By Matt Knox/DWR Deer Project Leader
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).
Figure 1. Virginia total deer harvest 1947 – 2021
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 Department’s 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.
Disease Management Area (DMA) 1 (Clarke, Frederick, Shenandoah, and Warren counties)
- No season changes.
- Mandatory CWD testing will be held in Shenandoah County the first day of the firearms deer season on November 19, 2022. See more details, locations, etc.
DMA2 (Culpeper, Fauquier, Loudoun, Madison, Orange, Page, and Rappahannock counties)
Several changes including:
- 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 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.
- See more details, locations, etc.
DMA3 (Carroll, Floyd, Montgomery, and Pulaski counties)
Several changes including:
- 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 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.
- See more details, locations, etc.
Virginia deer hunters should be advised that the CWD management changes enacted above 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.
Chronic Wasting Disease (CWD)
When the subject is CWD, there is no good news; but the semi-good news in Virginia is that we did not identify any new totally unexpected CWD counties or areas in 2021. Previously, we had identified big unexpected jumps in CWD to Culpeper County in fall 2018 and to Montgomery County in fall 2020. Only one new Virginia CWD positive county, Floyd, was identified/added in 2021. The new CWD positive deer in Floyd in 2021 was within five miles of the original CWD positive deer in Montgomery from fall 2020. Floyd County was already included in DMA3.
North Carolina was not so lucky. In fall 2021, North Carolina discovered their first ever CWD positive deer in a buck killed just south of the Yadkin River in Yadkin County almost exactly 20 miles due south of Carroll and Patrick counties. It is possible that this deer may be related to the CWD found in Virginia’s DMA3 last fall and this past fall. Time will tell.
When discussing CWD in Virginia it is best to think of the state as two different areas. First, those areas where, or very close to where (<=10 miles), CWD has been found; i.e., the Disease Management Areas and, second, the rest of the state (see Figure 2). As of May 1, 2022, 134 CWD-positive deer have been found in 10 counties in Virginia (see Table 1).
DMA1 (Clarke, Frederick, Shenandoah, and Warren counties)
First detected in fall 2009 near the community of Gore in Frederick County on the West Virginia state border, CWD has been moving east across Frederick County and south for over a decade and has now become firmly established across nearly all of Frederick County and in the northern third to half of Shenandoah County. Although not shown on Figure 2, the CWD in DMA1 actually represents the eastern edge of a big and growing CWD outbreak centered in Hampshire County West Virginia which also extends up into Maryland. CWD within DMA1 is predicted to increase in prevalence and area over time. In 2021, 19 positive animals were found in DMA1 including 17 in Frederick County and one each in Clarke and Shenandoah counties. To date 121 positive animals have been found in DMA1 (see Table 1).
DMA2 (Culpeper, Fauquier, Loudoun, Madison, Orange, Page, and Rappahannock counties)
First detected in fall 2018 in southern Culpeper County, at this time CWD does not appear to be firmly established in DMA2 and, hopefully, all or most of the CWD detections in DMA2 represent deer that have dispersed out of DMA1. Think of embers blowing out from a CWD fire in DMA1 into DMA2. In 2021, four positive animals were found in DMA2 including one each in Culpeper and Loudoun counties and two in Fauquier County during the fall 2021 surveillance. Regrettably, at some point probably in the near future, CWD will become “established” at one or more points on the ground in DMA2 and begin spreading and producing its own CWD embers. To date, 10 CWD infected deer have now been found in five of the seven DMA2 counties (see Table 1). CWD has not been found in Orange or Page counties yet, but unfortunately, it is inevitable. DMA3 (Carroll, Floyd, Montgomery, and Pulaski counties)
First detected in fall 2020 in Montgomery County, three infected deer have now been found in two of the four counties in DMA3 (see Table 1). Carroll County has now been added to DMA3 because of the positive deer found in Floyd County in the fall 2021 surveillance. Any county within 10 miles of a CWD positive deer is by rule included in a DMA and special regulations applied (e.g., carcass transportation restrictions, mandatory sampling, special seasons, etc.).
In 2021, three positive animals were found in DMA3 including one each in Floyd and Montgomery counties. Another deer, sampled by a cooperator located in DMA3, was determined to be infected with CWD. However, even with an extensive investigation conducted by DWR, law enforcement, and the cooperator, the location of harvest for this animal was not able to be confirmed.
It is too early to determine exactly what is going on with the CWD found in DMA3. It could be an “established” CWD area or it could be embers from a nearby CWD fire. If it is embers, then the question becomes, where is the CWD fire burning? Again, time will tell.
The Rest of the State
In addition to the three DMAs noted above which currently compromise about 14% of the land area of Virginia, the Department continues to conduct annual statewide CWD surveillance in the 86% of Virginia located outside of the DMAs using a taxidermist-supported CWD surveillance strategy. Adult males are the sex and age class most likely to have CWD, so a taxidermist-supported approach is an efficient CWD surveillance method. In fall 2021, approximately 2,175 samples from hunter-harvested deer were submitted by participating taxidermists. The good news is that 2021 was the first year the outside of the DMAs taxidermist CWD surveillance program did not detect a big jump in CWD.
In the western Frederick and northern Shenandoah area, clinically sick CWD deer (e.g., starving, staggering, with neurological symptoms) are now being found and reported. To date, five clinical CWD deer have been found. Please remember to report deer that appear sick with the following combination of symptoms (starving, staggering, and obvious neurological symptoms) from anywhere in Virginia to the Virginia Wildlife Helpline at (855) 571-9003.
Lastly, please note that mandatory CWD sampling is currently scheduled for the opening day of the firearms deer season on Saturday November 19, 2022 in Carroll, Floyd, Montgomery, Orange, Pulaski, Rappahannock, and Shenandoah counties. See the annual hunting digest for more details.
More information on CWD.
Hemorrhagic Disease (HD)
Fall 2021 was a quiet HD year. Fall 2020 was not. At least some of the decline in the fall 2021 deer kill can probably be attributed to the significant HD activity in fall 2020. The good news is that decades of experience with HD in Virginia clearly shows that, in the absence of any further significant HD activity, deer herds typically recover in a couple of years.
Lastly, the best predictor for HD activity is summer drought, but this is not a perfect predictor. Based on past experience, HD has the potential to have a major effect on deer herds in eastern Virginia. HD occurs in Virginia every fall at some low level.
More information on HD.
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 ½ 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.
Please support the Virginia Hunters for the Hungry program, do not feed the deer, and, most importantly, be safe.
Matt Knox is the deer project leader with the Virginia Department of Wildlife Resources.
- October 6, 2022