetails, or 6 percent of the total harvest. Sportsmen using muzzleloaders, who hunt during the prime pre-rut period in early November, tallied 48,282 deer, or 25 percent of the total. The remainder of the deer were harvested with rifles and shotguns.

The decline in the harvest was spread across the entire state, but was especially pronounced in eastern Virginia. The kill east of the Blue Ridge Mountains plummeted 24 percent. West of the Blue Ridge the harvest was down 16 percent.

The decline in the deer harvest was not totally unexpected by biologists with the state Department of Game and Inland Fisheries. “The primary deer management effort over the past five to 10 years has been to increase the female deer kill over much of the state, especially on private lands, to meet the deer population objectives of stabilizing or reducing deer populations,” said Matt Knox, the Game Department’s Deer Program Leader.

The magnitude of the decline, however, was not expected. Knox points to several possible explanations. “First and foremost are the liberal either-sex deer hunting regulations (doe days) the Department has had in place since 2008. These liberal regulations were expected to eventually result in a decline in the deer herd, even without the added impact from hemorrhagic disease (HD) — the second reason for the decline.”

HD made itself felt in 28 counties in eastern Virginia in 2014. “In the past,” said Knox, “HD has caused up to 20-35 percent declines in the annual deer kill within counties where it occurred. Typically these HD-impacted deer herds recover after 2-3 years.”

The HD in eastern counties still can’t account for the dramatic 16 percent decline that also took place in the western part of the state, where no significant HD outbreaks were reported. Many hunters in these counties, including Shenandoah and Frederick, feel that antlerless regulations have become too liberal, reducing the overall deer population more than necessary and making deer sightings less frequent.

A third possible explanation given by the Game Department for the statewide decline is the exceptional mast crop. Acorns were extremely plentiful, reducing the need for deer to use food plots, fields and agricultural crops, where they are more vulnerable and allowing them to find food almost anywhere in the woods.

Without those two factors — the strong acorn crop and HD outbreaks — Knox says the gradual decline in deer numbers and the deer harvest would have occurred more slowly and gradually.

The data in these figures do not include deer taken during the late urban archery or special late antlerless-only deer seasons, deer killed on out-of-season kill permits or those killed by vehicles.

The top three counties in the state last year were Bedford, with 6,808 deer harvested, Loudoun, 5,219, and South Hampton, with 4,820. In Loudoun County alone some 2,400 less deer were harvested than in 2013.

Award-winning outdoors writer Gerald Almy is a Maurertown resident.