There’s no question that Louisiana offers its deer hunters liberal hunting days.

It’s possible, with archery, primitive and modern firearms seasons, to take to the field in search of whitetails, and the valuable venison they provide, from Sept. 19 through Feb. 15. That’s darned near five full months.

So, for the state’s hundreds of thousands of whitetail hunters, opportunity is never the problem.

Deer numbers are, and the take of deer in Louisiana was down last year.

State Deer Study leader Scott Durham can explain the decline, but there’s no single-fit, statewide reason other than the explosion of feral hogs across the state’s landscape.

Sure there are others, “carryover” factors like drought conditions in as many as 45 parishes in 2009, 2011 and 2012. Durham said droughts impact deer populations because extremely dry conditions reduce populations and there is “the lag effects of maternal stress.”

For the southeastern parishes, 2012’s Hurricane Isaac extensive flooding took an estimated 90 percent of that year’s fawn crop and impacted adult whitetails, too.

As if that wasn’t enough, there’s been a recent outbreak of hemorrhagic diseases.

Then, there’s the Basin

Then, if you hunt the Atchafalaya Basin, consider that the deer population was dispersed in 2011 when the Spillway gates were opened to relieve the pressure of floodwaters on the lower Mississippi River.

Moreover, there’s the residual effect of annual spring floodwaters on Basin deer, and this year’s extended high water means, Durham said, continued displacement throughout the lands between the Basin’s East and West Guide levees.

There’s a lot of hunting in that country,” Durham said referring to the Atchafalaya Basin. “And we always seem to be talking about the Basin. (Water levels) came down just two weeks ago, and that means lots of the vegetation deer need was underwater for an extended period. That meant a lot of deer had to leave.

“Because this area has a very late breeding period, there’s a late fawn drop for deer in the Basin and there doesn’t appear to have been a lot of fawning inside the Basin this year,” Durham said. “It’s good that when the water leaves, the vegetation takes a couple of weeks to green up again. Water doesn’t kill vegetation there, but it sets them back and that could be an issue for those deer.”

Durham said the Deer Study team will take up its first discussions about making the Atchafalaya Basin a separate deer area. It’s a move, if approved, that would give the state 11 deer hunting areas.

“The Basin is so unique, so vulnerable to flooding, and with such a late breeding period that it needs separate hunting dates. It would be a move to be able to better manage deer and deer hunting,” Durham said.

Oh those hogs

For Durham and the rest of the states’ upland game biologists and managers, the number of feral hogs is the modern equivalent of a biblical plague.

For the first time, Durham’s study of reported deer tags and estimates compiled from hunters’ last-season reports showed hunters and landowners killed more feral hogs than whitetail deer.

“Hunters killed more than 300,000 hogs. There are that many pigs out there,” Durham said, with a tone in his words clearly showing he wishes there were that many more showing up on the kill sheets.

“I can’t overstate what feral pigs mean to our deer population,” he said. “Those pigs compete with deer for food. Deer don’t like to be around hogs, and because of that hogs are a stress to deer numbers.

“Hogs cause absolute destruction to our habitat across the state. They belong in a pen, in a farming operation. They’re not native to our landscape, and hogs are to blame in part for the decline in the number of deer.”

Durham said feral hogs become sexually mature at six months old, and sows can have two litters of 5-6 piglets each litter every year.

“It doesn’t take long to figure, with no natural predators, that they can take over an area in a short period,” Durham said. “We need a no-transport law to stop people from trapping them and taking them into another area.

“I don’t want to use the language to explain how I feel about somebody who dumps pigs on a landowner,” Durham said. “He might as well have gone to his (landowner’s) home and dumped termites on it. That’s how bad hogs are and how destructive they can be.”

Worse still, he said, is that hogs have very few natural predators; are omnivorous and can survive on a variety of food sources, including canibalism; and, don’t show any tendencies to move from an area.

“We don’t see many of them run-over on the side of the road, not like deer and other animals,” Durham said. “That’s why we find them everywhere, from the marshes to the piney woods and every habitat in between.

“We have to find a solution before they destroy the good deer habitat we have left.”

What’s HD2V? Hemorrhagic Disease, a second strain of the virus, and Durham said, “this could end up being a negative for this year’s hunting.

“We have reports of HD2V, and a disease like this can reduce a deer herd, maybe up to 25-50 percent declines, but most times the decline is below 25 percent. This season is definitely shaping up to have HD issues,” he said.

The last time there was a severe HD outbreak was during the 2012-2013 season and Durham said from the 108 samples taken during the last season, 64 percent of the deer showed a presence of HD, and said this likely is a residual effect from the 2012-2013 outbreak.

Statewide, there were two confirmed deer deaths from HD reported last season.

Durham said he feared an outbreak after doing browse surveys during late spring and summer: “HD is spread by midges, gnats, and there were days in the field when gnats were horrendous, days when we were covered in gnats,” he said.

The outlook

Durham said wet conditions during the spring helped in the early breeding area, but those are in the upland areas. Most south-central and southeast Louisiana habitat is considered late-breeding zones.

“A wet spring means a doe in the last trimester of carrying fawns has good sources of protein and nutrition, and that’s important for producing healthy fawns,” Durham said. “Then as those mamas are lactating, it gives the fawns healthy milk.”

What about the extraordinary run of dry, hot conditions in the middle of the summer?

“I don’t see that there’s a bad response as far as productivity,” Durham said. “We certainly have seen worse droughts in the past years. Yes, it’s better to have more rain, but it’s been worse. We’re seeing fawns, and I think we’ve had a good fawning season.

“And we had some rains that prevented major problems. A prolonged dry period reduces the succulents, good nutritious plants deer use, and any time it gets dry, the succulents get hard and the nutrition level in those plants goes down, but we had enough rain through the summer to gets plants growing,” he said.

“Now we need the rain to continue to have new growth on the plants and we have that now.”

Durham said he’s “about middle of the road” when it comes to predicting hunting success for the upcoming season.

“We have a few issues, hogs and disease, and we had that bump-down in the harvest last year,” he said. “The number of fawns we’re seeing this year is a very good sign.”

Hunters a factor, too

While that increased fawn count holds promise, it’s not for this season, but for the future.

Durham said that’s where hunters become a factor in future hunting success.

“I cannot overemphasize that hunters need to make their own observations in their (hunting) area,” Durham said. “They need to be managers, too.

“The state provides super-long seasons with liberal limits, so they have the opportunity to hunt,” he said. “But hunters need to get a clear picture of their herd.

“Because a hunter has a six-deer (season) total, if a hunter sees lots of deer activity, then they can take up to that number,” Durham said, adding, “but if they see a low fawn-to-doe ratio, or sees no fawns, then they should back off on that total. They need to use some restraint.”