Harvest reports submitted by hunters on Fort Jackson are showing the installation's deer herd is healthier than they've been in years.

The deer hunting season begins in August and ends the first day of January. In the past, hunters have been able to harvest hundreds of low-quality deer during that time frame. Those numbers dropped to double digits in recent years, said Travis Dodson, installation wildlife biologist, but the numbers and quality of deer have begun to improve.

"This last year we saw a really nice rebound, harvesting 142," he said. "What's also significant is that it required less hunter effort to do so."

Simply keeping track of the number of deer killed during the season tells an incomplete story, he said. The installation keeps track of not just the numbers of hunters on post, but the number of hours spent on the trail.

"If you look at 2015 and see the really low numbers that year, you might think there weren't any deer out there," he said. "But that wasn't the case; we had to close down deer season for about a month because of flooding."

To fully measure hunting efforts during the season, they determine "man effort days." During the last season there were 222 hunters that used Fort Jackson, some of who visited the post 20 or 30 times each. Those hours, plus the number of deer killed, present a more accurate picture of the local deer herd.

"This year, of the average of every 18 hunts, someone took a deer," he said. "That's the lowest figure we've experienced since 2009, which was when we started seeing a decline in numbers. It's showing that we're going back up."

The data also shows the quality of Fort Jackson's wildlife has improved dramatically in recent years. The average body weight of deer is up significantly, he said, as are the number of rack characteristics of bucks.

"All of that is really as high as it's ever been on the records that we have," he said, which date back 22 years.

What's making Fort Jackson's deer population healthier and heartier?

"In the mid-1990s they were killing a lot of deer," he said. "What that means is we had too many deer. People tend to think the more deer, the better. But that's not the case. Each land type has what's called a 'carrying capacity,' and it only has the resources for so many animals."

Fort Jackson has a lower capacity for wildlife because of its dry, sandy, pine tree-dominated landscape.

"Our land is not going to be as nutrition rich as farm land or river bottom land," he said. "Once you've got too many deer, they're all competing for the same resources."

If a deer has an abundance of resources, he said, it's going to get bigger. Too much competition has the reverse effect.

"It has a very negative impact not only on the deer herd, but the landscape, as well. When they don't have enough food they start eating up the vegetation. They're in poor health, and have an increase chance of disease."

Hunting is not the only factor contributing to the rebound of Fort Jackson's deer population.

"We've also done quite a bit of habitat improvement," he said. "Things like our prescribed burning program helps to encourage growth of deer food."

The installation also develops fields for wildlife, but the prescribed burning program results in a flush of new growth for the deer herd.

All told, this last deer hunting season required less effort to harvest more deer -- deer that were generally larger and healthier than in the past -- suggests a brighter future for Fort Jackson's wildlife, he said.

"In wildlife management, there are no guarantees," Dodson said. "Hunter harvest is not the only factor in the size of our deer herd, or any wildlife for that matter. We set our limits to where hunters are never going to be able to take too many and impact our herd. But you have other factors."

Weather is the most significant factor on deer herd, especially during the fawning season, he said. A cold snap or drought can mean fewer fawns survive until the next year.

"But things look good," Dodson said. "All the signs point to a healthy, flourishing deer herd."

The trends are similar in Richland County and around South Carolina. The deer herds were up at the start of the century, went down and are now beginning to rebound.

"Fort Jackson is fairly unique," he said. "Our (situation) was more drastic because we faced the challenge of our soil type and our habitat. It doesn't mean we can't have a healthy deer herd. It just means our 'healthy' is just a few less deer than in other places."

The installation has the added challenge of balancing habitat management with its training mission.

"Other places that manage for deer and wildlife are going to plant a lot more food for deer," he said. "They're going to plow up an area and plant peas or soy beans."

Fort Jackson has food plots, as well, but training activities keep those efforts from being too enthusiastic.

"There's no use planting in an area where, a month or two later, Soldiers are going to be marching or driving humvees over it," he said. "We have defined areas where we can (plant.)"

Public food plots are designed to cover a few thousand acres at most, while Fort Jackson is tending to 50,000 acres. "We're pretty spread out," he said.

Roughly 40 plots are scheduled for planting in 2019. Planted for the cool season are winter wheat, winter peas, and "a variety of other things that will stay green when everything else is dying off," Dodson said.

These crops attract deer when food is scarce during the winter. They also offer sources of nutrition to birds, rabbits and squirrels.

During the warm season, Fort Jackson plots include "things that are beneficial for birds," Dodson said.

Chufa is one plant of choice. Turkeys are drawn to its tuberous roots.

Other warm weather crops include grains like millet and sorghum that are ready to eat in autumn for migratory birds flying south, helping hunters of doves and other game.

"Our tasks as biologists is to maintain this ecosystem as close to the way it is naturally as we can, and to offset the human aspect," Dodson said. "Most of our management is tied around our endangered species, the red-cockaded woodpecker. But the management we do for that benefits other wildlife -- the white tailed deer, the wild turkey, the bobwhite quail, a host of animals and birds we have living here."


Editor's note: Elyssa Vondra contributed to this story.