If you’re a hunter and you’re seeing fewer deer than normal, you aren’t alone. As Tennessee’s muzzleloader hunting season draws to a close, and with gun season — the most heavily utilized of the state’s deer hunts — set to open this weekend, hunters in Scott County have harvested only about one-third of the deer that are usually harvested by this point.
A late-summer outbreak of a deadly deer disease — epizootic hemorrhagic disease, or EHD for short — is being blamed for the lack of deer that most hunters are seeing. There have been rumors in hunting circles of as much as 75 percent of the local deer herd dying off from the disease.
Fortunately, those numbers are way overblown, wildlife officials say.
Wade Young, the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency law enforcement officer assigned to Scott County, told the Independent Herald Monday that EHD has definitely taken a toll, but it doesn’t appear to have been too devastating.
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[s2If current_user_can(access_s2member_level1)]“I don’t think it’s anything to be too concerned about,” Young said of the EHD outbreak’s impact on Scott County’s deer herd.
Young said he had between 100 and 150 reports of dead deer during the EHD outbreak, which began in late summer and continued into early fall. Many were calls received from landowners who discovered a single dead deer on their property.
Early on, when it became obvious that the northern Cumberland Plateau counties of Scott, Morgan and Campbell were being hit hard by the EHD outbreak, TWRA placed an emphasis on keeping an accurate count of the numbers of dead deer being reported, Young said. Still, it’s impossible to ascertain exactly how many deer were killed by the disease outbreak.
“I had less than 200 reports, for sure,” he said. “Our annual harvest usually runs around 1,200 or 1,300 for the season, so that’s not a huge number.”
Not all of the reports received by TWRA came from landowners or passersby. Young found several dead deer himself while on the job — and off it. He recalled finding what he described as “a nice buck” submerged in the water on a kayaking trip. That same day, he also discovered three dead does in the water. Deer infected with EHD tend to seek out water sources to quench their thirst and cool their fever.
But he added that the number of deer claimed by EHD this year won’t be too detrimental to the local deer herd.
“We’ve still got a good deer herd,” he said. “When I’m working, I’m still seeing deer throughout the county. I’ve seen some really good bucks.”
Wildlife researchers aren’t sure why EHD — which occurs naturally and is spread by the tiny biting flies called “no-see-ums” — is worse some years than others. There isn’t an outbreak every year; the 2017 outbreak along the northern Cumberland Plateau and other areas of East Tennessee is the largest outbreak since 2007. But Young said it’s a myth that this year’s outbreak affected bucks disproportionately; “EHD doesn’t target male or female,” he said.
Young’s not alone in his assessment of EHD’s impact on the hunting season. Wildlife experts in general have discounted the notion of a declined deer harvest being due to the disease outbreak. Past numbers seem to back that up. In 2007, when EHD ravaged the deer herd, there were 559 deer harvested in Scott County through the second weekend of November. That was down notably — about 20 percent — from the previous year. But it was nowhere close to this year’s decline.
So what is driving down this year’s deer harvest? Young said it is primarily due to a number of factors. One is detrimental weather that impacted hunters early on; October was hot overall. Another is the significant mast crop. Still another is a lack of hunters in the woods.
“A lot of folks I talked to starting out just weren’t interested in hunting because of the hot weather,” Young said. “Also, I’ve talked to hunters who have made a personal decision to not hunt deer to let the herd recover.”
As for the mast crop, Young pointed out that there were no black bears killed in Scott County during the archery hunting season. Like deer, bears move far less in years with a bountiful mast crop.
When all the factors are added together, Young said, it’s a perfect storm of sorts.
While some hunters are choosing not to hunt this year due to the EHD outbreak and concerns that there are too few deer and harvesting them would be detrimental to the herd, Young said that is a personal choice, but added that killing deer will not harm the herd. In fact, he predicted, some of those hunters who have chosen to sit out the hunts so far might ultimately give in.
“I think a lot of those who have made a personal decision not to hunt, as the season goes along and their buddies are still killing nice deer, I think they’ll decide to go,” he said.
Meanwhile, the fact remains that hunters aren’t having much success this fall. As of Monday, hunters had harvested only 235 deer in Scott County since the deer hunts began in September. Dating back to 2005, when the state began keeping centralized records online, the lowest number harvested up to this point of the season was 519 in 2014. In eight of the 12 years since 2005, hunters had harvested in excess of 600 deer by this point.
Scott County’s harvest ticked up last week, as the so-called “chase phase” of the rut kicked in. Hunters killed 58 deer over the weekend, almost 25 percent of the total harvest for the entire season. But the uptick was still way down from last year. During the second weekend of the muzzleloader hunt in 2016, local hunters harvested 137 deer — well more than double the number killed this past weekend.
Statewide, the deer harvest is down about 20 percent so far in 2017. That’s noteworthy, but nowhere near the 65 percent harvest decline in Scott County. But Young said hunters should not be overly concerned about the EHD outbreak.
Indeed, there have been numerous reports of deer-car collisions in recent days. That is typical for this time of year, when bucks begin chasing does, causing motor vehicle accidents involving deer to increase. Young said if 75 percent of the deer herd had died off due to EHD, as has been rumored, very few people would be seeing deer anywhere. As it is, he said, the deer are still there.
“I think by next year nobody’s going to notice any difference,” he said.[/s2If]