Wildlife - 2020 Deer Harvest Report
The white-tailed deer (Odocoileus virginianus) is the most popular, sought after, economically important, and controversial game animal in South Carolina. The 2020 Deer Hunter Survey represents the South Carolina Department of Natural Resources' (SCDNR), Wildlife Section’s ongoing commitment to conduct pertinent research related to the state's white-tailed deer resource. The primary objectives of this survey research were to obtain valid estimates of:
- the statewide deer harvest in 2020,
- the harvest of deer in the constituent counties of the state,
- hunting effort related to deer,
- resident and nonresident hunter activities, and
- weapons use, weapons preference, and harvest rates by weapon type.
Information on hunter opinion related to certain aspects of the deer resource as well as estimates of the wild hog and coyote harvest in the state is also presented.
Due to the importance of deer as a state resource, SCDNR believes that accurately assessing the harvest of deer, as well as hunter participation in deer hunting, is key to the management of this species. Proposed changes in deer-related laws and regulations should have foundations in biology, therefore, the population dynamics associated with annual hunting mortality cannot be ignored. Similarly, when issues arise that do not involve biological parameters, it is important to have information related to deer hunter activities afield because they too form an important basis for managing deer.
Since the inception of the Statewide Deer Research and Management Project (Deer Project) the methods used to document the state’s deer harvest have changed. Historically, deer harvest figures were developed using a system of mandatory deer check stations in the 18 county Upstate (Game Zones 1 and 2) in conjunction with reported harvests from properties enrolled in the Antlerless Deer Quota Program (ADQP) in the 28 county Coastal Plain (Game Zones 3 and 4). This system yielded an actual count of harvested deer and was, therefore, an absolute minimum harvest figure. Shortcomings in this system included deterioration of check station compliance in the Upstate and failure to report by ADQP cooperators in the Coastal Plain. Also, since the acreage enrolled in the ADQP tends to be about one-half of the deer habitat in the Coastal Plain, past harvest figures have not documented deer harvests on non-quota lands (+- 3.1 million acres) because there was no legal requirement to report harvested deer in the Coastal Plain. Therefore, it is suspected that historic deer harvest figures only accounted for about one-half of the total deer harvest that occurred annually in the state.
The 2020 Deer Hunter Survey represents a random mail survey that involved a single mail-out. The questionnaire for the 2020 Deer Hunter Survey was developed by Wildlife Section personnel (Figure 1). The mailing list database was constructed by randomly selecting 30,000 known Big Game Permit holders that included 8 license types. The license types included:
- Resident Sportsman's,
- 3-year Resident Sportsman's,
- Resident Combination,
- 3-year Resident Combination,
- Resident Junior Sportsman's,
- Resident Big Game Permit,
- 3-year Resident Big Game Permit, and
- Nonresident Big Game Permit.
The number of individuals associated with each license type was based on an attempted sampling rate of approximately 15 percent for licenses purchased through December of 2020. Since deer seasons statewide end on January 1 there was no need to sample individuals that were licensed thereafter.
Data entry was completed by Data Dash, Inc., Farmington, Missouri. Statistical analysis was conducted using Statistix 10 (Analytical Software, Tallahassee, FL).
Thanks to South Carolina deer hunters. Funding for this report, as well as all activities related to the Statewide Deer Research and Management Project, is made possible through hunters’ participation in antlerless deer tag programs.
Results and Discussion
As with any mail survey, a portion of the attempted sample (30,000) was returned as undeliverable mail (478). Therefore, the actual attempted sample was 29,522 representing 17.2 percent of the entire population (171,666) of license holders. A total of 5,723 completed surveys were returned yielding a 19.4 percent response rate and 3.3 percent sampling rate on the entire licensee population.
During the 2020 deer season it is estimated that a total of 107,212 bucks and 90,681 does were harvested for a statewide total of 197,893 deer (Table 1). This represents a 2.4 percent increase in harvest from 2019 (193,073) and is 38 percent below the record harvest established in 2002 (319,902). After many years of rapidly increasing from the 1970’s to the mid-1990’s, the deer population in South Carolina exhibited relative stability between 1995 and 2002. Between 2003 and 2015, however, the population trended down with the overall reduction in harvest likely attributable to a number of factors, including habitat change, two decades of aggressive antlerless deer harvest, and the complete colonization of the state by coyotes and their impact on fawn survival. Since 2016 the states’ deer harvest has increased possibly as a result of declining coyote densities that would naturally occur following colonization.
The fall of 2020 was the fourth season of the "all deer" tagging system and statewide limit on antlered deer. Although the harvest has increased (15%) since 2016, this increase is primarily a result of an increase in doe harvest (25%) rather than an increase in the harvest of bucks (7%). Prior to the tagging program, increases in harvest were normally the result of increases in the buck harvest or a more equal increase in buck and doe harvest. This disproportionate increase in harvest between the sexes may be indicative of the new buck limit having the desired effect of decreasing pressure on bucks and increasing the harvest on does. It will likely take a few more years for this to become clearer.
Harvest Per Unit Area County Rankings
Comparisons can be made between deer harvests from the various counties in South Carolina if a harvest per unit area is established. Harvest per unit area standardizes the harvest among counties regardless of the size of individual counties. One measure of harvest rate is the number of deer taken per square mile (640ac. = 1 mile2). When considering the estimated deer habitat that is available in South Carolina, the deer harvest rate in 2020 was 9.3 deer per square mile over the entire state (Table 2). Although the deer harvest in the state has generally declined in recent years, South Carolina remains at the top among southeastern states, many of which have also noted a declining trend. The top 5 counties for harvest per unit area were Anderson (18.1 deer/mile2), Spartanburg (17.1 deer/mile2), Bamberg (16.4 deer/mile2), Orangeburg (15.3 deer/mile2), and Saluda (13.8 deer/mile2).
Deer Harvest Rankings by County
Total deer harvest by county is not comparable among counties because counties vary in size and are, therefore, not directly comparable. However, it has become customary to rank the counties based on number of deer harvested (Table 3). The top 5 counties during 2020 were Orangeburg, Colleton, Spartanburg, Williamsburg, and Hampton.
Deer Harvest on Wildlife Management Areas
Deer hunting on Wildlife Management Areas (WMAs) remains popular in South Carolina with approximately 60,000 licensees having a WMA Permit. Wildlife Management Areas represent lands owned by SCDNR, other state-owned lands enrolled in the WMA Program, US Forest Service lands enrolled in the WMA Program, and private and/or corporate lands that are leased by SCDNR as part of the WMA Program. Deer harvest figures for coastal WMAs are from check stations and are presented only for those WMA properties that have a deer check-in requirement. Deer harvest figures for upstate WMAs (Mountain and Central and Western Piedmont Hunt Units) were estimated by extrapolating the county deer harvest rates (deer/mi2) to the acreage of WMA land that falls within the respective counties comprising the WMA. This assumes that hunters on WMA lands exhibit effort and deer harvest patterns similar to those of the general licensee database that was surveyed. Finally, the estimated deer harvest on WMA lands is included in, not additive to, the county and statewide estimates found throughout this report.
During the 2020 season it is estimated that 4,113 bucks, 3,245 does, and 9 deer of unknown sex were harvested for a total deer harvest on Wildlife Management Areas of 7,367 (Table 4). This figure represents a 5 percent increase from 2019.
Hunter Opinion Regarding the Deer Population
The 2020 Deer Hunter Survey asked participants their opinion regarding the following question. Compared to past years, how would you rate the number of deer in the area that you hunt most often? Survey participants were given 3 choices; increasing, about the same, or decreasing. Most hunters (59%) indicated that the number of deer in the area they hunted most often was about the same as in past years (Table 5). Slightly more hunters (23%) believed that the deer population was decreasing than increasing (16%). On a scale of 1 to 3 with 1 being increasing, 2 being neutral, and 3 being decreasing, the overall mean rating of 2.0 suggests that hunters viewed the deer population about the same as past years.
Number of Deer Hunters
Even though all individuals receiving a survey were licensed to hunt deer, only 88 percent actually hunted deer. For residents, 87 percent of sampled licensees hunted deer and for nonresidents 94 percent hunted deer. Extrapolating to the respective licensee populations yields 134,675 residents (Table 6) and 15,488 nonresidents (Table 7) for a total of 150,163 deer hunters statewide during 2020. This figure represents a 6 percent increase from the 141,116 hunters in 2019. Counties with the highest estimates for individual hunters include Orangeburg, Colleton, Fairfield, Laurens, and Newberry for resident hunters (Table 6) and Hampton, Allendale, Chester, Fairfield, and Bamberg for nonresidents (Table 7).
For determination of hunting success only those individuals who actually hunted deer were included in the analysis and similarly, success was defined as harvesting at least one deer. Overall hunting success in 2020 was 69 percent, which should be considered very good. Success rates for residents (69%, Table 6) were slightly lower than nonresidents (70%, Table 7). Estimates for resident and nonresident success rates for all counties are presented in Tables 6 and 7.
For the purposes of this survey hunter effort was measured in days with one day being defined as any portion of the day spent afield. Resident hunters averaged 15 days afield for a total of 2,011,594 days deer hunting and nonresidents averaged 13 days for a total of 203,539 days (Table 8). Total effort expended deer hunting in South Carolina during 2020 was estimated at 2,215,133 days (Table 8), a 7 percent increase from 2020. 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. Previous surveys conducted by the United States Fish and Wildlife Service indicate that approximately 200 million dollars in direct retail sales are related to deer hunting in South Carolina annually.
The top 5 South Carolina counties for overall days of deer hunting during 2020 were Orangeburg, Colleton, Kershaw, Spartanburg, and Aiken (Table 8). Resident hunters expended the most hunting effort in Orangeburg, Colleton, Spartanburg, Aiken, and Laurens counties. Nonresidents hunted the most in Hampton, Allendale, Lancaster, Chester, and Colleton counties and these 5 counties totaled 38 percent of all the nonresident deer hunting effort that took place in South Carolina in 2020. There was more hunting effort in Hampton County by nonresidents than by residents.
Resident hunters who were successful at harvesting at least one deer averaged nearly twice as many days (17 days) afield as unsuccessful residents (9 days) (Table 8). Similarly, successful nonresidents (15 days) averaged more days afield when compared with unsuccessful nonresidents (8 days).
The amount of effort required to harvest a deer varied between residents and nonresidents and by the county hunted. On the average it took less time for nonresidents to harvest a deer (9 days, Table 7) compared to residents (11 days, Table 6). This may be due to the fact that many nonresidents hunt commercially where considerable preparation is done prior to the hunter’s arrival. Also, there may be less selectivity with respect to deer harvested by nonresidents. Counties requiring the least effort to harvest a deer included Beaufort, Orangeburg, Bamberg and Allendale, Barnwell, Hampton, and Jasper (tie) counties for resident hunters (Table 6). On the other hand, nonresidents spent less time to harvest a deer in Pickens, Lee, Darlington, Spartanburg, and Anderson and Williamsburg (tie) counties (Table 7), however, none of these counties experienced what should be considered a high level of nonresident hunting activity.
Deer Harvest by Weapon Type and Weapons Utilization and Preference
All areas of South Carolina have long and liberal firearms seasons and the majority (81%) of deer were harvested with centerfire rifles (Table 9). Shotguns (7.6%) and archery equipment (6%) also contribute significantly to the overall deer harvest in the state, whereas muzzleloaders, crossbows, and handguns combine to contribute 5 percent to the total harvest (Table 9).
Although rifles are used by over 90 percent of hunters, nearly 80 percent of hunters use multiple weapons during the deer season (Table 10, Table 11). Resident hunters appear to be more flexible than nonresidents in their use of multiple weapons and significantly more residents use archery equipment (19%) and shotguns (18%) than nonresidents (12% archery and 7% shotguns) (Table 11). This finding has been consistent for many years and two points can likely be made. First, since most aspects of deer hunting (travel, accommodations, etc.) are typically more convenient for residents, they may have more time to devote to becoming comfortable or proficient with additional weapons, in this case archery equipment. Second, shotguns are the customary weapon related to hunting deer with dogs and the argument can be made that dog hunting is being practiced more by residents than nonresidents. The weapons utilization data supports this contention.
On the other hand, nonresidents (13%) used muzzleloaders more frequently than residents (10%). Keep in mind that muzzleloader or primitive weapons seasons on private land are only available in Game Zones 1 and 2 (the Upstate). It is suspected that the high utilization of muzzleloaders by nonresidents is related to the availability of this special season at an earlier date in South Carolina than in neighboring states. Also, the argument can be made that muzzleloaders require less commitment than archery equipment and would allow nonresidents a comparatively easy method of harvesting deer during the special season. This finding has been consistent for many years.
Unlike weapons utilization, weapons preference is the single weapon that a hunter prefers. Obviously, a majority (81%) of deer hunters prefer rifles (Table 12). Bows (10%) are the second most preferred weapon which is interesting because compared to other states, there are limited exclusive opportunities for bow hunters in South Carolina. Nonetheless, the number of hunters indicating that bows are their preferred weapon has increased over time. Finally, there are several interesting points that can be made about preferences for other weapons based on residency. Shotguns are preferred significantly more by residents (6%) than nonresidents (2%) and muzzleloaders are preferred more by nonresidents (2.7%) than by residents (1%) (Table 12). The explanation of this situation is similar to that for weapons utilization in that, (1) residents do most of the dog hunting in the state and tend to use shotguns, and (2) nonresidents use muzzleloaders to take advantage of a special season that is not available as early in their home state.
Deer Harvest by Month of Season
The 2020 Deer Hunter Survey asked hunters to provide information on the month of kill for deer taken during the 2020 season. Although South Carolina is noted to have the longest firearms deer season in the country, the relationship between season length and deer harvest is often misunderstood. Deer naturally increase their movements during the breeding season or rut making them more susceptible to being seen and harvested by hunters. In contrast, outside of the breeding season deer movements are reduced, therefore the chances of hunters seeing and harvesting deer are reduced.
Deer harvest by month of season demonstrates this phenomenon (Figure 2). Although firearms seasons are not open in all parts of the state in late August and early September, relatively few deer are harvested during that time where the season is open. On the other hand, a disproportionately high number of deer are taken during October and November. October and November encompass the majority of the breeding season in South Carolina with over 80 percent of does conceiving during that period (Figure 3). Ultimately, timing of the season is a more important factor in determining deer harvest and quality hunting than the length of the season. Although South Carolina offers early opening seasons, there may be negative consequences as it relates to deer harvest. Hunters should understand that hunting pressure that builds prior to the breeding season can suppress daytime movements of deer during the breeding season when deer movements and hunter harvests should be greatest.
Wild Hog Harvest
The 2020 Deer Hunter Survey also asked hunters to provide information on their wild hog and coyote harvesting activities. Documenting the hog harvest became customary several years ago because wild hogs are commonly taken incidental to deer hunting. Wild or feral hogs are often thought of as "game" and there is a certain amount of sport associated with harvesting hogs. Wild hogs provide quality meat for the hunter and mature hogs can make a highly sought-after "trophy". Wild hogs are not native to South Carolina or any part of the North American continent. They are descendants of European domestic hogs that escaped or were released dating back as far as the early Spanish explorers. Also, closed-range or fencing requirements for livestock did not arise until the 1900's and letting hogs "free-range" was common prior to fencing laws. Wild hogs were historically associated with the major river flood plain systems in Coastal South Carolina. Unfortunately, recent relocations of wild hogs by hunters appear to be responsible for the species populating areas where they were not found in the past. Wild hogs directly compete with native species like deer and wild turkey for habitat and food, and hogs can do significant damage to the habitat and agricultural production through their rooting activities. Legislation passed during the 2005 session of the South Carolina General Assembly prohibits the release of hogs in the state and legislation passed in 2010 prohibits the removal of a live hog from the woods without a permit (SC Code Section 50-16-25). Hogs are not protected animals in South Carolina and hunters can harvest them throughout the year during daylight hours and at night by registering their property.
During 2020 an estimated 28,043 wild hogs were incidentally harvested by deer hunters in South Carolina Table 13), an 11 percent decrease from 2019 (31,508 hogs). Hog numbers and thus harvest, can vary substantially from year to year due to bottomland flooding during the fall and winter farrowing season which can cause mortality in piglets (and some adults), as well as, increasing vulnerability to hunters as hogs move to higher ground. The dramatic decrease in harvest the last two years is likely related to these factors as bottomland flooding has been relatively widespread the last few years particularly in 2018 which resulted in a record hog harvest. Evidence of the presence of hogs in 44 of 46 counties was made by hunter harvest activities (46 of 46 counties in 2019). Statewide, approximately 1.3 hogs/mile2 were harvested, however, this figure is deceiving because hogs only inhabit a relatively small portion of the state as a whole. The top 5 counties for wild hog harvest per unit area were Abbeville (4.8 hogs/mile2), Allendale (4.2 hogs/mile2), Hampton (3.5 hogs/mile2), McCormick (3.4 hogs/mile2) and Richland (2.5 hogs/mile2).
Unlike wild hogs which are treated like game to some degree, coyotes are typically thought of as varmints that pose a threat to native game species. Like wild hogs, coyotes are a non-native species in South Carolina. Although a popular notion among hunters is that SCDNR released coyotes, the agency has never released coyotes in South Carolina. The occurrence of coyotes in the state is more recent than hogs and they appear to have gotten to the state by two methods, (1) natural movements from western states and (2) illegal importation. Coyotes were first documented in Oconee and Pickens Counties in 1978 and were thought to be linked to animals that were illegally imported for hunting purposes. Evidence for this includes an illegal importation case that was made and the fact that coyotes had not been documented in adjacent counties in Georgia and North Carolina. Within a few years coyotes began to appear in the western piedmont counties of Anderson, Abbeville, McCormick, etc. indicating a southeastern expansion from the original site. In the early 1980's coyotes were documented in Allendale County and were thought to be natural immigrants from Georgia since they had previously been documented in the adjacent Georgia counties. Coyotes from this source apparently populated to the Northeast until they encountered the Santee Cooper Lakes. In the late 1980's coyotes were documented in the Pee Dee Region, again associated with illegal imports. In any event, by the mid-1990's coyotes had been documented in all South Carolina counties.
Sportsmen often voice concern over the presence of coyotes and the potential impact they have on game species such as deer. Though coyotes are one of the most adaptable animals, they are not designed to prey on big game. The coyote's diet is chiefly composed of small mammals (rats and mice), insects, and a variety of vegetable matter including fruits. On the other hand, coyotes will take deer fawns and deer that are sick or injured. SCDNR completed a major study with researchers at the Savannah River Site investigating the affects coyotes are having on the survival of deer fawns. Cumulative data through the first 3 years of the study indicated approximately 70 percent total fawn mortality with coyotes being responsible for approximately 80 percent of these mortalities. If these findings even moderately represent a statewide situation, this "new mortality factor" is clearly involved in the reduction in deer numbers. This is especially true when combined with extremely liberal deer harvests that have been the norm in South Carolina.
The last 3 years of the study were for the purpose of determining if reducing coyote density through trapping increases fawn survival. It seems logical that if coyotes are preying on fawns, then significantly reducing coyote densities should increase fawn survival. Over the course of the 3-year coyote “control” phase, 474 coyotes were trapped/killed on the study areas. Overall, results showed only modest increases in fawn survival following these efforts with an overall average of about 35 percent increase in survival. Also, trapping seemed to help in some years but have little effect on predation in others. This "year" effect may have something to do with the availability of coyote food sources that may change in abundance annually. Given these results and the difficulty and high cost of coyote control, it seems apparent that making adjustments to how we manage deer, particularly female deer, is more important now than prior to the colonization of the state by coyotes.
Coyotes are not protected animals in South Carolina and hunters are allowed to harvest them throughout the year during daylight hours and at night by registering their property. During 2020 it is estimated that approximately 18,919 coyotes were harvested incidental to deer hunting in South Carolina (Table 13), a decrease of 9 percent from 2019 (20,674 coyotes). As in past years, there was evidence of coyotes being harvested in all counties. Although the number of coyotes killed by deer hunters increased exponentially from the late 1990’s to 2014 pointing to the expansion of this species in South Carolina, the harvest has decreased 40 percent in recent years likely indicating a moderation in coyote populations across the state which is typical of a species following colonization. Statewide approximately 0.9 coyotes/mile 2 were harvested and the top 5 counties for coyote harvest per unit area included Anderson (2.5 coyotes/mile2), Abbeville (2.3 coyotes/mile2), Greenwood (2.2 coyotes/mile2), Spartanburg (2.0 coyotes/mile2), and Saluda (2.0 coyotes/mile2).
The following section is not related to the 2020 Deer Hunter Survey but is offered as information relevant to the state’s deer population.
Based on preliminary data provided by the South Carolina Department of Public Safety (SCDPS) the number of reported deer-vehicle collisions for 2020 was 2,705 (Table 14). Since reporting of deer vehicle collisions is contingent upon notification of some law enforcement agency and then SCDPS, this figure should be considered a minimum. Also, the reader should bear in mind that reporting criteria have changed over time.
Average body weights and antler characteristic of deer vary among the constituent counties in South Carolina and are dependent on deer density and habitat conditions (Tables 15 and 16). Statewide averages for male deer indicate that 1.5-year-old bucks average about 107 lbs. and 3.6 antler points while bucks 2.5 years old and older average about 138 lbs. and 6.5 antler points. Yearling (1.5 years old) females average approximately 88 lbs. while does 2.5 years old and older average nearly 101 lbs. This information is based on sampling completed between 1987 and 1994.
The history of the deer population and harvest in South Carolina demonstrates a trend typical of a species that initially expands into available habitat, stabilizes, and begins to decline as habitat changes (Figures 4 and 5). It is important to recognize that habitat is the primary factor controlling deer density in South Carolina, though regulated harvest is important as well. Keep in mind that between 1750 and 1900 the deer population in South Carolina experienced a tremendous decline as it did in most of North America. Although unrestricted subsistence and commercial harvest of deer was important in the decline, major changes in habitat related to clearing of land for agriculture was the controlling factor.
By 1900 deer numbers in the State were very low, perhaps 20,000. However, in the 1920's, significant drought and the cotton boll weevil had devastating consequences for farming. With the decline in farming, reforestation of the state began and was largely complete by the 1970's. Timber harvest activities that followed into and throughout the 1980's created vast areas of early successional habitat that allowed for a dramatic increase in the State's deer population. South Carolina's deer population peaked in the mid to late 1990's at just over 1,000,000 deer.
Over time, deer hunters gained a better understanding of the relationship between deer numbers, habitat, and deer quality leading to more aggressive female harvests in many parts of the state. This increased emphasis on harvesting female deer to control deer densities has played a role in the stabilization and ultimate reduction in the State's deer population. Habitat is also very important. Keep in mind that the same forest management activities that stimulated the growth in South Carolina's deer population in the 1980s have resulted in considerable acreage currently being in even-aged stands that are greater than 15 years old. This habitat type simply does not support deer densities at the same level as habitat in early stages of ecological succession. As a result, a combination of habitat change, high deer harvests, and the establishment of coyotes has caused the deer population to trend down since 2000. Currently the statewide population is estimated at about 715,000 deer.