Concerns voiced by hunters over the deer population in the Francis Marion National Forest combined with hard data compiled by wildlife biologists have resulted in some changes for this year's deer season.

In a nutshell: Hunts for deer with any type of weapon will not occur until Sept. 1; the entire month of September will be archery only except for scheduled deer hunts with dogs on certain Wildlife Management Areas; the firearm season will not begin until Oct. 1; and the bag limit has been decreased from eight deer to four for the entire Francis Marion National Forest.

Sam Chappelear, regional wildlife coordinator for the S.C. Department of Natural Resources, said dog hunters and still hunters have been voicing concerns that "there were not deer out here."

"We actually set up some spotlight count surveys last year and it backed up to some extent what the hunters were telling us," Chappelear said. He said there has been a declining trend on the average age of deer harvested on the Francis Marion. And, he said, the Francis Marion population was the lowest per square mile of any Wildlife Management Areas operated by DNR.

"It was 1.5 deer per square mile, which is lower than even our mountain hunting units which don't have near the carrying capacity that typical Lowcountry places do," Chappelear said. Chappelear said several factors have led to the decline, and there are some issues which cannot be quantified.

He said a lot of pine stands are now maturing, and those pines don't produce the good browse needed for a healthy herd.

Feral hogs also could be a big problem, as the wild hogs compete with deer for the mast-producing acorns.

Another factor could be coyotes. He said a study on the Savannah River Site shows that coyotes play a big role in fawn mortality.

"We can encourage people to shoot every hog when they have an opportunity, shoot the coyote when they have an opportunity," he said. "Unfortunately, the hogs and coyotes are here to stay. We're not going to eliminate them, so we've got to learn to deal with them."

The ultimate goal of the Francis Marion rule changes is to get the deer population back to its optimal carrying capacity.

"What we've tried to do is to continue to provide as much opportunity as possible," Chappelear said, adding that historically only 1 percent of the Francis Marion deer harvest occurred in August. "The whole month of September is archery only. We've continued to provide an opportunity, you just have to use archery equipment or crossbows."

Charles Ruth, the coordinator for DNR's deer and wild turkey program, predicts a good deer hunting season statewide. There is an indication that a downward population trend is leveling off. Deer numbers peaked in the late 1990s at about 1 million animals, but the current figures indicate South Carolina's population at about 750,000 deer.

Information on the state's 2009 deer harvest and 2010 antler records is available at www.dnr.sc.gov/wildlife/deer/index.html. The top counties for harvest in 2009 were Bamberg, Allendale, Union and Anderson, with harvest rates in excess of 15 deer per square mile. The top counties for quality deer were Aiken, Orangeburg, Calhoun, Fairfield, Anderson and Saluda.

Information on hunting rules and regulations along with public hunting opportunities is available at www.dnr.sc.gov.