South Carolina

Floods, coyotes take toll on deer hunting

White tail deer are native to South Carolina.
White tail deer are native to South Carolina. S.C. Department of Natural Resources

COLUMBIA, SC Floods, coyotes and tall trees are being blamed for a four percent drop in the number of deer killed last fall by hunters in South Carolina.

The S.C. Department of Natural Resources says the main cause for the decline in deer harvested is historic flooding that kept sportsmen out of the woods. The agency closed the season for a while in some counties, and when people did go hunting, the soggy conditions and higher-than-normal temperatures made deer less active, the department says.

A powerful storm dropped up to two feet of rain on parts of South Carolina over several days last October, flooding out many areas.

"Hunting conditions in South Carolina were poor during the fall of 2015,'' the natural resources agency said in a news release late Thursday.

Agency records show that hunters killed 195,030 deer during the 2015 season, which started in the fall and ended Jan. 1. That’s four percent less than in 2014. The declining deer harvest reflects a trend that began after the turn of the century in South Carolina.

South Carolina’s deer population peaked at 1.1 million in the mid-1990s, according to studies by researchers at the DNR and the U.S. Forest Service. But the overall deer harvest is down 39 percent since 2002, according to data released Thursday by the wildlife agency.

There are many reasons for the overall decline in deer harvests, ranging from liberal hunting regulations to a decline in habitat and the entry of coyotes into South Carolina -- and the lower numbers for 2015 show that, officials say.

“Coyotes are now well-established in South Carolina, so they should be expected to play a role in deer population dynamics at some level,’’ the agency’s release said.

Research the DNR has conducted with scientists at the Savannah River Site shows that coyotes have preyed on young deer, which some suspect has had an impact on the deer population. Coyotes, which are smaller than wolves, appear to be growing in number as they move here from the western U.S., experts say.

Last fall, deer hunters killed 29,027 coyotes, but wildlife experts say that’s not enough to stop the march of the wild canines and it’s not expected to boost the number of deer in the state.

Charles Ruth, the DNR’s statewide deer coordinator, said South Carolina should consider other ways to improve the deer population. One way is to tighten hunting regulations, such as limiting doe harvests, he said.

“We are trying to get hunters to get over coyotes,’’ Ruth said in an interview Friday. “They are out there, in spite of what everybody wants to do. Bounties and all of this stuff people talk about, that’s all been tried for 100 years out west. We need to focus on deer management, which is the other side of the equation. We know if we manipulate how we manage deer, that deer population is going to respond.’’

The growth of forests in South Carolina also has had an effect on the overall deer population -- and that contributed to last year’s lower harvest, according to the DNR.

Whitetail deer, native to South Carolina, can find more food in younger forests. The ground-level thickets in forests of less than 15 years old contain plants that deer like to eat, experts say. But when forests grow large, the big trees shade out the plants underneath, agency officials said. Many of the state’s forests are more than 15 years old. During the past 20 years, forests of 16 to 30 years old have increased more than 100 percent in South Carolina, according to state forestry statistics analyzed by the DNR.

Ruth said as forests are cut and managed, habitat will improve for deer in the future.

While coyotes and changing habitat have contributed to the drop in deer being killed, Ruth said last fall’s floods were a different twist to the ongoing story.

South Carolina “had large areas where access was a problem for hunters,’’ he said. “In a lot of these river corridors in the coastal plain, hunters could not get to their hunt clubs.’’

“I think last season was a big anomaly because of the conditions.’’