Deer harvest numbers down; season's outlook is still good
By JOHN K. FLORES
You’ve done your homework, you’ve planted your food plots, you’ve set up your trail cameras and the deer are there. There are a couple nice ones you can’t wait till opening day to put your crosshairs on.
Come opening day, the anticipation turns to boredom. Nothing shows. Not even an old doe with a couple yearlings lagging behind. So what happened?
If that was the way your hunting season went last year, perhaps it wasn’t necessarily your fault. You did things right.
According to Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries Deer Study Leader Scott Durham, a decline in deer harvest numbers could be attributed to excellent conditions.
Durham said, “The decline last year, you’ve got to give some recognition to the fact that we had one of the most incredible mast crop production we’ve ever seen in most of our lives. At least that’s the general consensus. Though it might not have really affected marsh hunters or the guys hunting pure piney woods, there is no doubt that food plots were just used less by deer and people chose to stay sitting in blinds. The guys who hunted permanent stands over bait or something like that — they didn’t do as well across a lot of the state.”
The Louisiana deer harvest was down 13 percent last season (2011-12) from the previous year. Additionally, hunter participation also was down nine percent last year. Durham mentioned the hunter survey numbers were the lowest the department has seen since the mid-80s.
The department’s harvest numbers have gone from the 200,000 norm to a new norm of 150,000. Last season’s survey showed a total estimated harvest of 133,000 deer.
Part of the decline may simply be deer hunters couldn’t afford to hunt due to a downturn in the economy and the high cost of travel.
Durham said, “I was talking to one of the Bayou Bucks guys, and he said guys just didn’t go to the lease as much because of high gas prices last year. They just kind of ratcheted it back a little bit — the economy was so bad. So there were fewer hours spent per hunter.”
With the average age of deer hunters somewhere around 47, Durham pointed out another reason for the decline could be attributed to an aging hunter population, where guys are simply getting older who don’t get out as much. Moreover, in spite of some younger guys coming in, there still remains a high number of senior hunters.
“There’s a lot of senior hunters out there that may not just be shooting,” Durham said. “We all know guys that just pass deer all of the time now. Even people on the WMAs (Wildlife Management Areas) seem to be getting more selective and just not necessarily out to kill all of the deer they can kill.”
Perhaps one of the biggest reasons for a declining deer harvest trend is what’s become the business of deer hunting. Organizations and programs such as Quality Deer Management Association and Deer Management Assistance Program, as well as television programs on the Hunting Channel, which promote trophy buck hunting to the extreme, all have influenced and caused hunters to be more discrete and selective when it comes to pulling the trigger on younger deer.
The 2011-12 deer season could be considered the year of the big buck. Previous records were broken last year and a high number of deer shuffled the LDWF’s Big Game Records Program.
Durham said, “We had 72 entries this past year, and we actually put about another 20 deer on the big bucks list than we did the year prior. If that was the year of the big buck, then last season was too. But, the big deer harvest is just getting better and better. Guys are definitely getting more selective. On our DMAP lands, we’ve gone from 50 percent harvest of 1½ year old deer to 50 percent of 3½ year old deer.”
With the excellent mast production in 2011, a mild winter, and wet spring, the outlook for the upcoming season looks promising. When conditions such as drought are persistent, it impacts what biologists refer to as recruitment. Essentially, that is the 1½ year old age when does mature and produce fawns.
Dry weather, flooding, harsh winters, disease and overall stress all are factors that impact recruitment.
Durham said, “I think the mast crop we saw last year put the deer into really good shape following a couple of dry summers. But, I think our deer population came out of the winter in much better shape and went into the spring with good rainfall, and our summer hasn’t been too bad this year. We should see a better fawn crop this year, which will mean better recruitment going into next year and the following year. It also looks like we have another good mast crop again this year. So, again, it doesn’t really affect the marsh and piney plantation hunters, but anywhere you have an acorn source, those deer are going to be using them.”
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