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Scott County’s gun hunt for whitetail deer begins Saturday, November 22, 2019 | Ben Garrett/IH

On the final day of Tennessee’s muzzleloader deer hunt — and on the eve of the rifle hunt’s opening day — Scott County’s deer harvest is up, the first true indication that the area may finally be rebounding from a devastating outbreak of a fatal deer disease two years ago.

But this year’s deer harvest remains well below historical norms for Scott County, a reminder that while the local deer herd may be rebounding, it still isn’t what it once was.

The numbers are up

As of Friday morning, there had been 376 deer harvested in Scott County since the hunting seasons opened in September. That included 184 deer harvested during the two-week muzzleloader season, which was set to end at 30 minutes after sunset Friday evening. With inclement weather in the area and most hunters who use vacation days at work on weekdays either exhausting those during the first week of the hunt or saving them for the gun season, that total was not expected to increase much. The muzzleloader season opened after 86 deer were harvested during archery season and 27 were harvested by youth hunters during the two-day juvenile season at the end of October.

That harvest is up significantly from the deer harvest during the same period in 2018, and stopped a run of five consecutive years of decreased deer harvests through the archery and muzzleloader seasons, dating back to 2014. 

This year’s harvest-to-date is up about 21 percent from the same period last year, when 296 deer had been harvested. The juvenile hunt harvest was actually down, from 34 to 27, but that weekend featured less than desirable weather. The muzzleloader kill total was up 25 percent from last year (138 to 184), and the archery kill total was up about 16 percent (72 to 86).

Of the 376 deer killed so far this year, a whopping 297 have been on private lands, while only 79 were on public lands. 

The disease outbreak that changed everything

In late summer of 2017, an outbreak of epizootic hemorrhagic disease (EHD) swept through Scott County’s deer herd — as well as herds throughout the region. Spread by tiny biting flies, the hemorrhagic disease is caused by an infectious virus that is often fatal. It occurs every year, but large outbreaks and deer die-offs are somewhat uncommon, as well as sporadic.

During the months of August and September 2017, farmers and landowners reported finding dead deer on their property. A walk along a stream often revealed the tell-tale odor of rotting flesh; deer that are infected with EHD often seek out water sources to both quench their thirst and cool their fever. Some farmers used tractors to remove deer carcasses from stock ponds.

As the 2017 deer seasons opened, it was evident that the harvest in Scott County would be down. At first, that was partially attributed to a massive mast crop that caused deer to move less in search of food. But it soon became evident that the EHD outbreak had likely been as bad as originally feared. 

By the time the last of that year’s deer hunts closed in January, only 494 deer had been harvested in Scott County. That was only a little more than one-third of the deer that had been harvested the previous year, when successful hunters had bagged 1,260 whitetails. It was easily the lowest deer harvest of the modern era in Scott County.

If there were some who remained unconvinced that the deer population was down locally, the 2018 deer hunts provided more evidence. The harvest rebounded nicely during the late-season gun hunts, but only 703 deer were killed across all the seasons combined — still down by almost half from the years before the EHD outbreak.

The last two years have represented a stunning decline in the harvest numbers. In 2007, the last major EHD outbreak in Scott County, the harvest declined but was still slightly over 1,000. That was down just about 22 percent from the 2006 harvest of 1,360. And within two years, the harvest had climbed all the way back, with 1,434 deer killed by hunters in Scott County in 2009.

Still coming back

While generally excellent weather greeted muzzleloader hunters in 2019, perhaps attributing somewhat to the increased harvest, there are several factors that may be restricting the harvest this year. Archery season featured exceptionally hot weather, and the juvenile hunt weekend featured rain and wind. Additionally, there was an above-average hard mast crop this fall, which tends to decrease deer movement.

Still, hunters in the areas hit hardest by the 2017 EHD outbreak — which was generally the southern half of Scott County — who use motion-activated trail cameras to inventory the deer herds on their properties have reported that they still aren’t seeing the numbers of deer that they saw prior to the disease outbreak.

If this year’s harvest through the muzzleloader hunt is any indication, Scott County’s final deer harvest will remain well below 1,000. Nearly half of the deer harvested are usually during the gun hunt, which is easily the most popular of the state’s hunting seasons. However, harvests are largely weather-dependent. While the gun hunt lasts for more than a month, hunter participation generally dwindles as the rut winds down and hunters head back to their jobs after the Thanksgiving holiday week. Weather forecasts currently indicate that the first week of gun season could feature less than ideal weather, with storm systems threatening the region the day before Thanksgiving and again on Thanksgiving weekend.

And it’s important to remember that it’s impossible to pin all the blame for the decreased harvest on the EHD outbreak. Between 2013 and 2016, the year before the disease outbreak, the harvest in Scott County had declined by about 12 percent, from 1,433 in 2013 to 1,260 in 2016.

Out-of-balance kill ratio

While the deer harvest is increased in 2019, the numbers still don’t paint the rosiest of pictures. According to data from the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency, there have been 205 antlered bucks harvested in Scott County so far this year, and only 84 does harvested. That means does make up only 28.3 percent of the harvest thus far. That’s down from 33.2 percent during the same period last year, and easily the lowest number of the modern era. 

Prior to the EHD outbreak in 2017, does had made up less than 40 percent of the harvest in Scott County through muzzleloader season just twice since 2004 — 36.0 percent in 2008, which was the year after an EHD outbreak, and 36.8 percent in 2014.

Deer biologists stress the need for a balanced harvest ratio, as killing an excess number of bucks while leaving does can impact the overall health of the herd. Most notably, an out-of-balance buck-to-doe ratio allows inferior bucks with poor genetics to breed more does each year.