Kentucky hunters have taken more than 100,000 deer so far this year, with a majority of the harvest occurring during the recently completed modern gun season. The number of deer taken by hunters during the opening weekend of modern gun season was down about 400 animals from the average of the previous three seasons. Harvest for the month of November, most of which comes from hunters during the modern gun season, was down about 5,000 deer from the state’s 3-year average.
The decline, however, is a normal fluctuation that deer managers have seen for years.
“We would have to see more than one year of lower harvest before we’d be alarmed,” said Tina Brunjes, big game program coordinator for the Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife Resources. “One reason I think this year’s harvest may be down, from my own hunting and from what I’ve heard from other hunters out there, is the warm weather during gun season.”
Brunjes said that some hunters reported seeing deer on trail cameras at night, but not during shooting hours. She suspects the warm weather caused more deer to move at night rather than during the warmer daylight hours.
This year’s hunter harvest, while down slightly, still appears to follow a pattern biologists have been seeing for years.
“Season harvest seems to go up, down, up, down, each year in recent years,” said David Yancy, deer biologist for Kentucky Fish and Wildlife. “I wouldn’t be surprised to see it down a bit this year, and we end up with a total around 113,000 or 115,000 deer, and next year we’re back up to 120,000.”
Deer managers aren’t sure exactly why the season harvest total is stair-stepping, but Yancy has a few possible theories. The first is that the pattern is hunterdriven.
“It could be that we kill a lot of deer one year, and the next year there just aren’t as many deer on the ground during hunting season,” Yancy said. “With a smaller herd, the deer are in better condition, with more food to go around. The herd rebounds when female deer have twins more often and a greater number of fawns survive. This leads to another up year for hunters, because there are more deer in the population.”
Another possibility for the fluctuating harvest is that Kentucky’s deer herd has reached its carrying capacity, or the number of deer that the existing habitat can support. The state’s total deer population peaked in 2004 and then began to decline. It now stands at around one million animals. A declining deer herd, Yancy pointed out, isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Areas like central Kentucky have too many deer, leading to higher disease rates. Yancy suspects the stair-stepping harvest is something hunters will continue to see.
In addition to lower harvest numbers overall, about 60 percent of the deer taken so far this year have been male. While bucks usually represent a larger proportion of harvest than female deer at this point in the season, a 60-40 split between bucks and does is a larger difference than usual. Brunjes thinks warm weather during gun season played a part here as well.
“Bucks don’t care. They’re going to get out and chase during the rut no matter what, and they’re going to be more visible than does if the weather is warm,” she said. “The does are going to move more at night when it’s warm.”
Yancy pointed out that this year’s modern gun season seemed to fall right during the peak of the deer breeding season. He thinks this is another reason hunters may have seen, and harvested, more bucks.
“That’s going to happen about once out of every three years — the gun season will hit right smack on the peak of the rut,” he explained. “Some years our gun season comes toward the end of the rut, and some years it comes toward the beginning. But I think we’ll see the harvest even out closer to 51 percent bucks, 49 percent does, once the dust settles in January. In the end, this is probably going to look like a pretty typical season.”
Some hunters have voiced concerns about the harvest decline, with questions about last winter’s ice storm and even the possibility of lingering effects from the 2007 outbreak of epizootic hemorrhagic disease, or EHD.
“At this point, EHD is just a memory,” said Brunjes. “As far as the ice storm, especially in western Kentucky, it did have an effect. It changed the landscape.”
With tall trees damaged by ice, the forest floor received more sunlight, resulting in vegetation growth. Western Kentucky hunters who were accustomed to seeing deer in certain areas may have noticed a big change in deer patterns this year, Brunjes said.
“The ice storm converted areas with no forage into feeding areas,” she said. “It blocked trails. Feeding areas have become bedding areas. Places you used to hunt have changed and may not hold deer now.”
These changes prove that wildlife, in the end, act like wildlife. Hunters have up years, and they also have down years. In the end, hunting opportunity in Kentucky is still far beyond what our grandparents could have imagined.
“We’re hunting a wild animal,” Yancy said. “Part of the allure is that you can’t control it. Part of it is that you’re thankful to get to go and have quarry to pursue.”