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Cutting the deer population has been a goal of Virginia’s wildlife managers.
Saturday, March 2, 2013
Hunters may be passionate about an activity that is primal at its roots, but many of us are also numbers geeks.
Every winter we are eager to get our hands on statistics from the previous season so we can analyze the figures and contemplate how our personal experiences may - or may not - be reflected in the tally.
Until recent years hunters had to do a lot of speculating during the season itself, because the Department of Game and Inland Fisheries had to collect hundreds of game check booklets then hand-tally the figures.
Since the agency started allowing hunters to check deer electronically, figures available through the season provide a better picture of how things are going. However, the numbers aren't exact because they still also allow in-person checking. So the final figures don't come out until those books are tallied.
That happened a little over a week ago.
The deer kill came in at 213,597, the lowest figure since 2000, when the kill was 187,878.
Those figures were not a major surprise for most hunters.
Many of us who spent a good amount of time out there this past fall saw fewer deer than we have been accustomed to seeing. A byproduct of seeing fewer deer is tagging fewer deer.
Seeing those numbers prompts discussion of course, a primary topic being the cause of the decline.
Weather patterns can have an impact on hunter success, but the effect tends to be minimized during a long season such as the one we have for deer.
The density of the acorn mast also can make a difference. When acorns are plentiful in the woods, deer tend to be scattered and move less to find food. This reduces the chances of those deer encountering hunters.
The mast crop was pretty good in many parts of Western Virginia, so could have been a contributor to the decline in hunter success. However, it needs to be noted that the decline in the deer kill was less in the mountains than it was in the eastern part of state.
The best explanation for the drop, especially considering the figures have been down for the past four years from a record of nearly 260,000 in 2009, is that the deer population is down.
A couple of factors play into that lower population, and the key one is hunting.
The DGIF's deer hunting regulations have been quite liberal because the agency has been trying to reduce the size of the deer herd.
This mission isn't aimed to please hunters, but rather to get the herd back to a level that can be tolerated by the general public while also providing good hunting.
This is a different approach to deer management than the one that got us here.
Until recently, fish and game agencies held to a pretty simple credo when it came to deer: More is better.
Hunters like seeing deer, and as many as possible.
So it seemed in the best interest of those wildlife managers to give hunters what they wanted, since those hunters and the licenses they buy pay the bills.
The approach was amazingly successful.
Consider that in 1984, when there were tens of thousands more deer hunters in Virginia than there are today, those hunters killed only 84,432 whitetails.
When you have fewer hunters killing three times more deer, the translation is simple: great hunting.
But we all know now that it got out of hand in many areas.
Hence the liberal regulations designed to put the hammer down on female deer to reduce the herd size.
Those regulations, which contributed to the steadily increasing deer kills we saw a few years ago, are having an impact. Eventually the tide was going to turn.
There is another potential factor, at least in the minds of many hunters, that could be impacting deer populations.
Hunters have competition, and not just from cars.
Coyotes, natural migrants from the West, are become more and more prevalent in Virginia.
They are killing deer.
We don't know.
Research on coyotes' impact on whitetails has been sparse.
At this point in Virginia we can rely pretty much only on speculation and anecdotal evidence.
At one of my hunting areas in Botetourt County we saw fewer fawns this past hunting season than we have in the past. And we know there are many coyotes there.
That said, we still saw a fair number of deer and we still put a few in our freezers.
For many deer hunters, the way to deal with coyotes is to kill them. Eliminate the competition, you know?
Many biologists say that effort is essentially for naught as coyotes, once they are established, are there to stay.
While we can only speculate on the effect of coyotes, and probably should get used to their being part of the deer herd equation, we are safe knowing that Virginia's deer herd is smaller than it once was.
That leads us to the final question: Is that really such a bad thing?
According to the DGIF's deer management plan, a document developed with input from a diverse selection of stakeholders, it's not.
If you think about it, it's hard to argue.
Yes, most of us saw fewer deer this fall, and we killed fewer deer.
Despite this, most of us deer hunters, especially if we've been at this for a while, have to admit that we have it pretty good.
Weather JournalStorm track isn't very snowy for us