Cory R. Morea, Deer Management Program Coordinator
Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission
Division of Hunting and Game Management
White-tailed deer are the most popular game species in Florida, with more than 150,000 licensed hunters pursuing deer each year. Additionally, there are a large number of “exempt” hunters such as senior citizens and children who are not required to purchase a license. Many non-hunters also are interested in deer, ranging from people who like to observe and photograph deer to those who may prefer to see fewer deer because of some of their potential harmful impacts.
The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) has some exciting deer hunting developments to share with you. While we continue to work on a variety of deer-related projects, we also plan to roll out a couple of large and important projects in 2012. These include a new voluntary deer harvest survey and Deer Management Units (DMUs).
In coordination with stakeholders, FWC put together its plan to provide a “big picture” view of deer management considerations. The goals of the “Strategic Plan for Deer Management in Florida 2008-2018” are three-fold: (1) ensure the existence of robust deer populations that meet the public’s desire for recreational opportunities and protection of private property while ensuring the long-term welfare of the species, (2) ensure a high degree of public satisfaction with deer management in Florida, and (3) manage deer habitats consistent with ecosystem health, deer population goals, and customer satisfaction goals.
Some efforts related to the strategic plan already have been implemented. If you hunt deer in Florida, you probably know that we changed the zonal hunting season format beginning with the 2010–2011 season and tweaked season dates on many wildlife management areas (WMAs) for the 2011-2012 season. These changes were driven by public input and were an effort to increase hunter satisfaction by allowing more hunting opportunities during the rut, holidays, or other time periods identified during the public input process.
During this process some of the zonal boundaries were changed, a new zone was created between Tampa and Orlando to better capture the late rutting activity in this area, and the zone naming system was changed to letter designations (Zones A-D) to avoid confusion with FWC administrative regions. The FWC also increased crossbow hunting opportunities during zonal seasons in an effort to increase hunter participation by recruiting and retaining new and existing hunters. Stakeholder preferences were considered when making changes to the crossbow season.
We have worked on other deer-related projects that may not have been so visible. These include updating the Florida Buck Registry, reviewing WMA harvest regulations, work on regional issues (for example, declining deer densities in the southern portion of Big Cypress WMA) and we recently hosted the 35th Annual Southeast Deer Study Group Meeting. Recent deer research in Florida has focused on deer breeding chronology, herd health, productivity (number of fawns per pregnant doe), and deer survey techniques. We also continue to monitor deer for chronic wasting disease (CWD) and other deer diseases.
In addition, we are cooperating with the University of Florida on radio-telemetry projects investigating fawn survival rates and mortality factors. These research efforts are used to support deer management decisions and to help keep track of the condition of the deer herd in different areas of Florida. The good news is that so far we have not found CWD in Florida. However, more states continue to find this disease in their herds and we are looking for ways to better monitor the population for CWD, which is often linked to captive deer populations.
Meanwhile, the new voluntary deer harvest survey will begin in 2012. For years FWC has conducted a scientifically-based random survey of deer hunters to estimate deer harvest and hunter effort (how many days people hunted deer in Florida) and to track hunter satisfaction. While these estimates were good at the statewide level, we are now working with a professional survey company on a new deer harvest survey that will give us better harvest data at a more local level. In the past, the deer harvest survey was primarily conducted via mail and Internet. The new survey will be primarily based on phone interviews of hunters, with mail and Internet being secondary options to reach hunters. The survey is important because it helps us understand where and how deer are being harvested and will allow us to track trends in the deer harvest over time. Survey results help support the tradition of deer hunting in Florida, so hunters are encouraged to participate in the survey if contacted.
The second significant project that is being introduced soon is DMUs. Remember that the new deer survey will gather harvest information at a more local level? DMUs will give us the framework for gathering data, including harvest data, at the local level. DMUs are subdivisions within Florida’s four hunting zones and are based on similar habitat characteristics and deer herd characteristics (e.g. breeding chronology, productivity, body size). We plan to begin gathering public input for DMUs within Zone D and this public input will determine what changes may be recommended regarding deer management. We hear lots of comments from hunters and others interested in deer. Some want change and some don’t. The good news is that you will have an opportunity to participate in this process either through surveys, public meetings or other methods we use to hear stakeholder preferences. While we don’t anticipate changing the hunting season structure by DMU, we could see differences in antlerless deer take opportunities or other stakeholder preferences such as antler restrictions by DMU. It is possible that no changes are made for a DMU if public input indicates no desire for change. After Zone D is completed, we will determine how and when to work on Zones A-C based on what we learn during the first phase of this project.
Some deer-related challenges remain, including damage to farm crops or landscaping and deer-vehicle collisions. While negative impacts from deer in Florida are much less severe than those experienced in most other states, we do have areas in the state that have deer densities high enough (based on the number of deer per square mile) to cause concerns. For example, deer depredation on crops in northwest Florida has become an increasing problem in recent years. The FWC works with farmers, both commercial and non-commercial, to provide technical assistance to minimize these impacts. If exclusionary efforts are not working or not feasible, the FWC will issue permits for farmers to take deer that are causing damage. These deer depredation permits are the last line of defense for those seeking to decrease deer damage.
While some areas have issues with high deer densities, other areas of the state have deer densities lower than desired by deer enthusiasts. Florida’s deer herd and habitats are different than the rest of the United States. Habitat quality and the reproductive potential of deer in Florida are lower than other states, including our neighbors Alabama and Georgia. The variation in peak breeding dates of white-tailed deer in Florida also is unmatched by any other state in the U.S., ranging from June and July in South Florida to February and March in Northwest Florida. Florida’s subtropical climate and highly weathered soils are likely responsible for these differences and provide unique challenges to deer management.
All together there is a lot of work being done for deer in Florida, and it wouldn’t be possible without deer hunters who support these efforts through the purchase of a deer permit or other license type that includes deer hunting privileges. The funds generated by the sale of these permits are designated to support deer management and research. To keep up-to-date on DMUs and other projects and for access to deer related information including the Strategic Plan for Deer Management, go to MyFWC.com/Deer.
Good luck hunting!