Delaware deer population healthy, trending slightly down
Hunters take at least half of the deer killed each year in Delaware during the November shotgun season. This year’s 10-day shotgun season started Nov. 15 and continues through Sunday, Nov. 24.
That’s why Sussex County folks may be seeing more pickup trucks parked along woods edges at this time of the year than any other time. Hunters typically take to their stands well before sunup so they can climb into their roosts, settle down, and begin tuning their ears for the heart-thumping sounds of deer making their way noisily across the leaf-strewn forest floor.
Rob Hossler works as wildlife section administrator in Delaware’s Fish and Wildlife Division. He said hunters take about 15,000 deer during the five-month deer season that started Sept. 1 and ends Feb. 2, 2020. As of Nov. 18, 9,500 deer have been taken this year. “That means hunters have already shot over half the deer that will be taken during the 2019-20 season,” Hossler said.
All deer taken by hunters have to be registered with the state, either by telephone or online. “We want to know how they were taken – bow, shotgun, crossbow, pistol or pistol-caliber rifle – when, where and what. It’s helpful for hunters to provide that information. It helps with management,” he said. There are more than 20,000 licensed hunters in Delaware, and Hossler said the bulk of them are deer hunters.
The estimated population of white-tail deer in Delaware stood at about 46,000 before this year’s hunting season started. Post-season it will stand at about 31,000. “The population is stabilizing but starting to show a slight decline, which is probably helpful to some farmers. The state has implemented a number of programs to allow extra harvesting on private lands to reduce crop damage. Plus there's more development which means less space for deer – they get crowded into smaller spaces. Then there’s hunting pressure and vehicle accidents. They’re probably all contributing to the slight decline we’re seeing.”
State herd healthy
Hossler said Delaware’s herd is fairly healthy with no chronic wasting disease – “We don’t have that here” – and few of the disease outbreaks that can affect herds in other, more southerly states. “The cold winters of the past few years have been helpful in that regard. Very few deer, if any, are taken by predators such as foxes and coyotes. We have coyotes in Delaware, but there’s no indication they’re taking deer. Though I’ve seen a photograph sent in showing a coyote with a fawn, our people haven’t seen any other evidence.”
A recent study completed between state wildlife biologists in partnership with the University of Delaware focused on fawn mortality. “Collars were placed on fawns after they were born and they were monitored for survival. We were surprised that only 50 percent of the fawns we monitored survived past their first three months of life. Only one of them succumbed to a predator, and it was going to die anyway. That’s probably why it succumbed to a fox. Pneumonia is the biggest killer of fawns – that and birth complications, which lead to starvation because they can’t feed well.”
Hossler said after fawns reach their 90-day point, they fare about as well as other older deer. “The average lifespan for a deer is about 4.5 years,” he said. “That takes into consideration hunting pressure. Any deer older than four and a half is a very old deer in Delaware.”
Delaware hunters contribute more than 19,000 pounds of venison to charities and food banks through the state’s Sportsmen Against Hunger program. “That’s about 76,000 meals, and it’s no cost to the hunters. They take their deer to butchers in the program who are then paid by the state to process the meat. We have one of the most successful programs in the nation.”
How about outlaw deer hunters. Is that a problem in Delaware?
“In my opinion,” said Hossler, “about 10 percent of the population of any group is not law-abiding, and I would say hunters probably fall into that as well. Most of our hunters do it for recreation and want to do the right thing.”