THE late Merle Haggard wondered in a 1982 song if “the good times were really over for good.” If you’re a white-tailed deer hunter in Virginia, living close to the Interstate 95 corridor and the influences of suburban sprawl, it might be easy to look at recently released deer hunting data and assume the “good old days” are five years in the rearview mirror.

While the statewide deer kill of 190,636 deer last season is about the same as the year prior, the 9,199 deer killed in a six-county region that includes Prince William, Stafford, Caroline, King George, Essex and Westmoreland Counties is down 43.5 percent from recent five-year averages. Between 2009 and 2013, the average deer kill across that six-county region near Fredericksburg was 16,002 deer. Statewide, hunters averaged 232,819 deer annually during that period. The recent season numbers reflect an 18–percent decline.

Locally, the deer harvest is more than 25 percent lower than the rest of Virginia over the last decade.

The Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries recently released preliminary statistics for the season that ended Jan. 5. The total deer kill included 96,239 antlered bucks, 12,342 button bucks and 82,055 does. Wildlife Division Chief Gray Anderson prefaced the report, noting, “The annual variation in harvest is normal and most populations are healthy and on-track with long-range management plan objectives.”

Reducing the deer herd has been the goal in many counties, according to DGIF Deer Program Manager Matt Knox. Liberalized either sex (doe) hunting days, expanded bag limits in some locales and more have been used to knock down the numbers. Rapidly suburbanizing counties have been especially targeted.

Overall, the average number of whitetails taken by Virginia hunters during the past three years is comparable to that of the late 1990s. The period between the mid-1990s and 2012 was the high-water mark. Nineteen of those years saw deer kills exceed 200,000. Two years topped 250,000.

Virginia still has one of the highest individual hunter success rates in the country, according to the Quality Deer Management Association. In its 2018 Whitetail Report, QDMA reported that an average of 41 percent of hunters nationwide successfully harvested at least one deer in 2017. South Carolina led the way with 69 percent. Virginia tied Arkansas for fourth place with 60 percent. Virginia is also a leader in another category of the QDMA report: deer and vehicle accidents per mile of road, ranking fourth nationally behind Pennsylvania, Maryland and Delaware.

Deer management in Virginia can be complicated. The state is exceptionally diverse from a habitat and human factors standpoint. State wildlife biologists use a variety of metrics and models to assess optimum deer populations based on a couple of key concepts.

First, there is the biological carrying capacity of the land itself, or how many deer the existing habitat is able to healthily sustain over time. Then there is the cultural carrying capacity. This is where it gets trickier because this relates to how many deer people are willing to accept, given influences such as vehicle accidents, and garden and crop damage. The cultural carrying capacity tends to be lower than the biological capacity, according to Virginia’s Deer Management Plan.

Looking again at the numbers, King George, Caroline. Essex and Westmoreland Counties are all down extensively, 50 percent or more, against those five-year averages. Meanwhile counties at the margins of the region, such as Fauquier, Orange and Culpeper are only down 11, 20 and 21 percent, respectively.

What is going on in an approximate 40-mile radius of Fredericksburg along the I-95, and U.S. 301 and 17 corridors to cause a decline 25 percent greater than the rest of the commonwealth? Just about every hunter, landowner and wildlife manager has an opinion. The reasons are diverse and include increasing human population, decreased or degraded habitat, wildlife disease, depredation by coyotes, weather, methods of hunting and fewer hunters.

Human Encroachment

The human population grew in Virginia 5.9 percent between 2010 and 2017, according to U.S. Census Bureau “Quick facts.” In our six-county region, the increase averaged 10.12 percent. Only Essex lost people, declining by 1.1 percent.

Knox said intense human population growth and encroachment into the whitetail’s world can be “cancerous to deer,” transforming farms and forests into developments.

The Virginia Outdoors Foundation, which holds many conservation easements on private lands, notes on its website, “With 15.9 million acres of forested land, Virginia is 62 percent forested.” It also reports, “Virginia lost 3.3 million acres of farmland between 1982 and 1997.”

According to the Virginia Department of Forestry, urban growth and development resulted in an average net loss of 16,000 forested acres annually over the past 10 years. If current development trends continue, it has been projected that Virginia will lose a million acres of forest in the next 25 years.

Human population and its impacts on that cultural carrying capacity reason heavily into the models DGIF uses to set deer seasons and bag limits. With the exception of Caroline, Essex and Westmoreland, all local counties are targeted for herd reductions, Knox said.

Disease and DMAP

Those reduction efforts have been aided by multiple outbreaks of Epizootic Hemorrhagic Disease, an often-fatal deer virus spread by biting midges. Knox said King George was hit hard with EHD in 2012 and 2016. Caroline saw severe outbreaks in 2012 and 2014. The severity is often gauged by reports from hunters and landowners finding dead deer and information from check stations and Deer Management Assistance Program cooperators about hunter-killed deer that showed signs they had the disease but survived. Cracked, sloughing hooves is a common indicator.

The DGIF’s Deer Management Assistance Program, begun in 1988, offers additional tags for antlerless deer to landowners and hunt clubs. In exchange the clubs collect biological data, including age and weight. Some clubs get 50 or more tags. These tags can be used all season long, even on days designated for hunting only antlered deer. In Caroline, for example, about 10 percent of the antlerless deer checked were tagged via DMAP, In Essex, it’s 40 percent.

In turn, a wildlife biologist from the Department analyzes the data and provides the cooperator with information needed to make informed decisions about deer management issues.

The program is creating consternation among some people, including some clubs who benefit from the tags. A hunter and Caroline County resident who asked to remain anonymous said, “The DMAP program as currently run is inherently unfair to surrounding property owners. The program has become vital to the DGIF because of the information received but the system hasn’t been revised since its inception many years ago when herd reduction was the target of the program.”

If Caroline County’s overall doe kill makes up about 40 percent of the total deer harvest, then 10 percent of that number is significant, the hunter maintained.

A main precept of the DMAP is that landowners and hunt clubs set their own deer management goals. But, counters the Caroline resident, “If a club chooses an aggressive program, or did so many years ago, and are still getting many DMAP tags, that negatively impacts those who surround their leases, no matter what the surrounding clubs’ or landowners’ goals might be.”

Bruce Lee, an Essex County landowner and a hunt club member, said he recommended to DGIF that clubs should no longer be able to, basically, ask for and get as many DMAP tags as they want. “If a county is down 20-40 percent on deer kill, DMAP tags should be cut by at least that percentage,” Lee said.

Knox, though, says overall deer kill statistics are misleading.

“Looking at total deer kill numbers can be misleading or counterintuitive,” Knox continued. “For example, the record deer kill numbers were from a decade ago and most of this ‘increase’ was in the doe kill. It was designed to reduce deer population on private lands in eastern Virginia and it worked. As a general rule, when the total deer kill goes down, we are typically in a herd rebuilding phase and when the total deer kill goes up, we are in a herd reduction phase. The gas or brake is the doe kill.”

Tomorrow, we’ll dig more into that and look at a couple more potential causes for the region’s dramatic deer decline.

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