- Chris Campanelli
Why are Deer Numbers Down?
The 2018-19 deer hunting season has been a bizarre one. A season filled with boom-or-bust results in most states across the deer hunting nation. Several great deer have hit the dirt, but a common complaint has been voiced by a lot of hunters across the country. A perceived lack of deer numbers has been a red-hot topic on social media and in hunting circles.
That lack of deer numbers may be more than just a perception. Early numbers are backing up the notion that this has been an incredibly poor hunting season. Some reports have the deer kill down by over 15,000 from the 2017-18 season in my home state of Ohio. That's a massive drop, if the numbers are absolutely accurate. That is the big key.
Only time will tell as the various state DNR agencies compile their figures and complete research on the deer kill nationwide, but this has been an unsettling season to say the least. When hunters are voicing complaints in numbers and the early stats are bad, we have to take notice. There is really only one question that we want to know; Why are deer numbers down?
Well, we really don't know that deer numbers are statistically down. You have to remember that deer kill totals and overall deer numbers are two different things. Is it possible that we're just putting less deer on the ground but deer herds are still strong? Absolutely. A plethora of factors contribute to deer kill totals.
Just because we're not killing as many deer this season does not mean that actual deer numbers have dropped. It certainly could mean that deer numbers have dropped, but we just don't know for sure. While some may estimate that numbers are down, it is incredibly tough to put exact figures out there instantaneously. State DNR agencies do a great job of keeping very accurate estimations, but those estimations take time. Research takes time.
There are also a lot of irons in this fire. We spoke briefly on the various factors at play in this issue. Many factors beyond the simple explanation that the deer have up and vanished.
Could a dropping number of hunters in America explain the dwindling deer kill totals? Possibly. Could over-hunting of does and liberal bag limits be to blame? Sure. Things like disease, predation, habitat loss and odd weather patterns could also shoulder some blame. The reality of the situation is that we just cannot put the pin on a single thing. In reality, a combination of all of these factors is the likely culprit.
There is no doubt that we have fewer hunters hitting the field in 2018 than we did in prior years. Hunting has become less and less mainstream as people grow away from living an independent, outdoor lifestyle. Less guns and bows in the field would certainly equate to lower deer kill totals. But there are still plenty of hunters afield, and a lot of those hunters are filing the same complaint.
I will always believe that some element of doe management is necessary when building a healthy deer herd, but I can also see where an over-harvest of does could be a big issue. And we all know just how liberal the bag limits have been on does over the last decade or two. With pressure from insurance companies and municipalities flooded with deer, doe bag limits have jumped. There is no doubt that we could have too much of a good thing when it comes to doe management. States like Ohio have gone as far as banning doe kills on public land after a set date and keeping public land hunters to a single doe bag limit.
I have seen plenty of outrage over predator numbers going unchecked in most areas, and that is a valid concern. With trapping becoming a lost art and very few deer hunters willing to brave the mid-winter weather to squeak at coyotes, predator numbers are definitely on the rise. With that we have the potential for poor fawn recruitment and down deer numbers. Predators are definitely a problem.
Disease is an unquestioned factor in this conversation. Just ask a hunter whose deer herd has been struck by something like EHD. When a nasty disease strikes a deer herd, it takes years for a full rebound. Even in those areas with the best deer habitat you can find. It seems as if we get more EHD or CWD breakouts each year, so it would be no shock to learn that those diseases have resulted in down deer numbers.
Or could it simply be a season that is not conducive to successful hunting? Bad weather patterns and abundant acorn crops could pull deer away from hunters. We all know that some seasons are just better than others, so it's important to put things into context until we have concrete figures and input from the state level.
As I said earlier, there is a great chance that we're witnessing the cumulative effect of the various factors that we have discussed. I certainly believe that these factors are all playing at least some role in this perceived decline. When you add them all together, we have something to be concerned about.
In this sport, nothing matters more than a healthy deer herd. Contrary to what a lot of non-hunters may think, hunters and outdoorsmen want nothing more than a healthy herd. That's exactly why we have seen this outrage and abundance of concern over a rough 2018-19 hunting season. Without the deer, we're just bird watchers.
Luckily for us, we have a lot of smart and motivated folks in our corner. Great professionals with DNR agencies and the private sector alike. It should not take long to get some kind of an explanation and a game-plan as we move forward. We will certainly try to do our part by connecting with great people like Dr. Grant Woods or Michael Tonkovich of the Ohio DNR via the AO Podcast.
It's important that we table our concerns as outdoorsmen and women. Table the concerns, discuss them with professionals, and formulate a game-plan to make hunting better for all moving forward.