Record harvest for Delaware deer season

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Deer travel along the edge of the Kent Aeropark property adjacent to Dover Air Force Base in this recent file photo. (Delaware State News/Andrew West)

DOVER — Nature delivered Delaware a hunting sweet spot for the 2015-16 deer season, resulting in a record harvest.

“The weather was mild for the most part, right at that happy medium of not too warm and not too cold,” said Joe Rogerson, Division of Fish & Wildlife biologist.

Higher temperatures mean less daytime movement of deer, who can become too warm because of their thicker winter coats. Too cold, though, means less time outdoors for hunters.

That happy medium of best for the hunter in the stand and best for deer milling about resulted in Delaware hunters harvesting 14,681 deer during the season, the highest number since the state’s first modern-day deer season was held in 1954 and harvest record-keeping began, Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Control’s Division of Fish & Wildlife announced Wednesday.

“We anticipated that hunters would have a successful season this year due to overall favorable hunting conditions experienced during most of the season,” said Mr. Rogerson,

Deer season began Sept. 1, 2015, with archery season and continued through Jan. 31, with time scattered throughout for muzzle-loaders, shotgun and handgun seasons.

It’s the shotgun season, however, that tells the tale for the season.

“The November shotgun season is the most popular and most productive,” Mr. Rogerson said. “In a given year, in the five months long season, during that eight-day season almost 50 percent are harvested.”

He based that on past trends since he’s still analyzing data from the just-ended season.

“It’s the real breadwinner.”

Dwayne Nickerson, of Hartly, agrees.

The busiest time for his D&J Custom Cutting was November. “Because it’s shotgun season,” he said.

However, his customers gave him plenty of venison to process throughout the season.

“It was above what it was compared to last year,” he said Wednesday. He has a regular customer base of between 900 to 1,000 who have patronized his shop on Meyers Drive near Hartly for 20 years.

While nothing outstanding came his way this season, he saw a lot more mature bucks.

“Quality buck,” he said, with “antler spread of 18 inches.”

A growing population

Before there was a Delaware, the white-tailed deer provided American Indians, and later European settlers, on the Delmarva Peninsula with food, clothing and tools. The deer population was reduced to such a point that from 1841 to 1954 hunting them was illegal.

That changed in the modern era. Unlike some states, Delaware didn’t bring in deer to restock the depleted herds.

“There were enough deer on the landscape that they were able to rebound on their own,” Mr. Rogerson said.

When hunting deer was legalized in 1954, the first recorded harvest yielded 505 deer.

While it has been a couple years since a deer count was done, Mr. Rogerson can make an educated guess on the size of the population.

BY THE NUMBERS • The 2015-16 season ran from Sept. 1, 2015, through Jan. 31 • A record 14,681 deer were harvested • The previous record was 14,669 in 2004-05 • 14,269, second highest on record, were harvested in 2014-15 • 7,975 (54.3 percent) does were taken • 6,706 (45.7 percent) bucks were taken By county: • Sussex County, 7,960 • Kent County, 4,173 • New Castle County, 2,548

• The 2015-16 season ran from Sept. 1, 2015, through Jan. 31
• A record 14,681 deer were harvested
• The previous record was 14,669 in 2004-05
• 14,269, second highest on record, were harvested in 2014-15
• 7,975 (54.3 percent) does were taken
• 6,706 (45.7 percent) bucks were taken
By county:
• Sussex County, 7,960
• Kent County, 4,173
• New Castle County, 2,548

The season population was in the 40,000 range before the harvest season, he said, and in the mid-20,000 to 30,000 afterward.

Taking into account the upcoming reproduction season, he projects the population at 45,000.

The challenge now for Delaware’s Fish & Wildlife folks comes in managing the population for its own health while also protecting the quality of life for Delawareans.

A habitat biologically can support only so many deer, but other reasons also drive population management.

Too many deer can cause crop loss for farmers, increase deer-vehicle collisions and harm homeowners’ landscaping, Mr. Rogerson said.

During the 2015-16 season, hunters harvested more females than males, with 54.3 percent does (7,975) and 45.7 percent bucks (6,706) taken. The higher take of females is key to managing overall population.

“The goal is to have more females harvested to reduce deer numbers,” Mr. Rogerson said, because the herd has exceeded tolerance level. “The division’s goal is to reduce deer population.

“In breeding strategy, to remove the female segment is where you get the biggest impact,” he said.

“2001 was the first year that the overall harvest of females exceeded 50 percent and that’s been true ever since.”

Antlerless deer — does, juvenile bucks without antlers known as button bucks, antlered bucks with antlers measuring less than 3 inches, and bucks that already had shed their antlers when harvested — represented 71.3 percent of the total harvest.

Hunters vs. deer

The purchase of deer hunting licenses was down for the season, but that doesn’t quite mean fewer hunters harvested more deer.

“Some hunters are not required to purchase licenses,” Mr. Rogerson said, referring in particular to those older than 65. Some do buy licenses to support the division programs, he said, but many are taking advantage of the opportunity to hunt without shelling out money.

When you include nonlicensed hunters, the number out in the field has remained stable, Mr. Rogerson said.

“The peak number of hunters was in the 1970s, but we have maintained around 20,000 in the last few years,” he said.

As for the long-term decline in the numbers of hunters, the division will consider options, including increasing hunting opportunities because he doesn’t foresee deer becoming less numerous.

“We still have tools in the toolbox to manage the population,” Mr. Rogerson said.

Feeding the hungry

While a record number of deer was harvested this past season, the Delaware Sportsmen Against Hunger saw donations drop.

The 15,736 pounds donated is down from the 18,211 pounds donated in the 2014-15 season.

“That continues a trend noticed over the last four or five years,” said Bill Jones, regional manager at the Division of Fish & Wildlife.

The Delaware Sportsmen Against Hunger chapter was formed in 1992 by a coalition of sporting groups, with DNREC as the primary sponsor. During the season, hunters can donate venison to Delawareans in need through the program. The division distributes the food to more than 30 charitable organizations throughout the state.

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A deer watches a birdwatcher at Bombay Hook National Wildlife Refuge in November. The refuge allows limited deer hunting in specific areas during the season with a preseason public lottery held to distribute the permits. Located near Smyrna, the refuge is on Whitehall Neck Road, off Del. 9. (Delaware State News/K.I. White)

“The division serves as the middle man to facilitate venison getting to butchers and the Sussex Correctional Institution where it is processed,” Mr. Jones said. A network of private butchers also process the venison.

The downward trend in donations is not specific to Delaware.

“Maryland also is down and Virginia was down last year,” he said.

“We have talked internally about the reasons, but it seems like more and more hunters are keeping the meat.”

That could be a reflection of the economy, he said, and also because venison is much sought because it is lower in cholesterol and calories than other red meat while having more protein value.

“And butchers have gotten creative with creating snacks with it,” Mr. Jones said. Snacks like jerky sticks and bologna.

A hunter himself who harvested two in Delaware, Mr. Jones has fielded requests for a share in his bounty.

“I had a couple of guys at work who are not hunters who asked for the meat,” he said.

The Sportsmen program is designed to make donating venison convenient for hunters, Mr. Jones said. The division has coolers set up in hunting areas where deer can be placed to be picked up.

“Normally what we do is we have a runner who picks up the deer on an almost daily basis and takes them to Sussex Correctional,” Mr. Jones said, referring to the alliance the division has with the Georgetown facility.

The division also works with private butcher shops.

Mr. Nickerson of D&J is a fan of the program. He’s one of the participating butchers.

The hunter brings in the deer, D&J staff processes it and Fish & Wildlife picks up the venison.

“I think in the ballpark of 900 to 1,000 pounds,” were donated this year, Mr. Nickerson said.

“I hunt in both Maryland and Delaware, Mr. Jones said, “and our system is much more complete than those states.”

He said it’s up to hunters to assess their own situation on whether to donate. Sometimes, it’s a case of when the freezer won’t hold any more.

“It gives people a good feeling,” Mr. Jones said. “It’s almost like a feel-good program and when you donate once it makes you want to do it again.”

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