Ladies and gentlemen, the most wonderful time of year is upon us: deer season! Before we dive into what we might expect for 2023, here’s a quick recap of last year.
2022 Virginia Deer Season Review
During the past deer season 186,788 deer were reported killed by deer hunters in Virginia. This total included 90,349 antlered bucks, 12,117 button bucks, and 83,058 does (44% females).
Archery (including crossbows) accounted for 16% of the deer kill; muzzleloaders, 24%; and firearms, 60%. 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 2022 totals, can find them on the Department’s website (a really cool feature!).
What’s New For Fall 2023
Deer regulations in Virginia are evaluated and amended every other year. This past year was a regulation cycle and hence there are several changes that were adopted by the Board of DWR which will go into effect for the 2023 season.
An early (September) antlerless-only firearms season has been added on private lands in Carroll, Floyd, Montgomery, and Pulaski counties. These are all counties within CWD disease management area 3.
An early (September) and late (January-March) antlerless-only firearms season has been added to York County.
An early (September) and late (through January 31st) antlerless-only firearms season has been added to Bedford County.
The general firearms season on private lands in Roanoke County has been extended from two to four weeks.
All cities and towns which allow deer hunting now have a seven-week firearms season.
The early and late muzzleloader seasons on private lands in Smyth County will be full season either-sex.
The counties of Lee, Russell, Tazewell, and Wise have added one additional either-sex day during the early muzzleloading season on private lands.
The counties of Craig, Giles, and Scott will have full season either-sex hunting on private lands during the late muzzleloading season.
Private lands in Dickenson County will have either-sex deer hunting during the last six days of the late muzzleloading season.
Earn-a-buck (EAB) has been added to private lands in Augusta, Botetourt, and Page counties.
EAB has also been simplified to be 1:1 for all counties in EAB, rather than 2:1 in certain counties.
The antler point restriction (APR) in Augusta County has been removed due to a CWD detection within 25 miles of the county border.
Either-sex deer hunting days have been increased on private lands in all of the following counties: Bland, Chesapeake, Chesterfield, Gloucester, King George, Lancaster, Northumberland, Nottoway, Richmond, Suffolk (east of the Dismal Swamp Line), Virginia Beach, and Westmoreland. Please see the 2023-2024 Hunting Digest for season dates.
Either-sex deer hunting days have been increased on public lands in Bland (National Forests), Craig (National Forests & Department-owned lands), Giles (National Forest), Nelson (Tye River WMA), Sussex (Big Woods WMA and Flippo-Gentry WMAs, Big Woods State Forest), Wythe (National Forest & Department-owned lands). Please see the 2023-2024 hunting digest for season dates.
More counties have been added to our CWD Disease Management Areas (DMAs): Arlington, Fairfax, and Prince William Counties have been added to DMA2, and Patrick County has been added to DMA3.
DMA3 (Carroll, Floyd, Montgomery, and Pulaski counties)
Mandatory CWD testing will be held in Carroll, Patrick, and Pulaski Counties the first day of the firearms deer season on November 18, 2023.
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 appear 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. In addition, it’s important to limit the congregation of deer around artificial food sources (bait piles, feeders, mineral licks, etc.).
Voluntary Statewide CWD Testing
New for the 2023 season, DWR will be offering free CWD testing statewide through use of refrigerator stations at selected DWR offices. Please see our website to see locations of these stations.
Chronic Wasting Disease (CWD) Surveillance
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 2022. While new detections were picked up in Fairfax and Pulaski counties, these were not completely unexpected. Pulaski was already in DMA 3 (along with Carroll, Floyd, and Montgomery) while Fairfax sits adjacent to DMA2. The detection in Fairfax was found ~6.6 miles from the Loudon County border and within 22 miles of a previous detection within Loudon County. Due to the Fairfax detection, Fairfax, Arlington, and Prince William counties will become part of DMA 2. Additionally, due to a detection within 10 miles of the Virginia border in North Carolina, Patrick County will now also become part of DMA 3.
The boundaries of DMA3 will now include Patrick County, due to a detection within 10 miles of the Virginia border in North Carolina. North Carolina sampled heavily throughout the 2022 season in their new CWD surveillance zone, which adjoins Virginia along our DMA3 border. An additional eight positives were detected within this surveillance area in North Carolina, plus one additional positive in southeastern North Carolina. During the 2022 season a total of 1,191 samples were taken within the Virginia DMA3. This sampling effort yielded positive detections in Floyd (3), Montgomery (4), and the first detection in Pulaski (1).
2022 gave us an above-average acorn crop across most of the state, making hunting a bit tougher but allowing deer to really pack on the fat for winter. It looks like it’s going to be a different story for 2023 for much of the state. Preliminary reports from our annual mast surveys indicate a pretty poor mast crop, especially for white oaks and chestnut oaks. Red oaks appear to be doing okay, but not spectacular. You may have to hunt hard to find acorns this fall, but if you find some, you should see plenty of activity (at least early in the season).
Early in the year, conditions were really lining up for an extremely productive season for 2023. A great mast crop last fall sent deer into winter on a higher nutritional plane, we had a mild winter, and we had a relatively wet start to the growing season. However, somebody turned off the rain in many places in the state. The northern mountain and northern piedmont regions have especially suffered this summer from severe drought. Lactating does and weaning fawns key in on eating forbs (non-woody, broadleaf plants) in the summer, but these preferred plants lose nutritional quality or are non-existent during severe droughts. We’ve had plenty of photos of relatively thin deer sent to us this summer from concerned citizens thinking something was wrong with them, but it’s just been a tough summer. Many acorns did not fully develop this year because of the lack of rainfall, contributing to the poorer mast crop.
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 to increasing 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, as the productive valley soils on private land yield productive deer herds.
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 percent decline in the number of deer hunters on western public lands (primarily National Forest) and a corresponding 66 percent 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 expected 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, but with a warming climate, this could change.
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, especially in CWD DMA3. 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.
So what is the forecast for the fall 2023 deer season? Unless there is a late, 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 as deer move more in search of food and are more likely to be seen by hunters. In years of good mast crops, the deer kill typically goes down. We’d expect a slight uptick in total deer kill numbers this fall due to a quiet HD season and a below-average acorn crop.
Good luck to all this season! Please support the Virginia Hunters for the Hungry program, do not feed the deer, be safe, and introduce someone new to deer hunting this year—the future of our sport depends on it.
–Justin Folks is DWR’s deer project leader and Katie Martin is DWR’s deer-bear-turkey biologist.