2017 North American Deer Summit: State of the Whitetail

By author of Brow Tines and Backstrap

Whitetails Face a List of Challenges

The white-tailed deer faces a range of threats. (Shutterstock/Dustie photo)

The white-tailed deer is an extremely adaptable species. Throughout time, it’s learned how to adapt and inhabit a large variety of habitats throughout North America. But as resilient as it is, today it faces a variety of threats that pose problems for the future of the species. That’s one of the reasons why the National Deer Alliance hosts the North American Deer Summit. Kip Adams of the Quality Deer Management Association (QDMA) recently delivered the 2017 State of the Whitetail address at the summit. If you missed it, feel free to catch up on the big issues below.

Challenges faced by deer and deer hunters are also the reason the QDMA releases its annual Whitetail Report. It includes the latest information on the biggest issues in the world of whitetails. All data you find below is from and can be found in the QDMA 2017 Whitetail Report.

Buck Bag Limits

This is another one of those topics that continues to be a major topic of discussion. As of 2016, according to the Whitetail Report, the states with the most liberal buck bag limits were Florida (no limit), Connecticut (six-plus), New Jersey (six), South Carolina (five-plus) and South Dakota (five-plus). However, bag limits have changed since then. South Carolina is a prime example. So check local regulations for the most recent numbers.

These numbers aside, most states are either reducing or keeping their buck bag limits the same. Since 2010, Louisiana, Tennessee, Maine, Maryland, Rhode Island, Missouri and South Dakota have decreased the number of buck tags available to each hunter. No state has increased that total.

Some states choose to manage deer herds by using larger management zones, while other states have numerous smaller ones. Many western states such as Colorado and Wyoming have 186 and 133 units, respectively. Other states are the extreme opposite with Maryland (two), Alabama (three), Mississippi (three), Rhode Island (four) and South Carolina (four) having the fewest.

The Antlered Deer Harvest

This is one of many areas we analyze each year. Biologists look to see which states experienced increases and decreases in their buck harvests.

“In 2015, the average percentage of the antlered buck harvest that was 11⁄2 years old was 34 percent, which remains near the lowest national percentage ever reported,” the 2017 QDMA Whitetail Report stated. “For the first time in the past two and a half decades, the percentage of yearling bucks in the harvest increased. However, the increase was a mere percentage point and is likely a sign we have bottomed out on yearling buck harvest."

According to the 2017 QDMA Whitetail Report, the top five states with the greatest antlered buck harvest increases (vs. five-year average) were West Virginia (22 percent), Kentucky (17 percent), Minnesota (12 percent), Missouri (10 percent) and Pennsylvania (8 percent).

Other states didn’t fare so well. In fact, some experienced decreases in the antlered buck harvest. The five states with the greatest antlered buck harvest decreases (vs. five-year average) were Rhode Island (30 percent), Florida (25 percent), Connecticut (19 percent), New Jersey (17 percent) and Oklahoma (13 percent).

The top five states with highest antlered buck harvest per square mile included Michigan (3.4), South Carolina (3.4), West Virginia (3.4), Maryland (3.1) and Pennsylvania (3.1). None of these states come as a surprise. High deer densities (other than South Carolina and West Virginia), a lot of hunters and liberal tag availabilities contribute to these numbers.

As previously mentioned, this is data that is very important to deer hunting. And I’m proud to say that the Whitetail Report states mature bucks exceeded yearlings in the buck harvest for the second straight year. Bucks aged 3½ years old and older comprised 35 percent of the harvest in 2015 while yearlings made up only 34 percent. The states with the lowest percentage of yearling bucks in the harvest were Arkansas (7 percent), Mississippi (14 percent), Texas (14 percent), Louisiana (16 percent) and Florida (17 percent). The states with the highest percentages of yearlings in the buck harvest included Wisconsin (55 percent), Maryland (51 percent), Maine (48 percent), New York (47 percent) and Virginia (46 percent).

The Antlerless Deer Harvest

Doe harvest has been a hot topic for debate for a long time. Many people disagree on the number of does we should remove from the herd each year. When in reality, the right number will be different from state to state, region to region and property to property. We’ll look at a few sets of data to get a feel for each end of the spectrum.

Continuing with the analysis of states in the Midwest, Northeast and Southeast, hunters from these regions harvested 2,870,972 antlerless deer in 2015. This was 3 percent below the 2014 antlerless harvest and 12 percent below the five-year average. (Josh Honeycutt photo)“Antlerless harvests vary widely among states and years due to differences in deer density, productivity, a state’s goals (reducing, stabilizing, or increasing the deer population), weather, disease and other factors,” the 2017 QDMA Whitetail Report stated. “However, we can learn much about an agency’s management program by comparing the antlerless and antlered buck harvests. Continuing with the analysis of states in the Midwest, Northeast and Southeast, hunters from these regions harvested 2,870,972 antlerless deer in 2015. This was 3 percent below the 2014 antlerless harvest and 12 percent below the five-year average.”

The top five states with the highest antlerless harvest per square mile are Maryland (5.6), Delaware (5.4), Pennsylvania (4), Georgia (3.8) and New Jersey (3.6). The states with the lowest antlerless harvest per square mile were Maine (0.2), North Dakota (0.2), South Dakota (0.2), Nebraska (0.3), Massachusetts (0.5), New Hampshire (0.5), Oklahoma (0.5) and Vermont (0.5). And lastly, the top five states for the total number of antlerless deer harvested per antlered buck harvested were Delaware (2.5), Maryland (1.8), New Jersey (1.7), Alabama (1.6), and Georgia (1.5).

The Doe Fawn Breeding Factor

Something that certainly plays a role in deer management, yet seems to have been ignored by most until recent years, is the regional percentages of doe fawns that breed their first fall. This directly affects the number of bucks that are born and recruited into the herd each fall.

Now, before looking at some of the numbers, the sexual maturity of a doe fawn is determined by weight and not age. How do some doe fawns reach that weight threshold their first fall/winter while others do not? Several reasons.

The date of which a given fawn was born plays a significant role in determining whether or not it will breed the first year. However, habitat is the main key. If a fawn has the nutritious food sources  that it needs to reach that threshold available, it’ll likely breed. If it lives in an area without much food and quality cover, it most likely will not breed until the following fall when it’s 1½ years old. It’s been documented that in some extreme cases zero percent of fawns bred in the Southeast, whereas 40 to 50 percent of fawns bred in certain midwestern studies. To breed, most fawns in the South need to reach 70 to 75 pounds and those in the North need to be around 80 to 85. So there’s certainly a wide range of data when looking at the country as a whole.

“Nationwide, about 13 percent of doe fawns breed, with the highest percentage coming from the Midwest (16 percent), followed by the Southeast (13 percent) and Northeast (10 percent),” the 2017 QDMA Whitetail Report stated. “A similar state wildlife agency survey in 2009 (as reported in our 2010 Whitetail Report) showed approximately 26 percent of doe fawns bred in 1998, and 23 percent did in 2008. The sharp decline to 12 percent in 2015 suggests vastly different nutritional planes and habitat conditions in many areas today.”

According to the data, the states with the highest number of doe fawns that conceived were Ohio (24 percent), Pennsylvania (23 percent), South Dakota (22 percent), Illinois (21 percent), Arkansas (15 percent), Maine (15 percent) and North Carolina (15 percent). The states with the lowest numbers were Maryland (below one percent), New Mexico (below one percent), North Dakota (four percent), Vermont (five percent) and West Virginia (five percent).

Diseases Posing the Largest Threats

According to Kip Adams and the Whitetail Report, Chronic Wasting Disease (CWD), Hemorrhagic Disease (HD), Bovine Tuberculosis (BTB) and Screwworm are currently the largest threats to wild deer in North America. Each of these are unique in their own ways, but are impacting deer in massive proportions. It’s because of the continued efforts by leading deer biologists and researchers that we continue to improve our understanding of each one.

CWD — an always-fatal disease once contracted — continues to dominate headlines. It’s been found in western, midwestern and northeastern states. Both Texas and Arkansas recently tested CWD-positive wild deer. Pennsylvania continues to find it’s spreading rapidly there. The only region remaining that has not been impacted is the Southeast.

HD, also referred to as EHD, is another serious diseased. It’s most common during times of drought when biting midge flies infect deer with a blood-borne disease. Unlike CWD, HD is not always fatal and deer are developing an immunity to this disease across the country. It’s often a misconception that HD is more serious than CWD because HD-killed deer are commonly found in large groups after a kill-off. That’s because HD is a fast-killing disease, while a deer may have CWD for years before succumbing. The big difference? CWD is always-fatal and HD certainly is not.

BTB affects the respiratory system in whitetails. It’s a bacterial disease. The bad news? It's difficult to control. It’s transferrable between cattle and cervids and the disease can take years to develop. The good news? According to the 2017 QDMA Whitetail Report, it seems to have been eradicated in most states except in Michigan and Indiana.

Likely the least talked about on this list, screwworm, still poses a threat to wild deer. Generally, these larvae are deposited into wounds by flies. Then, the larvae drill down into the flesh of the host animal, ultimately killing it in many cases. This was the cause of the big Key deer die-off in 2016. This can affect both cervids and livestock.

Conclusion

For the most part, deer are doing alright. It’s still the good ol’ days of deer hunting. For now, at least. Bag limits continue to move in the right direction. Both antlered and antlerless deer harvests continue to decline, but remain relatively steady. One thing that truly has me worried? CWD. I can’t lie. It’s a bad situation. And we’ll address just how bad in our next report from the 2017 North American Deer Summit. Another thing? Habitat. We'll be covering that, too.

Read: North American Deer Summit: CWD Is Worse Than We Thought | 2017 North American Deer Summit: Threats to Hunter Access

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