Thursday December 13, 2012

KEITH WHITCOMB JR.

Staff Writer

BENNINGTON -- Deer season is over and the nearly complete harvest reports show what biologists had been expecting, an increase in the number of deer taken by hunters.

According to Debby Wood, secretary for the Department of Fish and Wildlife Office in Rutland, this year during the regular rifle season 4,897 deer were harvested compared to 4,070 last year. In Bennington County 425 deer were taken compared to 431 last year.

Rifle season is the most popular among deer hunters, followed by archery season. This year archers took 2,991 deer compared to 2,342 last year. In Bennington County archers got 192 deer this year, and 152 in the previous year. Each year has two archery seasons in the fall and the numbers reflect both, Wood said.

Wood said she receives the figures from the hundreds of check stations scattered across the state. Some are late to report and she said not all the muzzleloading records are in yet. So far it's been recorded that 84 deer were taken via muzzleloader in Bennington County this year, and 564 statewide. Last year the final tally was 167 deer from Bennington County and 1,373 statewide.

The weekend preceding the regular November rifle season is Youth Deer Hunting Weekend, where young people meeting certain requirements can get an early start on the herd. This year, statewide, 1,738 deer were harvested on that weekend with 86 being from Bennington County. Statewide numbers for the previous year were 1,431 and 94 in Bennington County.

The department makes a full, complete report on the harvest totals available on its Website and it should be posted by March.

The size of the herd is largely being attributed to a mild winter, which allowed for high fawn survival rates and healthy adult deer, according to Fish and Wildlife Deer Biologist Adam Murkowski.

"The general consensus across the state is people are seeing more deer," he said, adding that the state understands deer populations are not evenly distributed and some places saw more, others less. "I'm happy with how the season has gone and hunters seem happy with how the season has gone."

He said the number of antlerless deer harvested was also up, but he expects the deer population will continue to grow all the same. This winter should be interesting, he said, as the department's studies indicate less high-nutrient, high-carbohydrate foods such as apples and acorns were in the forest this fall.

Murkowski said state biologists have a number of food plots they visit each year, places where apples, acorns, and beech nuts fall to the ground. Biologists divide these areas into squares and annually count the number of apples, acorns, and nuts that have fallen to develop an index they extrapolate to the rest of the forest. This edible material is called "mast."

"This year the numbers are very low, very low indeed," said Murkowski. "Mast production this year was almost nonexistent in some places."

He said it's common for apples to have a good mast year followed by a bad one, and as last year was good it's not a surprise to see it down this year. More anomalous is the drop in mast production for the acorns and beech nuts. Murkowski said many feel early warm temperatures this past spring caused these trees to bud early, then a round of more seasonable cold killed the buds, leading to no fruit.

He said this is not cause to fear for the deer herd, as deer do their heavy grazing in the warmer months and their metabolism slows in the winter. Abundant food in the fall and early winter, however, does help fawns survive into spring.

Murkowski said it's also better to look at three-year spans of time rather than a single season. "What happens in one year does not influence things to the degree people seem to perceive," he said.

He said this year is a prime example of why the state encourages the harvesting of antlerless deer to control the population. He said less fawns for less food leads to healthier, larger deer, which the state feels is better than a large number of smaller, weaker animals that would be less apt to survive winter conditions.