After spending much of the October bow season in a treestand last year, Mike Hicks started to get suspicious. Something was going on. Normally, he and his friends see at least a few deer each day they hunt. Not this season. The 1,200-acre central Virginia property Hicks has been hunting for nearly 30 years was all but lifeless.
"We would go three or four days without seeing a single deer. I've seen numbers go up and down before, but not like this. They just weren't there," says Hicks, a 40-year-old heating and air conditioning mechanic from Goochland, Virginia. "We normally kill 30 to 40 deer, but we only killed eight this year. I didn't shoot a buck all season."
He's not alone. Hunters throughout whitetail country are experiencing the same thing: hours in a stand with little to show for their efforts. Like Hicks, many spent days in the woods without seeing a single deer.
Get used to it. Lower deer numbers are likely the new normal.
South Carolina's deer population has been trending downward for nearly 20 years, dropping from 1.2 million animals in 1996 to 800,000. The decline is even more dramatic in Iowa, where 550,000 deer roamed the state in 2006. It's close to half that now. Ohio's deer kill was also down to the lowest level in 14 years. Other states like Michigan, West Virginia, Minnesota, Kansas, and Missouri are experiencing similar declines.
Hicks is no biologist, but he has a pretty good idea what's going on where he hunts.
"We are just killing too many deer," he says.
He's right, but it was all part of the plan. A number of states, particularly those in the East and Midwest, have been wrestling with an overabundance of whitetails for at least two decades. Since hunting is the only viable management tool, many of those states liberalized antlerless harvests within the past decade to reduce deer numbers. It not only worked, it worked too well.
"We've been working to bring the deer population down for quite a while now, so we knew we would see a decline in the deer kill eventually," says Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries Deer Project Coordinator Matt Knox.
That's exactly what's been going on in Iowa and other states. The Iowa Department of Natural Resources liberalized the doe harvest in 2003 and relaxed it again in 2006 with the goal of reducing the state's deer herd.
"We basically reached the social carrying capacity of deer. They were causing too many accidents, and farmers were complaining about crop depredation," says Wildlife Research Supervisor Willie Suchy. "We had to take steps to reduce our deer numbers."
Deer managers are under sustained pressure to walk a fine line between the desires of hunters and those of the general public. It isn't just about boosting the herd so hunters can see lots of deer. Input from farmers, suburban homeowners, and motorists is a necessary part of the management equation.
The problem, admits Knox, is finding the right balance to suit everyone's desires. That's why biologists routinely adjust season structures and bag limits.
That hasn't stopped hunters from voicing their concerns, though. Sportsmen packed public meetings in Ohio early this year, many of them upset about what they perceived as a dramatic decline in deer numbers. The Minnesota Department of Natural Resources is "getting a ton of heat" from sportsmen about the state's drop in deer numbers as well, says Minnesota Deer Hunters Association Executive Director Craig Engwall.
"We think there was an overharvest last year. The DNR allocated too many doe tags," he says.
If that wasn't enough, Minnesota went through one of the most severe winters in recent memory in 2013-2014. The total harvest was about 130,000 deer last season, down from a peak of 290,000 in 2003. Much of the Upper Midwest experienced the same harsh winter and significant weather-related deaths. Deer kills were down considerably in parts of Michigan and Wisconsin, where managers eliminated doe tags in all or part of 19 northern counties.
Another unexpected factor contributed to the decline in Virginia, Iowa, and a handful of other states: a severe outbreak of epizootic hemorrhagic disease. It's a naturally occurring disease that usually coincides with drought.
Although the disease kills some deer nearly every year, Knox says the 2014 outbreak was the worst in 25 years in parts of Virginia. There were "extensive" deaths from EHD in Iowa as well says Suchy.
"You could say we experienced a perfect storm that contributed to the decline," says Knox. "We knew it would come down, but we didn't expect it to drop as much as it did this past year."
Predators also may be contributing to lower deer numbers in many states. Engwall says wolves are taking a toll on Minnesota's whitetails, and coyote numbers have been increasing throughout the eastern United States.
Based on a number of recent studies, it may not be out of line to put at least some blame on predators. Wolves kill upwards of 13 percent of Minnesota's deer herd annually. One South Carolina study found that coyotes take as many as 70 percent of all fawns born each spring.
However, coyotes and whitetails have been interacting throughout the West and Midwest for as long as the two have existed. They aren't a factor in Iowa's deer decline says Suchy. Knox doesn't think they are a major player in Virginia's, either, at least not yet. Deer numbers continued to increase in both states until doe seasons and bag limits were liberalized.
"Our regulations play a bigger role in deer numbers than predation," adds Knox.
There's no question coyote numbers continue to increase in the East. As a result, some deer managers are considering a reduction in doe limits to compensate for the increased predation. Biologists in other states are looking at ways to stabilize or even increase deer numbers, if only slightly, now that deer numbers have fallen.
Iowa has cut back on available doe tags. Ohio is proposing a reduction in doe tags and the season limit. Virginia and other states are also considering a reduction in the doe harvest in order to bring deer numbers up somewhat. That may take some time, though. Knox says even if antlerless deer harvests are cut dramatically, it can take up to five years for populations to rebuild.
They likely won't rebuild much. Deer hunters have been enjoying what were the best deer hunting opportunities in modern history, thanks largely to soaring, and arguably, unrealistic and unnatural populations. The good old days, at least in terms of abundance, may be over unless hunters take matters into their own hands.
Many already are. Some Virginia hunters quit before the season ended or they cut down on the number of deer they shot. Hicks plans on shooting fewer deer next season, and he's trying to coax neighboring hunters to do the same thing.
"I expect it to get worse before it gets better," he says. "I think all we can do at this point is to try to kill more predators and shoot fewer deer. I don't know what else to do."