For the past three seasons, deer hunters across the state have been recording all of the mammals they saw during the hours they have spent sitting in the forests and fields. Sure, a few hunters have always kept daily logs that help them identify similar conditions that could make their hunts more successful in the future. But, why would the average hunter who is merely waiting for a buck to show up keep track of such seemingly uninteresting animals such as squirrels?
“We are finally able to take a hard look at The Deer Hunter Observation Survey,” said Ryan Myers, the N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission’s surveys biologist. “The first report is a group effort, and I am handling the logistics of trying to keep our enrollment up. We are trying to maintain a good distribution because we have some gaps.”
The idea for the survey began when hunters who saw fox squirrels outside the 27 counties where the hunting season was open began asking for a season. Chris Kreh, the District 7 wildlife biologist at the time, had conducted a similar survey in the mid 2000s that led to opening the fox squirrel season in some of the northwestern mountain counties. Now, over the past three years, survey participants have reported fox squirrels in 50 counties.
Brandon Sherrill is the commission’s mammologist. Under his purview are rabbits, squirrels and nongame mammals. Other biologists are specialists on black bears and fur-bearers.
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“We expected to have fox squirrel observations outside of our known counties,” Sherrill said. “Going back and looking through the years, we have added counties, especially in the northwestern region where the eastern fox squirrel subspecies (Sciurus niger vulpinus) began to migrate from other states. In the eastern part of the state, we have the southern fox squirrel (Sciurus niger niger). If we are going to be considering changing seasons, we wanted to make sure we had enough participants in those counties.”
Sherrill mentioned Wilson County as one where hunters had requested an open fox squirrel season. It is surrounded by counties that have an open season. However, he said the survey was not the only information the commission would use if it proposed a season expansion.
“It is a possibility that we may propose an open hunting season in some of the other counties where observations occurred,” he said. “But, it would be based not only on the DHOS, but observations by our agency staff, including wild sightings and road kills.”
Biologists for all mammal species jumped on the bandwagon when the survey was created. If deer hunters could help determine the range and distribution of fox squirrels, they theorized they could also help them keep an eye on deer, bears, turkeys, raccoons, coyotes, gray squirrels and feral pigs.
Jon Shaw is the Commission’s Deer Biologist. He said prior to the survey, biologists used hunter surveys, reported harvest and biological surveys to keep track of deer population dynamics. The survey is providing a fourth data set.
“This fourth data set will keep tabs on the population,” he said. “It is important for people to know that we are not just relying on the hunter harvest, which, while helpful, is not enough. Assuming the average hunter can distinguish between a year-and-a-half-old doe and a fawn, the DHOS will help us detect changes in doe age structure and how much pressure we are putting on females and buck age structure and how much pressure we are putting on them. Already the data from the DHOS has fallen in line with the lactation data we have and should help us write a prescription for the future by providing baseline data. A doe harvest of 30 percent of the population, which was a traditional guideline, may no longer be sustainable.”
Shaw said that while the survey is not truly scientific, in that it does not provide samples uniformly as if conducted on a map grid, it yielded a statewide ratio of 0.6 fawns per doe – on par with other southeastern states. However, that number went up or down substantially within some areas. He said that one nearby state, Virginia, had a longstanding bowhunter survey that showed a similar fawn-per-doe ratio until coyotes began to appear. Had it been in place when coyotes began showing up in North Carolina, the survey may have documented any impacts coyotes have had on deer or other animals. He also said that what deer hunters are shooting is completely different from what they are seeing.
“The deer-seen-per-hour was 0.7,” Shaw said. “If there is another hemorrhagic disease outbreak we will be able to see the decline as a compliment to our reported harvest data. What we don’t know is how much hunter effort changes during these disease outbreaks. Hunters may hunt less or just be less likely to pull the trigger. We also do not know if the DHOS is a true measure of recruitment (fawn survival to adulthood). We would love to put GPS collars on fawns, does and bucks in North Carolina and compare it to the information from the DHOS.”
Approximately 1,000 hunters annually have taken part in the survey, which is open to deer hunters who hunt from stationary stands only, not to stalkers or those who hunt with hounds. So far, the commission’s outreach to potential participants has been primarily through electronic media. The commission is particularly interested in gaining participants in Districts 1 and 9, and especially Graham and Swain counties.
Hunters who want to participate in the DHOS can request a survey form online at https://ncwildlife.az1.qualtrics.com/jfe/form/SV_2c42gaglTEyU0kt. Participants will receive a survey form in the U.S. mail. Those who complete and return them will receive a DHOS summary.
North Carolina Deer Hunter Observation Survey
Animals seen per 1,000 hours (2014, 2015, 2016)
All Deer (including unknown age/sex) 753.1
Gray Squirrel 724.1
Doe Deer 373.5
All Turkey (including known beard status) 366.0
Non-bearded Turkey 181.5
Fawn Deer 162.5
Antlered Buck 147.9
Bearded Turkey 66.5
Fox Squirrel 17.9
Adult Bear 11.6
Gray Fox 8.6
Juvenile Bear 5.9
Red Fox 3.6