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Deer me!

S.C. deer population declining slightly

Posted: March 18, 2014 4:42 p.m.
Updated: March 19, 2014 5:00 a.m.

The state’s deer population is declining, according to findings provided by both the S.C. Department of Natural Resources (SCDNR) and a local naturalist. That may come as something of a surprise to some Kershaw County residents who say deer have been spotted more and more frequently in residential areas.

According to local naturalist and cultural ecologist Josh Arrants, drivers reported 11 deer vs. vehicle collisions in 2005. That number jumped to 54 in 2011.

However, other data Arrants provided, along with SCDNR Deer and Wild Turkey Program Coordinator Charles Ruth, shows the overall deer population is declining slightly.

The state’s deer population peaked in the late 1990s, Ruth and Arrants said, and has been on a gradual downward trend since. In the late 1990s, the state’s deer population reached about 1 million animals, Arrants noted, but, since 2002, the population has dropped with current figures at about 725,000 deer -- a 25 percent decrease from approximately 10 years ago.

Arrants also said that during the 2012 deer season, an estimated total of 116,673 bucks and 101,181 does were harvested statewide, a total of 217,854 deer.

“This figure represents a 3.8 percent decrease in harvest from 2011 (226,458) and is 31.9 percent below the record harvest established in 2002 (319,902),” Arrants said. “After many years of rapidly increasing during the 1970’s and 1980’s, the deer population in South Carolina exhibited relative stability between 1995 and 2002. Since 2002, however, the population has trended down.”

Several factors contribute to the decline of the population. Ruth and Arrants said the three leading causes are habitat change, more liberal deer harvesting and the introduction of coyotes in the state.

“The timber industry in South Carolina is becoming more prominent as pine trees mature,” Ruth said in regards to habitat change.

“Although timber management activities stimulated significant growth in South Carolina’s deer population in the 1970s and 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,” Arrants added.

As for deer harvesting, Ruth said South Carolina hunters being able to legally shoot female deer has increased the number of deer harvested. Arrants said this type of “extremely liberal” deer harvest has been the norm in South Carolina. He further clarified that hunters have to have a “doe tag” and must be shooting during hunting season.

“Also, most Saturdays during the hunting season are ‘doe days,’” he added.

Arrants added that the addition of coyotes to the natural landscape as predators, along with the deer harvest, create a “new mortality factor ... (that was) clearly involved in the reduction of deer numbers.”

He said coyotes filled in an “empty niche” in the state’s ecological system left open when the red wolf was extirpated -- taken completely out of its traditional location.

“Nature abhors a vacuum. A niche cannot go vacant,” Arrants said.

One aspect of hunting that Arrants does not condone is that of “trophy hunting.” He said this occurs when hunters supply corn and other supplemental feeding materials in an attempt to produce bigger deer. Arrants said that often these “biggest and baddest” deer aren’t hunted for their meat, but to be displayed as ornamentation. He said he encourages hunting practices in which hunters shoot the deer they see and eat the meat from their kill.

Ruth said deer show up in residents’ back yards because subdivisions are often established in places that used to be woods.

“There are no hunters there,” he said. “In rural areas, you have natural predation, but not so in suburban areas.”

Arrants said he has been contacted by many homeowners who have discovered deer eating their rosebushes, shrubbery or pansies. He suggested that concerned homeowners employ such options as malorganite, a kind of deer repellant, or look into planting plants that aren’t tasty to deer. With human encroachment on natural territory, the number of reported deer vs. vehicle collisions are also on the rise.

Arrants also suggested that refraining from trophy hunting could help solve this problem.

“It’s life,” he said. “We have to strike a balance with nature. There’s no way around it.”

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