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Arkansas deer hunters break harvest record

LITTLE ROCK — With more than a month left in Arkansas’s archery deer season, hunters have checked 214,022 deer during the 2020-21 deer hunting season. That’s more deer than any season since the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission began keeping harvest records in 1938.

The previous record harvest was 213,487 deer, set in the 2012-13 season. With the exception of last year, Arkansas hunters have harvested more than 200,000 deer annually since that season as well. During the 2019-20 deer hunting season the harvest dipped to 188,151.

“Last year was the result of a perfect storm lined up against harvest,” Ralph Meeker, AGFC deer program coordinator, said. “Spring and summer flooding in 2018 and 2019 – contributed to lower fawn recruitment in certain parts of the state. Then a massive crop of hard mast (primarily acorns) reduced deer movement and made deer feeders much less productive. On top of that, flooding during the peak of the gun season closed hunting in some parts of the state. All three of these factors contributed to what we witnessed in the 2019-20 deer harvest.”

According to license sales numbers from the last five years, this year is the first in many when hunter numbers did not decline. In fact, this year’s resident and nonresident hunting license numbers are very similar to those recorded in 2018, but still are far below the numbers seen during the record-setting year nearly a decade ago.

Meeker points out that this season’s increase in hunting licenses might be because of COVID-19 and people finding new ways to spend their time in an outdoor setting, but says the record-breaking year is not solely the result of new hunters joining the ranks.

COVID-19 also may have influenced hunters’ mindsets toward the number of deer they harvested. The pandemic caused many meat shortages throughout the nation last year, which may have increased people’s view of venison as a healthy and sustainable alternative to beef and pork.

“I know of several people who harvested (or attempted to harvest) more deer than they normally would this season to fill their freezer for the coming year,” Meeker said. “We’ve also likely seen some hunters who had not purchased a license in a few years get reactivated this year, but those are only two factors that went into the high harvest,” Meeker said. “All of the factors that hindered harvest in 2019 were nearly the exact opposite in 2020.”

Meeker says deer that normally would have been harvested last year may have also added to this year’s total.

“What will be interesting to see is if hunters were able to harvest a larger percentage of older age-class bucks, another result of carryover from 2019,” Meeker said. “It also will be interesting to see how the harvest numbers per hunter break down once the season has ended.”

Things have come a long way since Arkansas’s first recorded deer harvest in 1938. That year, hunters checked only 203 deer, statewide. More than 20 years later, the deer harvest broke the 10,000-deer mark, and hunters did not reach a 100,000-deer season in Arkansas until 1987.

With current annual harvests consistently exceeding 200,000 deer, is there still room for growth? According to Meeker, the current deer harvest and limits fit the factors that influence the state’s deer herd well and are likely where they need to be for a healthy deer population.

“Our current herd matches up well with the available habitat as well as the social carrying capacity of our state,” Meeker said. “The social carrying capacity is how many deer people can stand to live with. At some point, deer can become a nuisance or safety risk. But when you see environmental stressors such as flooding or buffalo gnat outbreaks followed by a good harvest, that is a good indication that the deer population is healthy enough to rebound quickly, so I’d say we’re in good shape where we are.”

Meeker readily admits though that having too many or not enough deer greatly depends on who you are talking to.

Hunters and wildlife enthusiasts interested in learning more about white-tailed deer harvest records and scientific management of the species in Arkansas can find historical deer harvest reports and the AGFC’s Strategic Deer Management Plan at www.agfc.com/en/hunting/big-game/deer/deer-harvest-reports.