A longer gun season for deer and a season bag limit of four antlerless deer rather than the current six are being considered for Wilkes and other northwestern deer season counties.

N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission biologists discussed these and other potential changes in a forum Thursday night at the Wilkes Agricultural Center in Wilkesboro. About 40 people attended.

It was the third of nine forums being held statewide to gauge public opinion of possible changes in deer management and to share results of an online survey of deer hunters in 2016, said Dr. Jonathan C. Shaw, the commission’s deer biologist.

Shaw said the potential changes include extending the gun season by five to seven days in the northwestern deer season counties. It would be longer statewide except in the eastern season counties, where it already is 11 weeks long.

The longer northwestern gun season would start on the Saturday before Thanksgiving as it does now. It now ends Jan. 1, but the extension would have it ending the first Sunday in January. If approved, the change would start with a gun season from Nov. 17, 2018, to Jan. 6, 2019.

The first week of the current blackpowder season would be eliminated statewide, leaving one week for this season. It would start two Saturdays before Thanksgiving in the northwestern counties.

Shaw said the ideas resulted from a statewide biological evaluation of deer from 2010 to 2015, public response to the evaluation’s findings in earlier forums and results of an online survey of deer hunters in 2016. He said hunters indicated a preference for a longer gun season in the survey and biologist don’t think this would have a significant impact on the deer population.

Response to ideas under consideration in the forums underway will determine if they’re presented as proposed regulatory changes in public hearings in January 2018, he said. The changes would then go to the 19 commissioners in charge of the state wildlife commission for possible approval and implementation in 2018-19.

They include statewide season bag limits of four antlerless and two antlered deer per hunter. The antlerless limit now is six, the same as the total season limit. The antlered deer limit already is two statewide except in the eastern deer season counties, where it’s four. Unlimited bonus antlerless harvest report cards would be eliminated.

Shaw said harvesting fewer antlerless deer (mostly does but also young bucks) would stabilize and possibly increase the overall population. Harvesting fewer young bucks would increase average age and size of bucks.

The biological evaluation included dividing the state into five zones where deer are most biologically similar. Shaw said this was based mostly on peak breeding dates, which occur later in the year going east to west and range from Oct. 27 in southeastern counties to Dec. 2 in far western counties.

Shaw said pushing back the start of gun season in some regions would better align them with peak breeding dates. This would increase the number of fawns born in early spring, which he said should improve fawn survival rates by avoiding summer heat problems.

He also said the impact of predators is less severe when a large number of fawns are born in a short period. He explained this by using the analogy of a person being able to eat more pizza over a period of days than in one day,

The peak breeding date in the northwestern deer season counties (Nov. 25) and the start of gun season there are aligned well so no delay in the start of that season is envisioned, said Shaw.

Shaw said 33,750 hunters participated out of 196,000 contacted by email or postcard in the 2016 online survey. That was about 17 percent, which Shaw said was more than expected. Although 68 percent of survey respondents believe there aren’t enough mature bucks, 55 percent opposed reducing the number of bucks that can be taken on private land.

“Deer hunters want to have their cake and eat it too,” he said, explaining that in general they want a larger and healthy deer population and older bucks but not fewer days to hunt or greater restrictions. “But, of course, the world doesn’t work that way.”

He said a comparison of results of the 2016 survey and a 2006 statewide survey showed a significant drop in deer hunter satisfaction. “We don’t know exactly why that is, but suspect it is related to numbers of deer on the landscape. We know deer hunters like to see deer, see deer sign and they like to put meat in the freezer.”

Shaw said many hunters believe deer numbers are down and this is starting to be seen in harvest totals in some areas. About half of the survey respondents want a larger deer population and about 30 percent want it to stabilize.

He said reducing the doe harvest is by far the best management practice to increase deer numbers and having fewer days in which either sex deer can be taken is the most effective of the commission’s two regulatory tools for reducing the doe harvest. The other is reducing the antlerless deer bag limit. The hunter survey found a little more support for reducing the antlerless bag limit than for reducing either-sex days, said Shaw.

Shaw said commission biologists determined that among all regulatory attributes, gun season length, blackpowder season length, timing of the opening of gun season, antlered bag limit and antlerless bag limit have the greatest impact on the deer population.

He said the survey indicated that gun season length is by far most important to hunters statewide, while timing of the opening day of gun season is least important.

When Shaw asked people at the forum Thursday which was most important, 47 percent of 30 who responded said antlered bag limit and 27 percent said gun season length. Only 3 percent said blackpowder season length.

He said in an interview that the high priority placed on limiting the harvest of antlered deer Thursday night reflected the high percentage of serious hunters at the event and their interest in increasing the average size of bucks.

Shaw said biologists believe what the survey showed—that most hunters statewide are most interested in having more opportunities to hunt and in finding more deer.

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