Understanding Deer, Bear, and Forest Trends in the North Georgia Mountains: The Value of Long-term Data

Most state wildlife agencies collect harvest data to inform management decisions. However, these data are typically considered across relatively short time periods and are rarely revisited. We present a case study using historical records to investigate potential agents (i.e., harvest, predation, and forest change) influencing the declining white-tailed deer (Odocoileus virginianus) population in the north Georgia mountains. We used long-term black bear (Ursus americanus) and deer harvest data, and indices of forest stand conditions from 1979-2015 on eight Wildlife Management Areas (WMAs) in the north Georgia mountains. During 1979-2015, harvest of male and female deer declined by 85% and 97%, respectively. Over the same time period, mean yearling male deer body weight increased by 21%, mean antler diameter increased by 62%, and mean antler beam length increased by 92%. We observed a 97% reduction in availability of early successional forests (0-10 years old) and a 53% increase in volume of large diameter (>27.9 cm) oak species, suggesting increasing homogeneity/maturation of forest stands across all eight WMAs. Concomitantly, the U.S. Forest Service increased the acreage under prescribed fire management from 2,916 to 5,629 ha during 2003-2015. Black bear populations grew at an annual rate of 1.07 for males and 1.08 for females. Our analyses indicated that despite the reduction in early successional habitats as illustrated by the reduction in young forests (0-10 years old), deer condition indices have improved suggesting that a habitat-driven change in fecundity was not the likely primary driver of the deer population decline. However, increasing fawn predation, coupled with a decline in available fawning cover may be reducing recruitment rates and should be investigated as potential causes for the observed population decline. Our research also illustrates the importance of maintaining long-term data, especially the value offered to evaluate trends over time.

Publication date
Starting page
Ending page