Missouri's Deer Year In Review

Missouri's Deer Year In Review

Show Me State deer hunters experienced mixed results during last year's deer season, but how does what they encountered then affect what they'll see this fall? Here are some answers. (August 2009)

Alex Rutledge bagged this fine buck on a small piece of hunting land he owns and manages near Birch Tree. He saw a fair number of bucks and said other hunters on lands being managed for deer in his area reported similar sightings.

Photo by John E. Phillips.

Before we can make predictions about the 2009 Missouri deer season, we must first understand why last year's deer harvest dropped, and how that decline in deer numbers affects the 2009 season.

"Missouri has a very healthy deer population going into 2009," says Lonnie Hansen, research scientist and deer specialist with the Missouri Department of Conservation. "But we have too many deer in some parts of the state and too few in other regions. Overall, statewide, deer numbers are good.

"Missouri had a 17 percent decrease in the number of antlered deer taken last season, a 3 percent decrease in the number of button bucks harvested, and a 2 percent increase in our doe harvest. We want to decrease the hunting pressure on our antlered bucks and increase the pressure on our does." Again Hansen emphasized "in some regions of the state."

WHY HUNTERS HARVESTED FEWER BUCKS LAST SEASON

Several factors affected the 2008 deer harvest, especially the buck harvest.

"During opening weekend, the weather was bad, and since a good number of bucks usually are taken on opening weekend, the buck harvest was affected," Hansen explains. "Too, the gun deer season began a week later than usual. This shift in the season negatively impacted Missouri's buck harvest, but often resulted in hunters taking more does in regions where we wanted to reduce the numbers."

The expansion of the antler-restriction regulation from 29 to 65 counties also may have caused a reduction in the buck harvest of 2008. The antler restriction stated that a buck must have 4 points on one side of his rack for a hunter to harvest him.

"Studies conducted from 2004 to 2008 revealed that the first year we implemented the antler restriction, the overall harvest would be low," Hansen reports.

Other factors also affected deer numbers in many counties due to a combination of liberal deer seasons and hemorrhagic disease. Some regions of central and west-central Missouri had liberal seasons in an effort to stabilize deer numbers. Too, a significant outbreak of hemorrhagic disease, a viral disease transmitted by small biting flies usually associated with drought conditions, occurred from 2005 to 2007.

"Some counties were hit really hard," says Hansen. Missouri's 2007 deer season saw more widespread outbreaks of hemorrhagic disease.

"Not only were the southwestern counties affected by this disease during 2007," he says, "but counties north of St. Louis also had outbreaks impact their deer herds. Lincoln and Pike counties were probably hit the hardest of any counties in Missouri. Boone County was also hit pretty hard. Barton, Dade, Dallas and St. Clair counties had had outbreaks of hemorrhagic disease prior to 2007, and they're still recovering.

"Missouri has significant outbreaks of hemorrhagic disease every seven or eight years. In 2007, Missouri had a severe drought, causing the outbreak. Tennessee, Kentucky and other Southeastern states also had outbreaks of hemorrhagic disease due to drought conditions."

RESULTS OF THE ANTLER-RESTRICTION STUDY

The state selected 29 counties to test the antler restriction over a four-year period from 2004 to 2007 to shift harvest pressure from the bucks to the does.

"We wanted to let our bucks move into the older age-classes in the study area, and at the same time, take a good number of does," Hansen explains. "In some places where the study was implemented, the doe harvest increased. We were able to take hunting pressure off the young bucks. We saw a 38 percent increase in the number of bucks being harvested as a direct result of the antler restriction."

By allowing the 1 1/2-year-old bucks to move into the 2 1/2-year-old age-class, more bucks became available for harvest than in the regions where the state had set no antler restrictions. Hunters embraced the antler restriction in the study counties.

"Generally, 70 percent or more of the hunters were in favor of the antler restriction," says Hansen.

Hansen and his team evaluated the results of the antler-restriction test, next surveyed the hunters in the counties without antler restriction, and then asked if they wanted the antler restriction in their counties. This survey resulted in an expansion of the antler restriction from 29 to 65 counties. That shift in regulations definitely played a role in the low number of bucks taken last season.

"The second year of the antler-restriction study, in the initial 29-county testing region, the number of bucks taken increased," says Hansen. That should bide well for this year's buck harvest in those "new" antler-restriction counties.

The number of antlered bucks killed by hunters also increased the third and the fourth years under the antler-restriction regulation. Overall, the antler-restriction regulation has proved to increase the number of bucks taken each season following the first season in the studies done in the state of Missouri. The result will mean more and bigger bucks for the 2009 season than hunters harvested during the 2008 season in counties with the antler restriction.

The antler-restriction study revealed that by the third year, participating counties had a 60 percent increase in 3 1/2-year-old bucks harvested, and a 200 percent increase in the number of 4 1/2-year-old bucks harvested by the fourth year.

THE QUESTION OF ADDITIONAL COUNTIES PARTICIPATING

Missouri has 114 counties. Some counties in the southern part of the state, especially in the southern and the southeastern Ozarks in the Bootheel, don't have large enough deer populations to apply the antler restriction because doing so would cause a shift from hunters taking bucks to hunters taking does. It's also true that hunters in those regions don't want an antler restriction.

"In the southern section of the state, we don't need to harvest any more does than hunters already are taking," says Hansen. "So, biologically, an antler restriction in these counties won't have a positive effect on the deer herd."

Too, Hans

en says that people in counties with low deer numbers won't socially accept an antler restriction.

"Remember that in the counties with low deer numbers, a hunter may only have one or two opportunities to take a deer all season," Hansen advises. "If one of those deer is protected under the antler regulation, then that hunter has missed an opportunity to take a deer. Restricting hunters in these regions from taking the deer they want to take when we can't prove there's a biological reason why the hunters can't take these deer isn't fair."

Hansen and his team understand that successful deer management has two parts. Managing deer is simple, but managing hunters who are deer predators can be difficult. For any rule or regulation change to take place, hunters must buy into the philosophy of that change, and that change must have a sound biological principle behind it.

If a state manages its deer herd only according to what's best for the deer, the state risks losing the support and the participation of the hunters, and no change will take place. If hunters understand a regulation's intention and they know the change will increase their odds of taking more and bigger deer, then the state can implement changes in deer management more easily.

But one rule doesn't fit all regions, and one change in deer management doesn't fit all Missouri counties. Hansen's common-sense approach to deer management, his evaluation of Missouri counties that will benefit from the antler-restriction rgulation and the results of the antler-restriction regulation in test counties ensure that Missouri hunters can expect a better buck harvest in 2009 and well into the future.

Deer hunting will continue to improve in Missouri because the state of Missouri manages each county specifically to improve that particular county's deer population. Then Missouri deer hunters will have opportunities to take more and better bucks. Too, the old adage, "If it's not broke, don't fix it," applies to many Missouri counties that currently have stable or low numbers of deer.

Still, some Missouri counties may have an antler restriction in the future, and other counties never will have an antler restriction. Intensively managing Missouri deer herds has become the norm, and this intensive management consistently has produced more and better-quality bucks for Missouri hunters.

BUCKS AND NUTS

The bumper acorn crop of 2008 became another factor that negatively affected Missouri's deer harvest numbers.

"The success or failure of the acorn crop really affects deer vulnerability," says Hansen. "When there's a good acorn crop, the deer tend to move less, and hunters see fewer deer. In counties with good acorn crops, there's always a dramatic decline in the numbers of deer harvested that season."

During the 2008 deer season, several counties in south Missouri and a few counties in north Missouri experienced tremendous acorn crops and a low number of bucks harvested. But since hunters harvested fewer bucks in these counties last season, a large number of young bucks carried over, and thus, hunters in those counties should see more bucks available for them to harvest this fall.

"Anytime our buck harvest decreases in a county one year due to an abundance of the acorn crop, these counties usually rebound with better harvests the following year," Hansen confirmed.

When the acorn crop fails, resulting in few acorns, the deer usually move out into the fields and the pastures to search for food. Therefore, hunters will see and take more bucks during years of a depleted acorn crop. Deer also will show up more readily on green fields when there's a poor acorn crop.

All the factors that caused the buck harvest to decline in Missouri during the 2008 season probably will increase the buck harvest this fall. The buck harvest for 2009 also should include more mature bucks than what hunters bagged during the 2008 season.

"I feel very confident that Missouri will have a really good deer season in 2009," Hansen says.

THE ALEX FACTOR

Nationally known hunter Alex Rutledge of Birch Tree has the knowledge and the experience as a deer hunter to help other Missouri hunters have a better season in 2009.

"In past years, we haven't had as many deer in southern Missouri as the folks in northern Missouri have," emphasizes Rutledge. "However, the number of deer in southern Missouri has increased."

Rutledge considers this increase in deer numbers a direct result of hunting clubs and landowners doing better jobs of managing their properties. "I see more land managers and hunters planting green fields, passing up young bucks and taking older-age-class bucks," reports Rutledge. "More hunters realize that because we have fewer deer on many lands in southern Missouri, the only way to increase the number of bucks is to resist harvesting large numbers of does.

"I'm glad to see antler restrictions being implemented in more counties in Missouri this year, especially for hunters who want to harvest older and more mature bucks. We still have doe tags in Missouri, and if you're hunting deer for meat, why not take a doe instead of a young buck? In many parts of the state with dense deer populations, you'll actually help the herd by taking a certain number of does each season."

This past year, Rutledge took a mature 4 1/2-year-old, 8-point buck off the 119 acres of land he owns and manages. Rutledge follows the same course taken by many landowners and hunting clubs. He plants many green fields and provides a sanctuary on the lands he hunts. He sees an average of 30 deer each time he hunts his property.

"In Shannon County, where I live, I think we'll have another great year for deer hunting, just like last year," said Rutledge.

RUTLEDGE'S PRIVATE MANAGEMENT STRATEGY

Rutledge has two power lines running through his property that intersect in the center where he plants a large green field.

"I keep food in that green field year 'round," explains Rutledge. "I plant a wide variety of foods for the deer to eat. I plant Hunter's Specialties Vita-Rack Fall, Spring and Summer Mixes as my main crops, which all have a wide variety of deer foods for different seasons."

In addition to planting Vita-Rack products, Rutledge plants other seasonal crops for deer to eat in his green fields. "Deer are browsers that like to eat a wide variety of food," he says. "So, I create a smorgasbord in the center of my property that's continually stocked with foods deer love year 'round."

Rutledge also plants the lanes leading up to his main green field to help funnel deer into his food plot. Rutledge plants a total of 15 acres of his property in year-round green fields.

On the northeast side of Rutledge's green field, he's created a 27-acre bedding area and sanctuary that he never enters except to recover a deer, and th

en he only enters the bedding area after dark.

"To have more and bigger bucks on your property, provide a place for those older-age-class bucks to live with everything they need," Rutledge advises. "On my land, I not only make sure I have plenty of food to attract deer, I also provide a sanctuary that's never violated where the deer can hold and bed all year without being disturbed."

Rutledge generally will limit-out in Missouri and also travels to other states to hunt deer.

"I had a great season in 2008, and I'm expecting another great season in 2009," he says. "Most of the hunters I know who participate in quality deer management also have had great seasons. The antler restrictions not only will help Missouri's deer season in 2009, but also as more people learn and understand how to better manage their deer herds, Missouri's deer hunting will continue to improve every season."

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