If you hunted whitetails in Virginia last year and thought you were seeing fewer deer than in previous seasons, you weren’t alone. Preliminary harvest figures for the state show the just-completed season was one of the worst in recent memory.
A total of 190,745 deer were killed by hunters in the Old Dominion. This figure included 87,937 does, 88,148 antlered bucks, 14,592 button (fawn) bucks, and 68 uncategorized deer. The 2014-2015 kill was down a whopping 22 percent from the 244,440 harvested the previous year. It is also down 18 percent from the 10-year average of 233,350 deer.
Breaking down the kill further, some 1,890 deer were taken during the special Youth Deer Hunting Day held in September. Archery hunters arrowed 15,178 deer, accounting for 8 percent of the kill. Crossbow hunters collected 10,852 whitetails, or 6 percent of the total harvest. Sportsmen using muzzleloaders, who get to hunt during the prime pre-rut period in early November, tallied 48,282 deer, or 25 percent of the total. The remaining deer were harvested with rifles and shotguns during regular gun seasons.
The decline in the harvest was spread across the entire state, but was especially pronounced in eastern Virginia. The kill east of the Blue Ridge Mountains plummeted 24 percent. West of the Blue Ridge the harvest was down 16 percent.
The decline was not totally unexpected by biologists with the state Department of Game and Inland Fisheries. “The primary deer management effort over the past five to 10 years has been to increase the female deer kill over much of the state, especially on private lands, to meet the objectives of stabilizing or reducing deer populations,” said Matt Knox, Deer Program Leader for the Game Department. Female deer accounted for 46 percent of the kill in 2014.
The magnitude of the decline, however, was unexpected. Said Knox, “there are several possible explanations. First and foremost are the liberal either-sex deer hunting regulations (doe days) the Department has had in place since 2008. These liberal regulations were expected to eventually result in a decline in the deer herd and the annual deer kill totals.”
The second reason cited by Knox for the drop in the kill was the impact from hemorrhagic disease (HD) outbreaks. HD made itself felt in 28 counties in eastern Virginia in 2014. “In the past,” he said, “HD has caused up to 20-35 percent declines in the deer kill within specific counties where it occurred. Typically these HD-impacted deer herds recover after two to three years.”
The HD in eastern counties still can’t account for the dramatic 16 percent decline that also took place in the western part of the state, where no significant HD outbreaks were reported. Many hunters in these counties, including Shenandoah and Frederick, feel that antlerless regulations have become too liberal, reducing the overall deer population more than necessary and making deer sightings less frequent.
A third possible explanation for the decline is the exceptional mast crop. Acorns were plentiful statewide, reducing the need for deer to use food plots and agricultural crops, where they are more vulnerable, and allowing them to find food almost anywhere in the woods.
Without those two factors — the strong acorn crop and HD outbreaks — Knox says the gradual decline in deer numbers from liberalized doe harvests would have occurred more slowly and gradually.
Top three counties in the state for total deer kill were Bedford, 6,808; Loudoun, 5,219; and Southampton, 4,820. The kills for those three counties the previous year (2013) were 8,723, 7,619 and 5,656.