Deer hunting season is still several months away but hunters are already buzzing about South Carolina's "most popular, sought after, economically important and controversial game animal" — the white-tailed deer.
The S.C. Department of Natural Resources recently released its 2018 Deer Harvest Report, showing a slight increase in the total number of deer killed in the state. The complete report, compiled by wildlife biologists Charles Ruth and Jay Cantrell with the SCDNR's Big Game Program, can be found at the department's website, dnr.sc.gov.
A random mail survey was sent to 30,000 licensed hunters and completed by 5,850. The goal was to determine the statewide deer harvest, the harvest by counties, hunting effort, resident and non-resident hunter activities and weapons use, weapons preference and harvest rates by weapon type. The study also included estimates of wild hog and coyote harvest.
Hunters harvested an estimated 194,986 deer in 2018 — 109,208 bucks and 85,778 does. That's a five-percent increase from 2017 (185,286) and 13-percent increase from 2016 (172,315). It is still 39 percent below the record harvest of 2002 (319,902).
The report states that after years of rapid population increase in the 1970s and '80s, the population stabilized between 1995 and 2002 and since then has trended down.
"The overall reduction in harvest seen since 2002 can likely be attributable to a number of factors, including habitat change," the report states.
A long-term study with researchers from the U.S. Forest Service Southern Research Station at the Savannah River Site demonstrated that coyotes "can be a significant predator of deer fawns, that predation by coyotes can be an additive source of mortality, and that efforts to increase fawn recruitment via coyote control provided only modest results and at high cost."
Residual effects of the Thousand-Year Flood in 2015 and Hurricane Matthew in 2016, each of which resulted in temporary season closures, may have led to increased number of deer available to hunters in 2017 and 2018.
"The fall of 2018 was the second season of the 'all deer' tagging system and statewide limit on antlered deer," the report notes. "Interestingly, the 13 percent increase in harvest since 2016 is primarily a result of an increase in doe harvest (18 percent) rather than an increase in the harvest of bucks (9.5 percent). Increases in harvest are normally the result of increases in the buck harvest or a more equal increase in buck and doe harvest. This disproportionate harvest may be indicative of the new buck limit having the desired effect of decreasing pressure on bucks. It will likely take a few years for this to become clearer."
The top five counties for number of deer harvested were Orangeburg, Hampton, Colleton, Fairfield and Spartanburg.
Hunters were asked to rate the deer population in the area they hunt most often and given three choices — increasing, about the same, decreasing. Fifty-eight percent indicated that the deer population in the area they hunted was about the same, 23 percent felt it was decreasing and 19 percent felt it was increasing.
More than 160,000 people were licensed to hunt deer in South Carolina last year, but only 90 percent (145,234) actually hunted deer.
Hunting success was defined as harvesting at least one deer, and overall hunting success in 2018 was 67 percent "which should be considered very good."
Resident hunters averaged 15 days in the field, a total of 1,893,499 days of deer hunting, and non-residents averaged 12 days for a total of 190,229 days.
During 2018 an estimated 39,347 wild hogs were killed by deer hunters in South Carolina, a four-percent increase from 2017 (37,858 hogs).
An estimated 22,731 coyotes were killed incidental to deer hunting in South Carolina in 2018, an increase of 1.3 percent.
These are just a few highlights from the 31-page report. If you are interested in deer hunting in South Carolina, you will want to spend time reading it.