Results of the 2006 Deer Hunter Survey conducted by the S.C. Department of Natural Resources indicate that the statewide harvest of deer last season totaled 221,320 down 9.3 percent from 2005.
An estimated 115,917 bucks and 105,403 does made up this total, according to Charles Ruth, Deer/Turkey Project supervisor for the S.C. Department of Natural Resources (DNR).
Since 1997, DNR’s Wildlife Section has employed an annual random mail survey to estimate the harvest of deer at the state and county level. This years’ survey was sent to 25,000 hunters. Prior to 1997 deer harvest figures were dependent on Deer Check Station reports in the 18-county Upstate and reports from hunt clubs in the 28-county Coastal Plain. "The old way of documenting the deer harvest had flaws including failure to report harvested deer and the fact that there was no reporting required in many cases. Based on the survey work that has been done since 1997, it appears that the old system was documenting only about half of the deer being harvested annually in South Carolina, which is exactly why DNR is now using the survey technique," said Ruth.
Increasing rapidly through the 1970s and 1980s, the deer population in South Carolina has been stable to declining since the mid-1990s, according to Ruth. Harvest figures have been down each of the last four years reflecting about a 30 percent decline from the record harvest established in 2002 (319,902 deer). The reduction in harvest seen since 2002 can likely be attributed to several factors. The first and most important factor is related to habitat change. Although timber management activities stimulated the growth in South Carolina’s deer population in the 1980s, considerable acreage is currently in even-aged pine stands that are greater than 10 years old, a situation that does not support deer densities at the same level as younger stands in which food and cover is more available. Second, deer hunter numbers in South Carolina have been relatively stable over time, however, the number of licensees that indicated that they hunted deer in 2006 decreased by 9.5 percent compared to 2005. This may be related to the dramatic increase in fuel costs since the hurricanes in the Gulf Coast Region during the fall of 2005. Interestingly, the deer harvest in 2006 decreased by virtually the same amount (9.3%) as the number of hunters.
Harvest figures, like those provided by the 2006 Deer Hunter Survey, allow DNR biologists to reconstruct the deer population using computer modeling. It is a relatively simple procedure: plug in the number of bucks and does harvested along with age structure and reproductive data and the computer model determines the number of deer that were theoretically in the population prior to harvest. According to this modeling, Ruth said, South Carolinas’ deer population peaked during the mid-1990s with just a bit more than one million deer in the pre-hunt population. Currently, the statewide deer population is estimated at about 725,000, about the same number as in the mid 1980s.
Nonetheless, South Carolinas’ deer population is healthy, and the outlook for the 2007 season is good, according to Ruth. Hunters should not be concerned if the deer population is down compared to several years ago when the population reached its peak. DNR has been working to moderate South Carolina’s deer population and most hunters, to their credit, have recognized the fact that having fewer deer leads to better quality deer. Results of DNR’s antler scoring program indicate that this may indeed be the case as the last two years have seen over 300 bucks successfully entered into the state records program and 3 bucks being eligible for the Boone and Crockett Records.
Top counties for harvest in 2006 included Bamberg, Union, Hampton, Allendale, and Chester with each of these counties exhibiting harvest rates in excess of 15 deer per square mile, which should be considered extraordinary. Very few areas in the United States consistently yield comparable harvest figures.
All areas of South Carolina have long and liberal firearms seasons and the majority of deer (174,621) were taken with centerfire rifles in 2006. Shotguns (25,452 deer) and archery equipment (13,722 deer) also contributed significantly to the overall deer harvest, whereas muzzleloaders, crossbows and handguns combined (7,525 deer) produced less than 5 percent of the total statewide harvest.
Other survey statistics indicate that 117,285 South Carolina residents and 17,285 non-residents deer hunted in 2006. Based on hunters that deer hunted at least one day, overall hunting success in 2006 was 74.2 percent, which is outstanding. Resident hunters averaged about 16 days of deer hunting, non-residents about 13 days, and the total effort expended deer hunting in 2006 was estimated at 2,068,945 days. Orangeburg, Colleton, Fairfield, Williamsburg, and Hampton counties topped the list of counties with the most deer hunting effort. “The number of days devoted to deer hunting in South Carolina is very significant and points not only to the availability and popularity of deer as a game species, but to the obvious economic benefits related to this important natural resource,” Ruth said. About $200 million in direct retail sales is related to deer hunting in South Carolina annually.