LITTLE ROCK – If Arkansas deer were a sports team, the mascot could be Horatio Alger, that rags to riches fictional character.
Abundant in early settlement days, deer greatly diminished in numbers by the early 20th century. This was an area of concern to the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission when it was created in 1915. Restoration of deer began in in the 1920s, and when mandatory checking of deer by hunters started in 1938, just 203 were reported.
The past two seasons each saw a thousand times that many deer checked by hunters.
Deer are plentiful in Arkansas here in 2014. However, this is not the case in all places. Cory Gray, deer program coordinator for the Game and Fish Commission, said, “We have good numbers of deer in Arkansas, but they are not evenly distributed. Even in Zone 12 (south Arkansas) where we have the most deer, I get calls from people telling me they aren’t seeing deer.”
Most of the state does have sufficient deer numbers, according to statistics from hunter checking. Gray said, “We still have room for improvement in northeast Arkansas and in the Ouachitas.”
Habitat for deer is limited in northeast Arkansas, where farming is extensive, and wooded areas are few. Poor soil fertility and less than desirable habitat are some limiting factors in the Ouachita Mountains part of the state where timber, not agriculture, is the major growth. Neither of these areas is void of deer, but their harvest strategies are not as liberal as other parts of the state.
Over the 90 years of Arkansas deer restoration and management, the focus has shifted from increasing numbers of deer to balancing and keeping the deer healthy. Hunters have played a major role in this, particularly in recent years since quality deer management was crafted.
Before 1998, the goal was to have more deer in the state, and hunters went after male deer, the bucks. The buck-doe ratio became badly skewed. Although deer fawns are 50 percent males, 50 percent females, in some area hunters complained that they were seeing 12, 15, even 20 does for every buck they spotted.
In 1998 under the prodding of Witt Stephens, an AGFC commissioner at the time, the three-point rule was established. This meant only a buck with at least three points on one side of its antlers could be taken legally by hunters. More taking of does was encouraged also.
Within a few seasons, Arkansas hunters accepted the concept, and they reported seeing and taking better deer – meaning bigger racks (antlers) and more body weight. Numbers of does checked by hunters climbed. The total deer check rose to a record 194,687 in 1999 then to 213,487 in 2012 and 213,216 in 2013.
Arkansas deer have returned. Most wildlife biologists believe the state has more deer today than it did in the pioneer days when forests covered virtually the entire state. .