Conservation // 5 min Read

In the Field: August Spotlight Survey

Written by Justin Hardy

Aug 24, 2022

Every year in August, on nights with no moon, the Palmetto Bluff Conservancy conducts its annual Spotlight Survey. This survey is designed to provide an accurate estimate of Palmetto Bluff’s white-tailed deer herd. It is quite an undertaking. Conservancy staff loads up into the famed tour truck and sets out into the night. The survey begins at the Headwaters neighborhood gate. Once in position, everyone is given a job.

conservancy team gathers before dark to start the spotlight survey

The driver has three goals. The most important of them is simple. Don’t crash. The second goal is to navigate a 12-mile course that winds through neighborhoods, a golf course, Wilson and Moreland Villages, and undeveloped landscapes all while maintaining a speed of no more than 10 mph. The third and most difficult task is to watch the odometer closely. Each time the odometer increases by 1/10 of a mile, he must yell “READING!” This signifies other staff members, known as “spotters,” to provide an estimate of how far, in yards, they could accurately identify a deer as male, female, or fawn.

The two spotters are multitaskers as well. They each hold a high-power flood light in their hands. One spotter is responsible for the driver’s side. One is responsible for the passenger side. They each cast their beam of light into the darkness and search meticulously for deer. If one is spotted, the spotter yells “STOP!” The driver responds by screeching to a halt, which sends everyone into a pile in the bed of the truck. After quickly regaining their footing, spotters determine the gender of the bewildered deer. The distance readings and deer identifications are then relayed to the recorder.

The recorder has a very important job: he or she ensures that all of this slowly accrued information is accurately recorded on a pre-printed log sheet. This may seem easy, but it is dark and the truck is moving and abruptly stopping. Also recorded are things like weather conditions and traffic loads.

By the end of the 12-mile journey, several important tasks have been accomplished. The “readings” are calculated into acreage. The total number of deer spotted can then be plugged into a formula that gives the Conservancy the number of acres per deer. This number is extremely important when studying and managing a deer herd. The number of acres for each individual deer directly correlates to individual health. Fewer acres mean less food, water, and habitat per individual. The Conservancy can also find insight by comparing the number of females to males. A closer ratio indicates a healthier herd. The number of fawns per doe is important as well. This can give insight into how the population could expand or contract in the following years.

These numbers are all of equal importance and hold ecosystem-wide relevance. For example, if a deer herd becomes overpopulated, it will exceed the carrying capacity of the land. This means that there wouldn’t be enough resources available for deer to live a healthy lifestyle. If the deer aren’t finding enough to eat, it is likely that their neighbors (of other species) will struggle as well.

All of the Conservancy’s findings on the Spotlight Surveys are reported to the South Carolina Department of Natural Resources. Their biologist will then consider the information and make recommendations on herd management and issue tags for ethical harvest. Deer are then harvested through our Palmetto Bluff Property Owner Hunting Program. Not only is the meat from the deer enjoyed by property owners, but the larger Bluffton community as well. Each year the Conservancy donates over 500 pounds of lean, ethically harvested, non-GMO, hormone-free, and renewable meat to charitable organizations like Bluffton Self Help. The ethical utilization and management of natural resources are at the heart of conservation. Is it working? The short answer is yes. The deer herd at Palmetto Bluff is well below the carrying capacity of the land and the deer are plump and happy.

So, if you find yourself on the porch on a dark night in August and you see a truck creep by full of folks with powerful flashlights, don’t be alarmed. That is conservation in action.