Results of the 2004 Deer Hunter Survey conducted by the S.C. Department of Natural Resources indicate that the statewide harvest of deer last season totaled 251,205, down 8.1 percent from 2003.
An estimated 125,550 bucks (male deer) and 124,655 does (female deer) made up this total. Charles Ruth, Deer Project supervisor for the S.C. Department of Natural Resources (DNR), said: "Hunters should be commended for their ongoing efforts to take equal numbers of bucks and does. This is a positive note because it is important to keep deer numbers at reasonable levels, particularly with the increased interest among many hunters in improving deer quality."
Since 1997, DNR's Wildlife Section has employed an annual random mail survey to estimate the harvest of deer at the state and county level. This years' survey was sent to 25,000 hunters. Prior to 1997 deer harvest figures were dependent on Deer Check Station reports in the 18-county Upstate and reports from hunt clubs in the 28-county Coastal Plain. The old way of documenting the deer harvest had flaws including failure to report harvested deer and the fact that there was no reporting required in many cases. Based on the survey work that has been done since 1997, it appears that the old system was documenting only about half of the deer being harvested annually in South Carolina, which is exactly why DNR is now using the survey technique.
After many years of rapid increase, the deer population in South Carolina has been relatively stable since the mid-1990s, according to Ruth. Harvest figures have been down each of the last two years reflecting about a 20 percent decline from the record harvest established in 2002 (319,902 deer). However, the reduction can likely be attributable to three factors. First, the state experienced a very significant drought 1998-2002, and although rainfall has been more normal the last two years, any reduction in reproduction, recruitment and survival of deer during the drought would result in reduced deer numbers in years immediately following the drought. Second, the good rainfall that was experienced in spring/summer 2004 produced an abundance of natural foods for deer (including acorns), which worked to keep deer movements low during the fall hunting season. Finally, fall temperatures in 2004 were unseasonably warm, which also contributed to decreased daytime movements of deer during the hunting season.
The bottom line is that deer movements were suppressed by food availability and warm weather during the hunting season in 2004. Deer movements are directly linked to hunter success, because hunters are less likely to be successful if deer movements are low. Finally, if the drought decreased reproduction, recruitment and survival of deer, it would likely be expressed in terms of fewer young deer available to harvest in 2003 and 2004, and evidence appears to support this. Therefore, it is reasonable to expect that availability of deer in the affected age classes will be reduced until cohorts born following the effects of the drought replace those age classes.
Harvest figures, like those provided by the 2004 Deer Hunter Survey, allow DNR biologists to reconstruct the deer population using computer modeling. It is a relatively simple procedure: plug in the number of bucks and does harvested along with age structure and reproductive data, and the computer model figures the number of deer that were theoretically in the population prior to harvest. According to this modeling, Ruth said, South Carolinas' deer population peaked during the mid-1990s with just a bit more than one million deer in the pre-hunt population. Currently, the statewide deer population is estimated at about 800,000.
Nonetheless, South Carolinas' deer population is healthy, and the outlook for the 2005 season is good, according to Ruth. Hunters should not be concerned if the deer population is down compared to several years ago when the population reached its peak. DNR has been working to moderate South Carolina's deer population and most hunters, to their credit, have recognized the fact that having fewer deer leads to better quality deer. Results of DNR's antler scoring program indicate that this may indeed be the case as more bucks were successfully entered into the records program than any of the past five years.
Top counties for harvest in 2004 included Bamberg, Allendale, Abbeville, Union, and Hampton with each of these counties exhibiting harvest rates in excess of 18 deer per square mile, which should be considered extraordinary. Very few areas in the United States consistently yield comparable harvest figures.
All areas of South Carolina have long and liberal firearms seasons, and the majority of deer (200,436) were taken with centerfire rifles in 2004. Shotguns (26,751 deer) and archery equipment (12,937 deer) also contributed significantly to the overall deer harvest, whereas muzzleloaders, crossbows and handguns combined (11,081 deer) produced less than 5 percent of the total statewide harvest.
Other survey statistics indicate that 122,158 South Carolina residents and 17,279 non-residents deer hunted in 2004, down about 4 percent form 2003. Based on hunters that deer hunted at least one day, overall hunting success in 2004 was 73.5 percent, which is outstanding. Hunters averaged about 16 days of deer hunting, and the total effort expended deer hunting in 2004 was estimated at 2,275,259 days. Orangeburg, Aiken, Fairfield, Colleton and Hampton counties topped the list of counties with the most deer hunting effort and non-residents actually hunted more than residents in Hampton County.
"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," Ruth said. About $200 million in direct retail sales is related to deer hunting in South Carolina annually.
Complete details of the 2004 Deer Harvest Report will be available soon on the DNR Web site at the following address: http://www.dnr.state.sc.us/wild/dee...Harvest2004.pdf. For more information on the white-tailed deer harvest in South Carolina, call the Columbia DNR office at (803) 734-3886.