Gerald Almy: Outlook for coming deer season

Gerald Almy

With the abundance of rain, many sportsmen and women are asking, where has summer gone? Now suddenly thoughts are turning to deer season and what’s in store. Bucks have finished growing the antlers they will carry into autumn, and now need only to shed the velvet from their horns as September unfolds.

Matt Knox, deer  project coordinator for the state, has some thoughts on both last season and the coming one, as well as some significant and surprising trends in deer hunting in Virginia. But if you want the quick answer, here it is: the season is likely to unfold much like last year, with similar lower deer harvests than in the early part of the 21st Century.

Last year, deer hunters killed 190,623 whitetails. This included 95,563 antlered bucks, 12,967 button bucks (male fawns), and 82,093 does.

Fortunately, hemorrhagic disease (HD) was not very prevalent across the state in 2018. There were pockets, some locally, where it resulted in significant deer mortality, but there was little impact statewide.

The news on chronic wasting disease (CWD) was not as positive. A total of 16 new cases were found out of the 1,548 deer tested. This brings the total CWD cases in Virginia ever reported to 38. Some 35 of these were in Frederick County, three in northern Shenandoah County. The department has so far tested 8,140 deer since 2005. Starting this fall they will begin a statewide program of testing in cooperation with taxidermists, who are being trained to take the brain samples that reveal whether a deer has the disease.

For this coming season, Knox says “deer management in western Virginia remains the tale of two different deer situations. Deer herds on private lands over most of western Virginia have been stable over the past two decades (with an exception in the three Alleghany-Highland counties.) That contrasts with the public land situation where herds and the deer kill declined significantly, then have slowly rebounded.

“The biggest challenge in deer management in western Virginia, over the past 20 plus years, has been the decline in public land deer hunters and the public land deer kill in the mountains. To address this decline, the number of either-sex deer hunting days on western public lands has been reduced significantly over the past decade to conservative levels. These changes have been successful in reducing the female deer kill, and the western public land deer kill decline appears to have hit its lowest point and appears to be starting to increase, albeit very slowly.”

There are those who would dispute whether deer herds on private lands in western Virginia have been stable over the past two decades. Most hunters locally feel there are nowhere near the number of deer on private lands that were here a decade or so ago. And the kill figures show that far fewer animals are being harvested.

However, Knox also points out another problem for deer management that may be affecting the harvest: hunter numbers are declining steadily. The number of licensed deer hunters in the state has declined from 300,000 in the early 1990s to an estimated 193,500 in the fall of 2017.

“In the last decade we have lost 46,000 (19 percent) of our deer hunters. In the last five years, 30,000 (13 percent). Just last fall we lost 6,500 (3 percent). In my opinion,” continues Knox, “this decline in deer hunters represents the highest statewide deer management issue in Virginia. The decline in deer hunter licenses will have a significant negative effect on the department’s finances and may have a negative effect on our ability to manage the deer population through recreational deer hunting over much of the Commonwealth.”

“Today there are many deer hunters who think the department has killed all the deer. However, it is possible that soon the major issue will be not where are the deer, but where are the deer hunters?”

In summation, the deer project leader predicts a harvest very similar to last year, both statewide and also for our local Shenandoah Valley counties.

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