By Program Supervisor Jerry Shaw, Big Game Technician Emily Clark and Erik Bartholomew
Oklahoma continues to enjoy some of the best deer hunting in North America as our habitat and herds continue to recover from the severe drought a few years ago. The overall harvest increased by nearly 12 percent from 2015-16, with a total of 99,023 deer taken in 2016-17. Figure 1 depicts deer harvest from 1972 through this past season. A breakdown of the past 10 years by bucks (including button bucks) and does appears in Figure 2. Does account for 37 percent of the total deer harvest, below the 40 percent to 45 percent target rate but acceptable for a herd recovering from the lower reproduction encountered during the drought. A total of 189 mule deer were checked from the westernmost areas of the state.
Gun hunting remains the most common hunting method with 192,783 participants and 61.5 percent of the total harvest being taken with a firearm. Combining all modern firearms seasons (youth, regular gun, and holiday antlerless) shows a total of 60,905 deer were checked this past season.
Muzzleloader hunting continues to decline both in participation and consequently in harvest levels. This past season had the lowest number of hunters and harvest in decades. Using Game Harvest Survey data combined with license sales, an estimated 75,766 hunters participated in this nine day season, checking in 13,998 deer.
In contrast to the decline in muzzleloader hunters, archery season participation and harvest continue to grow in Oklahoma. The 2016-17 season had a calculated 98,762 hunters in the woods, only 307 shy of the record participation in 2015-16. Archery hunters this past season took home 26,151 deer, a record archery harvest for Oklahoma.
The individual seasons and their respective harvest are depicted in Figure 3.
Table 1 lists deer harvest by county. Harvest is not equal across counties. This is influenced by the size of the county, the amount of suitable deer habitat, hunter access and many other factors. Some counties have wildlife management areas (WMAs) and some do not. To help even the playing field, Table 1 reflects deer harvest totals with data from the WMAs removed. As always, big counties top the list. Osage County, among the state’s largest, tops the list again for 2016-17, with 4,327 deer checked. Pittsburg County came in a distant second with 3,383 deer checked. Cherokee County rounded out the top three with 2,533 deer taken. Cimarron and Texas counties had the lowest harvest with 100 and 160 deer, respectively.
Oklahoma has limited public lands open for hunting as roughly 97 percent of the state is privately owned. However, excellent options are available to hunters using the Department’s WMAs and other public lands. Despite being 3 percent of the land area in Oklahoma, WMAs, limited state parks, and selected federal areas accounted for 6.4 percent of the total deer taken in 2016-17. Harvest on public lands is depicted in Table 2.
In addition to the white-tailed deer hunted across the state, mule deer are pursued in the far western reaches of Oklahoma. In 2016-17, 189 mule deer were harvested within the state. With regulations in place to protect female mule deer, the harvest greatly favored males, with 184 males and only five females checked. A complete reporting of mule deer harvest appears in Table 3.
All parts of Oklahoma are open to antlerless deer harvest to one degree or another. Some areas had liberal “doe days,” while others offered a more conservative approach. Depending on the management zone hunted, sportsmen and sportswomen had the chance to harvest antlerless deer during archery, muzzleloader and modern gun seasons. Again in 2016-17, a special holiday antlerless season in December was offered to all hunters willing to hunt in the open zones.
Hunters continued to take advantage of the antlerless opportunities available to them. In the 2016-17 seasons, 36,428 female deer were killed in Oklahoma, making up 37 percent of the harvest. Hunting remains the single best method available for managing population growth, maintaining healthy buck to- doe ratios, and safeguarding herd and habitat health.
The combined season limit for all deer archery, muzzleloader, gun and youth-only seasons was no more than six deer per individual. Of the six deer allowed, no more than two of them could be antlered bucks. Any deer taken by hunters participating in the special holiday antlerless season or deer taken through the Wildlife Department’s Controlled Hunts program were considered “bonus deer” and did not count toward the hunter’s combined season limit of six deer.
The Game Harvest Survey showed that 98,762 archery hunters participated in 2016-17. The growth trend can be seen in Figure 4, while Figure 5 shows the buck and doe harvest each week of the season. Figure 6 shows success percentage by season type. The success rate for archery hunters increased by 2 percent over 2015-16 numbers. Figure 3 shows that archery made up 26.4 percent of the total harvest, the same rate as in 2015-16.
Archery season opened Oct. 1, 2016, and ran uninterrupted until Jan. 15, 2017. The bag limit was six deer, which could include no more than two bucks.
The 2016 statewide muzzleloader season began Oct. 22 and continued for nine days to Oct. 30. The Game Harvest Survey showed the 2016 season saw a decrease in participation for a total of 75,766 muzzleloader hunters in the field (Figure 7). Those hunters tagged 13,998 deer. Figure 3 shows that muzzleloader made up 12.1 percent of the total reported deer harvest.
Muzzleloader hunters had a 16 percent success rate in 2016 (Figure 6). The bag limit remained unchanged from 2015. Hunters could harvest one antlered deer and two antlerless deer provided at least one of the antlerless deer came from Management Zone 2, 7, or 8. Figure 8 charts the muzzleloader harvest by day and sex.
A modern firearm is the perennial favorite method for hunters in Oklahoma and has shown steady participation over the last decade (Figure 9). This past season, Game Harvest Survey data indicates 192,783 hunters went afield with a rifle during the youth, regular rifle and holiday antlerless seasons. Figure 6 shows the success rate for hunters during all seasons combined was 32 percent.
The 2016 gun season again started the Saturday before Thanksgiving and continued for 16 days. The Game Harvest Survey indicated that 153,231 sportsmen and sportswomen hunted during those 16 days. Figure 10 shows the harvest of bucks and does on each day of the season. Bag limits remained unchanged from the 2015 season, with hunters having the chance to harvest three deer, with no more than one antlered and two antlerless per hunter. If taking two antlerless, one had to have been taken from Management Zones 2, 7, or 8.
Youth hunters had the first chance to pursue deer with a gun during youth season. This past year, 6,076 youths younger than 18 took advantage of this opportunity to hunt unpressured deer. Their efforts were rewarded with a total harvest of 2,708 deer. Eight of the 10 management zones were open for the holiday antlerless season that allowed hunters one last chance to use a modern gun to put meat in the freezer. The 2016 season saw 33,476 hunters taking advantage of the holiday season. The bag limit remained one antlerless deer. As an added incentive to participate in the holiday season, these deer did not count against the hunter’s combined season bag limit of six deer. A total of 2,710 deer were checked during the holiday season.