After 30 years as the Virginia Department of Wildlife Resources’ (DWR) Deer Project Leader Matt Knox retired last fall. So, this fall W2 caught up with DWR’s new Deer Project Leader, Justin Folks, for the annual deer season forecast.
Folks grew up in Staunton, Virginia and is an avid deer hunter. He has served in wildlife management since entering graduate school in 2009. He has vast knowledge of Virginia wildlife and whitetail deer. Folk’s did his master’s thesis on deer foraging behavior relative to deer densities.
He knowns that hunting seasons are management tools professional biologists use to control herd populations reducing crop damage, auto strikes and the likelihood of disease due to over population. He also cherishes the tradition so many Virginians hold dear (pun intended).
Alright, here’s what Virginia’s new deer expert says hunters can expect this coming fall around the state’s regions.
Over most of the past three decades the deer harvest 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 this 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 2023, 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.
Most deer herds in Tidewater are at moderate to moderate to high 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
Hemorrhagic disease hit the southeastern half of the Southern Piedmont like a sledgehammer in fall 2014, but deer populations have recovered since that time. There was a moderate outbreak in fall 2022, but it was limited to a small geographic area in the southwestern Piedmont. 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 2023, deer herds over most of this region should be relatively stable.
About half of the deer herds in the Southern Piedmont are at their desired deer population level. As long as there is not another big HD event in this area in fall 2023, deer herds over most of this region should be relatively stable..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 and/or moderate to high deer population levels down to moderate deer population levels. Conversely, in the three Alleghany Highland counties the Department is trying to slightly increase deer populations from moderate to high population levels. 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.
So, what is the forecast for the fall 2023 deer season according to Folks?
“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.
“With a very mild winter, we ought to see plenty of healthy and productive animals this coming season, especially in those areas with above-average acorn production. Deer should be on a higher nutritional plane heading into the growing season where bucks can really pack on body mass and grow antlers and does can pump out plenty of highly nutritious milk for their fawns. Fawns that start their lives on a higher nutritional plane tend to be more productive later in life than those who start out in poorer shape. We could have one heck of a cohort of buck fawns from this summer.”
Lastly, Folks says 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. See related article about acorn production on page __.
Persons interested in more information on Virginia’s deer management program can find the Department’s deer management plan at http://www.virginiawildlife.gov/wildlife/deer/management-plan