Each year, the Virginia Department of Wildlife Resources’ Deer Project Leader Matt Knox crunches reams of harvest data and reviews his extensive field reports to produce and release a Deer Season Forecast intended to assist Virginia deer hunters as well as a educate them on all things Virginia whitetail. Here is his 2022 report beginning with a review of last year’s harvest, some important disease updates and the 2022 forecast.
2021 Virginia Deer Season Review
During the past deer season, 191,731 deer were reported killed by deer hunters in Virginia. This total included 95,665 antlered bucks, 12,219 button bucks, and 83,847 does (44% females).
Archery (including crossbows) accounted for 14% of the deer kill; muzzleloaders, 23%; and firearms, 63%. The numbers above do not include deer taken on out-of-season deer kill permits or those deer hit and killed by vehicles. Deer hunters who would like to know the annual deer kill totals by county dating back to 1947, including the county-specific 2021 totals, can find them on the DWR website.
What’s New For Fall 2022?
Deer regulations in Virginia are evaluated and amended on a biennial basis. This is an off year, hence there are not a lot of new deer regulation changes for fall 2022. There are, however, some changes related to Chronic Wasting Disease (CWD) noted below. Because CWD is a moving target, deer regulations related to CWD management are evaluated and amended annually. Related to the Department’s CWD management efforts, the following regulation changes have been made which will become effective this upcoming fall 2022.
Mandatory CWD testing will be held in Shenandoah County the first day of the firearms deer season on November 19, 2022.
The early and late muzzleloading deer seasons have been made full season either sex deer hunting on private lands in Page County.
Beginning this fall all seven counties in DMA2 (Culpeper, Fauquier, Loudoun, Madison, Orange, Page, and Rappahannock counties) will have both an early September and a late January through March antlerless only deer season on private lands.
Mandatory CWD testing will be held in Orange and Rappahannock counties the first day of the firearms deer season on November 19, 2022.
Carroll County has been added to DMA3, and the firearms deer season has been extended to four weeks on private lands.
Beginning this fall, all four counties (Carroll, Floyd, Montgomery, and Pulaski counties) in DMA3 will have a late January through March antlerless only deer season on private lands.
Mandatory CWD testing will be held in all four DMA3 counties the first day of the firearms deer season on November 19, 2022.
Virginia deer hunters should be advised that the CWD management changes noted here and those adopted in the past will not get rid of or “solve” the CWD issue in Virginia. At best, they will hopefully slow the rate of increase in the prevalence rate in established areas (e.g., Frederick and northern Shenandoah counties) and also hopefully slow the dispersal of CWD from established areas into new areas.
There is still much to be learned about CWD management in white-tailed deer. At this time, there appears to be two major emerging CWD deer population management approaches. First, to reduce deer herd densities by increasing the antlerless deer kill and, second, to increase the buck mortality rate in CWD affected areas.
Over most of the past three decades the deer kill in Tidewater has been fairly stable between 40-50,000 deer. The one exception was a period between about 2005 and 2013 when the Department hit the deer herds hard on private lands over much of the Tidewater region with liberal seasons and regulations. Because of his liberalization the deer kill increased to between 50-65,000 annually and these regulations combined with three HD events in 2012, 2014 (big) and 2016 resulted in a decline in the Tidewater deer herd. Since that time, regulations have been made more conservative in some areas, and deer herds and deer kill numbers across most of the Tidewater region have recovered. If HD is not a big player in fall 2022, stable deer herds are expected across most of the Tidewater Region. Continued high human population growth rates, crop damage, and deer-vehicle collisions remain important deer management issues in Tidewater.
As shown in Figure 4 most deer herds in Tidewater are at moderate (yellow) to moderate to high (orange) deer relative abundance levels and the Department’s current management strategy is either to reduce or maintain deer populations over this region. There is not a deer management unit in Tidewater where the Department is trying to increase the deer population.
Southern Piedmont Forecast
HD hit the southeastern half of the Southern Piedmont like a sledgehammer in fall 2014, but deer populations have recovered since that time. Just like in Tidewater, HD can play a major role in the Southern Piedmont. As long as there is not another big HD event in this area in fall 2022, deer herds over most of this region should be relatively stable.
As shown in Figure 4 about of the deer herds in the Southern Piedmont are at their desired deer population level (i.e., primarily yellow or moderate). There are a couple of counties I the Southern Piedmont where the Department is actively managing to decrease deer populations (e.g., Bedford, Franklin, and Powhatan) and surprisingly four Southern Piedmont where the Department is actually trying to slightly increase the deer herd for low (green) to moderate (yellow) levels (Charlotte, Lunenburg, Mecklenburg, and Patrick).
Northern Piedmont Forecast
This is the one region where the Department continues to maintain long-term very liberal deer seasons. The female deer kill level has been fairly high in this region for many years. Over most of the Northern Piedmont, the Department continues to try reducing the deer population (see Figure 4), especially in Northern Virginia (NOVA; Arlington, Fairfax, Loudoun, and Prince William counties) and now also in the CWD DMA2. NOVA and DMA2 currently have the longest and most liberal deer season in the United States, running eight months in length with nearly six months of firearms deer hunting. For the most part, the ultra-liberal NOVA deer seasons have been successful in controlling deer numbers and reducing deer herds in Loudoun and Prince William. Regrettably, they have not yet resulted reducing the deer populations to the desired levels.
Stable to declining deer herds are expected and desired moving forward. Continued very high human population growth rates and deer-vehicle collisions remain important deer management issues in the Northern Piedmont. HD can also play an important role in this region.
West of the Blue Ridge Mountains
Deer management in western Virginia has been about the same for the past couple of decades and remains two very different deer management situations.
First, deer herds on private lands over most of western Virginia have been fairly stable over the past two-plus decades (with the exception of Alleghany, Bath, and Highland counties). The last major deer management event west of the Blue Ridge that affected both private and public land was a winter mortality event back in the winter of 2010 due to deep and persistent snow. Relatively stable deer herds are expected on private lands west of the Blue Ridge. If there is a change, hopefully it will be a slight decline.
Second, with the obvious exception of CWD in the northern Shenandoah Valley and now the New River Valley areas, the biggest challenge in deer management in western Virginia over the past 20 to 30 years has been, and continues to be, the public land deer management situation. Over the past 25 plus years there has been an approximately 40% decline in the number of deer hunters on western public lands and a corresponding 66% decline in the deer kill. To address this decline, the number of either-sex deer hunting days on western public lands has been reduced significantly over the past decade or more to conservative levels. These changes have been successful in reducing the female deer kill. The decline in the western public land deer kill has been halted, but the western public land deer population has not and is not expect to recover to past deer population levels unless there is a significant change/major improvement in deer habitat conditions. HD does not traditionally play a major role in deer management west of the Blue Ridge.
Northern Mountains Forecast
As noted at the beginning of this forecast article, CWD is a big issue in the Northern Mountains deer management programs. In every county in the Shenandoah Valley, with the exception of Rockbridge, the Department is trying to reduce deer herds from high (red) and/or moderate to high (orange) deer population levels down to moderate (yellow) deer population levels. Conversely, in the three Alleghany Highland counties the Department is trying to slightly increase deer populations from moderate (yellow) to moderate to high population levels (orange). Approximately two decades ago all three of these counties exhibited a significant decline in deer populations. Since that time regulations have been made more conservative and deer populations have stabilized and/or increased. Higher deer populations are desired and tolerated in this area because there are not a lot of deer-human conflicts in this area. There are not many people in the Alleghany Highlands.
Southern Mountains Forecast
The Southern Mountains are best described by three different deer management approaches. In nearly all the counties in the New River Valley area, the Department is trying to reduce deer populations. In far southwest, the Department is trying to maintain current/stable deer populations, and lastly in the two of the three coal field counties of Buchanan, Dickenson, and Wise the Department is still trying to increase deer populations. These efforts have been and continue to be successful.
Relative Deer Abundance Map
The best way to compare deer populations in Virginia is based on the antlered buck deer kill per square mile of estimated deer habitat. Figure 4 shows the relative differences among counties in the kill of antlered bucks per square mile of habitat on private land, averaged over the past three hunting seasons. The current deer population status on private lands is indicated by the base color of the county, ranging from more abundant (red) to less abundant (white). The Department’s deer population management objective for private lands is indicated by the color of the up or down arrow. Counties without an arrow are currently within or at their desired deer population level. This is the best map of “where” deer are in Virginia and “what” deer population level the Department’s Deer Management Plan indicates is wanted for that area. The relative abundance descriptions used above are subjective (e.g., very low/white, low/green, moderate/yellow, moderate to high/orange, and high/red).
Note there are 97 major deer management units in Virginia. In 48 units or approximately half of the state, the Department is actively managing to reduce deer populations. In 39 management units, or 40%, the Department is actively managing to maintain current deer population levels, and lastly, in only 10 management units, is the Department actively managing to increase deer numbers.
So what is the forecast for the fall 2022 deer season? Unless there is a significant HD event, deer populations and the deer kill across most of the state should be stable to increasing. A major increase or decrease in the statewide deer kill total is not expected. Over the past 30 years, the statewide annual deer kill has been relatively stable and ranged from about 179,000 to 259,000 and averaged about 212,300.
Past experience indicates that the ups and downs in annual deer kill totals are in part attributable to mast – acorns, mostly – conditions and/or HD outbreaks. In years of poor mast crops, the deer kill typically goes up. In years of good mast crops, the deer kill typically goes down.
Persons interested in more information on Virginia’s deer management program can consult the Department’s deer management plan.