A drop in the number of deer bagged in Wilkes County and statewide in 2014-15 resulted largely from a bumper acorn crop, said an N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission official who until recently was in charge of deer and wild turkey research and surveys for the agency.
“In years when we have a good mast crop, our harvest typically drops 5-8 percent and we receive numerous complaints about reduced deer sightings” because deer don’t have to move around as much or leave the woods to find food, said Evin Stanford.
Compared to a record 2013-14 harvest, hunters reported taking about 18 percent fewer deer statewide in 2014-15. The harvest total dropped about 16 percent in Wilkes alone in 2014-15. It dropped about 13 percent in the commission’s district 7, which includes Wilkes, Ashe, Alleghany, Watauga, Surry, Yadkin, Iredell, Alexander, Stokes and Forsyth counties.
After increasing from 2,232 in 2012-13 to 3,512 in 2013-14, the reported deer harvest in Wilkes dropped to 2,956 in 2014-15. Wilkes had the largest deer harvest in western N.C. and the sixth largest statewide in 2014-15.
The 2014-15 reported harvest in Wilkes included 1,536 antlered bucks, 173 button bucks and 1,247 does. The prior year’s Wilkes harvest included 1,689 antlered bucks, 327 button bucks and 1,505 does.
The 2014-15 harvest in Wilkes also included 2,004 deer taken with guns, 687 with muzzleloaders, 168 with bow and 97 with crossbow. In the prior year’s deer season in Wilkes, 2,430 with gun, 618 with muzzleloaders, 291 with bow and 173 with crossbow. Thirty deer were taken on state game lands in Wilkes in 2014-15 and 22 the prior year.
The 2014-15 harvest of 153,629 deer statewide was the lowest reported deer harvest since 144,315 during the 2005-06 season. Hunters reported bagging 188,130 deer in 2013-14.
Last fall’s acorn crop was unprecedented in size compared to “good crop” years. It was the largest acorn crop in decades in many parts to the state, he said.
“Many people are now seeing lots of deer and asking where they’re coming from. Of course, they were always there. They’re now more observable because the acorns are gone and deer are coming to open areas to forage on succulent vegetation,” he said.
“I’m not aware of any prevailing beliefs concerning why North Carolina and other Southeastern states had such a large acorn crop last year, although I’ve heard several people attribute it to above average rainfall. Some years, above average acorn production occurs when drought conditions exist. Last year was a particularly wet year.”
Stanford said acorn production is unpredictable and no one truly knows or understands what drives it from year to year.
He said the smaller reported deer harvest statewide in 2014-15 was also likely due to high levels of hemorrhagic disease in some areas, This was mostly in the northwestern coastal plain and northeastern Piedmont counties of Franklin, Vance, Wake, Warren, Durham and Granville counties. The deer harvest in districts 3 and 5, which includes these counties, dropped 35.4 percent and 24.5 percent respectively in 2014-15.
Stanford said large-scale regulation changes generally aren’t needed to address local scale issues like hemorrhagic outbreaks in the counties listed above and in Wilkes, Caldwell and Surry counties in 2012. “We’ve seen outbreaks like this in the past. The deer herd has always recovered with time without the implementation of regulation changes, although recovery has taken three years or so in areas with high mortality like we saw in the hardest hit areas this past year,” he said.
Years of strong harvest, last year’s record harvest and long-term increasing doe harvests possibly contributed to population drops in some areas, but this would typically occur over time and not abruptly in a single year, he said.
Stanford said the commission isn’t sure how coyotes impact deer numbers.
He noted that before 2014-15, statewide harvest levels remained stable while at their highest levels for seven straight years. The 2013 harvest topped the previous record by 7 percent, so there is no evidence the population was dropping up to then, he said.
Details on the N.C. deer management program will be given and citizens’ thoughts on deer management will be gathered in commission public forums in June.