Gerald Almy: Virginia’s deer harvest plummets

Gerald Almy

After bouncing back strongly during the 2015-16 hunting season to harvest 209,197 deer, Virginia hunters this year reversed course and took home nearly 30,000 fewer animals. The preliminary kill figure for the state’s 2016-17 season is 180,121 deer. This included 89,728 antlered bucks, 12,572 button bucks (less than one year old) and 77,821 does.

Matt Knox, head of the state’s deer management program, attributes the decline to outbreaks of Hemorrhagic disease, mast conditions, and the long-term policy of the game department to increase doe kills and reduce or stabilize the whitetail herd, depending on the region.

The Youth Deer hunt in September produced 2,220 whitetails for young hunters. Archery hunters killed 14,977 deer, or 8 percent of the total harvest. Crossbow hunters tagged 12,354 animals, or 7 percent of the total. Muzzleloader hunters collected 47,947 deer, or 27 percent of the animals taken for the just-completed 2016-17 season.

About 82 percent of the deer were checked using the Game Department’s telephone and internet checking systems.

Biologists have anticipated the gradual decline in deer harvests over recent years. “The Department’s primary deer management effort over the past decade was to increase the female deer kill over much of the state,” says Knox. “This is especially true on private lands, to meet the population objectives of stabilizing or reducing deer populations as identified in the Department’s Deer Management Plan.”

“We anticipated that these high and sustained female deer kill levels would eventually lead to a decrease in the statewide deer herd and the stable to declining total deer kill numbers experienced over the past decade”

Knox attributes some of the extreme ups and downs of the harvests in the last four or five years to mast conditions and Hemorrhagic disease outbreaks. The latter problem resulted in the death during summer and early fall of many deer in the Shenandoah Valley.

This was somewhat unusual since the disease is typically more of a problem in the eastern part of the state. Landowners describe dozens of deer dying on some properties due to the lack of rain, which exposed mud flats around ponds, allowing the disease-carrying insects to thrive.

It’s hard to believe that as recently as the 2013-14 season hunters harvested 242,734 animals, up 13 percent from the 2012-13 season, when 215,241 deer were taken. The year after that, however (the 2014-15 season), the harvest began its decline, dropping nearly 20 percent.

The harvest of females has remained stable during recent seasons at 43-45 percent.
Some hunters applaud the high harvest of does since it allows bucks to make up a greater percentage of the total population. A growing number of sportsmen, however, are opposed to the high female kills and believe the herd should be allowed to rebuild for a while.

Shenandoah County, famous for producing a former state record typical that scored over 188 net B&C, has been hit particularly hard, with significant disease die-offs this past summer. As a result, its kill has declined dramatically.

During the 2001-2004 period the deer harvest never dropped below 5,000, with a high of 5,580 in 2003.

This year, by contrast, 2,696 whitetails were taken in the county. The last year it yielded this few deer was in 1987, 30 years ago. The figure reflects 702 fewer deer taken than in 20015, 424 deer fewer than the year before that. The harvest included 1335 antlered bucks, about 200 less than the 2015-16 season.

Other Shenandoah Valley counties also saw declines. Frederick County had a tally of 2,858 deer, including 1,260 bucks.

Clarke County had a harvest of 1,705 total deer, 645 of them bucks.

Page County saw 952 deer taken, 609 bucks.

Rockingham County produced 3,581 whitetails, 2,161 of them antlered animals.

Hopefully for the 2017-18 season the whitetail herd will bounce back and Hemorrhagic disease won’t be such a problem during the summer and fall.

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

Shenandoah county’s harvest this past season was particularly dismal.