On the eve of Tennessee’s firearms deer hunt opener, it appeared that Scott County’s whitetail harvest was on the verge of rebounding, a sign that the region was finally recovering from the devastating outbreak of epizootic hemorrhagic disease (EHD) that killed large numbers of deer in 2017.

Instead, the hunting season has ended with yet another decline in the local deer harvest.

As the statewide firearms hunting season closed Sunday evening, there had been a total of 438 deer harvested in Scott County during the 2019-2020 deer hunts, not including those harvested on wildlife management areas. That was down more than 25 percent from last year’s harvest of 587. It wasn’t quite as bad as 2017’s harvest of 390 deer — the year the EHD outbreak occurred — but it wasn’t much better.

The harvest results painted a starkly different picture than appeared to be taking shape in late November. After the statewide two-week muzzleloader season, there had been 376 deer harvested in Scott County — up significantly from the 296 deer that had been harvested during the same period last year. With the six-week-long firearms season — the most heavily utilized of the state’s deer hunts — still to go, it seemed that Scott County would easily surpass the 587 deer that were harvested last year.

Stunningly, though, fewer than 100 deer were harvested during the long firearms hunt. 

The harvest totals aren’t final; there is still a youth-only hunt scheduled for this weekend. But the January juvenile hunt is typically the most under-utilized hunting season of the year, with few deer harvested. Last year, in fact, only one deer was harvested in Scott County during the January youth-only hunt.

Scott County’s brow-raising deer harvest is likely due to a myriad factors — including the weather; a series of storm systems hampered hunters during Thanksgiving week, the most popular time of the year for deer hunters — that extend beyond the EHD outbreak. In addition to the weather, a solid mast crop required deer to move less in search of food this fall. And the timing of the lunar cycle disrupted the rut, the whitetail’s breeding season, which further limited deer movement.

But most hunters seem to agree: there are far fewer deer in Scott County today than just a few years ago.

In 2016, the year before the EHD outbreak, there were a total of 1,172 deer harvested in Scott County. It was the ninth consecutive year with a deer harvest that exceeded 1,000.

In 2017, after the EHD outbreak, that number plummeted all the way to 390 — almost 70 percent less than the year before, and the lowest harvest of the modern era in Scott County.

The 2017 EHD outbreak — caused by a transmissible virus that is spread by tiny biting flies and almost always fatal in deer — has been especially remarkable because of how long it has taken the deer herd to bounce back. In 2007, which featured the last major EHD outbreak in Scott County before the 2017 occurrence, the harvest dipped only from 1,261 to 979, and quickly rebounded to over 1,000 the following year, in 2008. 

That 2007 outbreak was estimated to have wiped out as much as 35 percent of the state’s deer herd in localized pockets, particularly in Middle Tennessee.

The 2017 EHD outbreak wasn’t documented nearly as well because it was much more localized, primarily affecting East Tennessee. But the impact it has had on the statewide deer harvest has been notable. Tennessee hunters killed about 10 percent fewer deer in 2017 than in 2016.

To illustrate the point that factors are in play besides just the decreased deer herd, the harvest was down statewide in 2019. Across the Volunteer State, there were 123,052 deer harvested this year — excluding WMAs — which is about 12 percent fewer than last year, and a whopping 28 percent fewer than the high-water mark of 170,410 harvested in 2014.

Many hunters suspect that one contributing factor — perhaps exacerbated by the reduced deer herd — is declining hunter participation. Indeed, Scott County’s deer harvest was in decline long before the 2017 EHD outbreak. In 2012, local hunters harvested a total of 1,374 deer. It was the largest deer harvest ever recorded in Scott County. By 2016, the last year before the EHD impact, that number had declined to 1,172 — a drop of about 15 percent.

 It isn’t just the overall harvest that has been impacted. During the 2019-2020 deer hunts, nearly seven out of every 10 deer felled by a hunter’s bullet was an antlered buck: 68 percent, to be exact. That was down slightly from last year, when 72 percent of the harvest was antlered bucks. But in 2016, the year before the EHD outbreak, only 56 percent of the deer harvested were antlered bucks. Deer biologists recommend increased doe harvests for better herd health.

While the deer harvest is down statewide, it is down proportionately more in Scott County. During the 2019-2020 hunts, as of Monday, 0.36 percent of the deer killed statewide were harvested in Scott County. In 2016, the year before the EHD outbreak, 0.78 percent of the deer killed statewide were harvested in Scott County.