Show Me Our Herd

Show Me Our Herd

If you want the inside scoop on what to expect from Missouri's whitetails this season, you've come to the right place. (July 2007)

Photo by Ralph Hensley.

It wasn't long ago that just seeing a white-tailed deer in Missouri was a great conversation item in the community. Many deer hunters still pursuing the sport today remember when just catching a fleeting glimpse of antlers was a real happening in Missouri.

Consider that as recently as 1950, Missouri had only a six-day firearms deer season permitted in only 26 counties! In 1959, Missouri's first statewide firearms deer season was opened, and deer numbers seemed to skyrocket from that point on.

In years past, deer biologists focused on how to make Missouri's deer herd grow; today, wildlife managers are more worried about how to keep the deer population from increasing.

In 2006, nearly a half-million hunters took to the woods in Missouri during the 11-day firearms deer season. They bagged over 235,054 deer last year during the 11-day season! Contrast that with the fact that in 1958, just shy of a half-century ago, only 60,000 hunters participated in the six-day season in 50 "any-deer" counties and 13 "antlered-only" counties. Hunters bagged just 13,600 deer that year.

Yes, it's a great time to be a Missouri deer hunter -- but unless you experienced those lean deer hunting years not long ago, you probably don't appreciate what you have now.

Missourians are blessed with an estimated white-tailed deer population of just over 1 million animals. That number is probably equal that of what American settlers first found here.

"We have a pretty stable deer herd," Lonnie Hansen said. "By stable, I mean that our deer population is growing in some places, declining in others, and remaining the same in others."

Hansen -- who, as the resource scientist/wildlife biologist for the Missouri Department of Conservation, is pretty much in charge of our herd -- is the Show-Me State's white-tailed deer guru, well respected throughout the country as tops in his field. "In southeastern Missouri, we'd like to see some increase in the deer numbers, but on the same hand, we'd like to see some deer reduction in parts of north Missouri," he said. "Our urban areas are our biggest problem areas, because we want numbers reduced there, but have difficulty achieving our goal because of a lack of access to hunting there."

THE HERD

Bucks vs. Does

We've already established that Missouri's deer population is estimated at a little over 1 million whitetails. About 40 percent are male deer. This figure includes button bucks. Although Show-Me State hunters bagged 41,178 button bucks during the 2006 firearms deer seasons, most of these buttonheads will live to 1 1/2 years old.

The male deer population total of 400,000 breaks down about evenly between button bucks and antlered bucks. We have approximately 600,000 does in the population. The statewide antlered-to-antlerless ratio is about one antlered deer to every five antlerless deer (1:5). The ratio is slightly better in counties in the pilot antler-point restriction zones, with a 1:4 rate.

Body Size

The body size of deer in the Show-Me State varies from region to region. MDC studies have shown that the average field-dressed weight of a 1 1/2-year-old buck from the southeast Ozarks is only 75.6 pounds. The same age class buck taken from northwest Missouri dresses out at 132.5 pounds! Most of the difference in body size comes from nutrition in way of what the deer have available to eat. The northwestern buck has the luxury of eating corn, soybeans and more along with his acorns, while the southeastern buck is limited to browsing and acorns for the most part.

Antler Size

In Missouri, a 1 1/2-year old buck may be just a spike or it could be an 8-pointer or better. According to MDC studies, about 30 percent of 1 1/2-year-old bucks in north Missouri will have at least 4 points or better on one side. Unfortunately, between 50 to 60 percent of these immature bucks are shot annually. This is one reason that the MDC first implemented the antler restriction counties.

ANTLER RESTRICTION PILOT COUNTIES

In 2004, the MDC first began a 29-county antler-point restriction area. Hunters in these pilot test counties are limited to harvest bucks with at least 4 points or better on one side. Hunters in those counties can shoot does too, and are in fact encouraged to do so as part of the reason for implementing the program to begin with.

The 29 counties are referred to as the northern pilot counties and the central pilot counties. There are 22 counties north of the Missouri River-Atchison, Holt, Nodaway, Andrew, Worth, Gentry, DeKalb, Harrison, Daviess, Mercer, Grundy, Livingston, Putnam, Sullivan, Linn, Chariton, Howard, Boone, Schuyler, Adair, Macon, and Randolph. The seven counties south of the Missouri River in central Missouri are Cole, Miller, Pulaski, Osage, Maries, Gasconade, and Franklin.

"We've seen a 46 percent increase in the harvest of 2 1/2-year-old and older antlered bucks in the pilot counties from 2003 through 2006," Hansen said. "In control counties, we still saw an increase of 29 percent."

Control counties are those adjacent to counties in the antler-point restriction program. Control counties do not have the restriction requiring 4 points or better on one side of the rack.

"What we are seeing is that more people in non-pilot counties are beginning to implement more selective buck harvesting practices," Hansen said. "We are really satisfied at the significant increase in the numbers of older age-class bucks in these pilot counties."

However, growing older age-class bucks wasn't the only reason for beginning the 4-points-or-better restriction in those 29 counties. The goal was to shift the focus of harvest from 1 1/2-year-old bucks to antlerless deer, thus allowing the young bucks to grow to 2 1/2 years old and older, while increasing the numbers of does harvested in these counties.

"In terms of adult buck harvest," Hansen said, "we are seeing the results we wanted. However, we have not seen an increase in doe harvest in the northern pilot counties."

The central pilot counties have seen an 11 percent increase in doe harvest from 2003 through 2006. Doe harvest remains high in those northern pilot counties, but is hasn't increased as well as the MDC had wanted.

Although the program wasn't implemented until 2004, the MDC looks at harvest records from 2003 also while measuring the success of the pilot program. The 2003 ye

ar is known as a "pre-treatment" year.

"After 2007, we will look at the overall results of the Pilot Antler Restriction program and decide whether or not we want to continue with it," Hansen said. "We will probably have more public meetings on the subject and share with the public what we have learned -- then, with their help, decide whether or not we want to expand or contract the pilot program."

CONSERVATIVE HARVEST REGS ON PUBLIC LANDS

Two years ago, the MDC began a program to restore the numbers of deer on public lands to a higher level. The pressure that these areas receive, especially during the firearms season, really took a toll on the deer population on them.

"We had a lot of our public use areas under statewide regs," Hansen said. "We've become more restrictive on many of these areas so that the deer numbers will get back to where they belong."

At first, hunters were reluctant to accept the changes, but after careful consideration many are glad that the MDC has taken steps to micro-manage these public lands for the better.

"Our public lands are so much different than our private lands in terms of the heavy hunting pressure they receive," Hansen said. "Our restrictions were put in place to bring deer numbers up on these public use areas, while still providing a lot of deer hunting opportunities."

The MDC will continue to monitor the situation at these public-use areas carefully over about seven more years. This long-term study will census hunters and landowners on how they feel about deer numbers in those areas.

DISEASE

The two deer diseases that Missourians have to worry about are epizoÖtic hemorrhagic disease and chronic wasting disease. EHD is currently affecting deer populations in Missouri; CWD has yet to be found here.

EpizoÖtic Hemorrhagic Disease

Each year, some deer probably die in Missouri from EHD, but not really enough even to be noticed. However, in years that experience severe drought conditions such as were endured in the summer of 2006, the disease is much more prevalent.

"We had quite a bit of an EHD outbreak in 2006," Hansen said. "About 10 or 12 counties were hit pretty hard, but the hardest hit areas were just north and west of Springfield, and southwest of Springfield."

The southwestern 1/8 of Missouri was hit pretty hard by EHD last year. This disease is fatal, and deer numbers in these areas will be noticeably down in 2007.

"The hardest hit counties were Vernon, Barry, Cedar, Polk, Hickory, Benton, and St. Clair," Hansen said. "There will probably big local impacts on the number of deer that died from EHD last year."

EHD is a very spotty disease in terms of where it shows up. Although the above-mentioned counties have all reported outbreaks of the deadly disease last year, the effects of it can be very localized within each county. Some portions of Pike County were also hit with the disease last year

"Hunters may notice a difference in harvest numbers in those areas in 2007 if they haven't already in 2006," Hansen said. "Overall though, I would consider this EHD a moderate one statewide."

Chronic Wasting Disease

The MDC has conducted random tests for CWD on harvested whitetails at check stations across the state. The testing period lasted from 2002 to 2004. There was not one infected deer found in Missouri throughout the study.

"We randomly tested about 22,000 deer over a three year period across the state," Hansen said. "We're currently just testing deer that appear to be sick or emaciated."

CWD is deadly and can spread quickly through a wild deer herd. The MDC asks that if you see a deer that appears to be sick, report it to your local MDC office or call the main deer line at (573) 882-9880.

2006 HARVEST NUMBERS

The year for breaking deer harvest records was 2006. Missouri hunters broke three records last year-total number of deer taken during all portions of the firearms seasons; deer totals during the November portion of the firearms season; and number of deer killed during archery season.

Urban Season

The four-day urban portion of the 2006 firearms deer season resulted in 1,348 deer taken. Hunters are only allowed to harvest antlerless deer in 11 counties. These counties surround the Kansas City, Springfield, Columbia, and St. Louis regions. Top counties: Boone, with 313 deer checked in; Webster, 167; and Cole, 137.

Youth Season

The two-day Youth portion of the 2006 firearm deer season, allowed for the harvest of 11,920 deer during. This total is up 9.8 percent from 2005's total of 10,860. However, the total fell short of the record of 13,466 deer taken in 2004. Top counties: Osage, 322 deer reported; Callaway, 259; and Pike, 226.

November Season

Missouri deer hunters broke the existing record number of deer taken during the November portion of the firearms deer season by taking 235,054 deer during the 11-day hunt. This total is up 12,725, or 5.7 percent, from the previous record of 222,329 deer taken in 2004. The 2006 total is also up by 29,594 deer, or 14.4 percent, from 2005's total of 205,460. High counties across the state: Callaway, with 4,473 deer checked in; Benton, 4,411; and Pike, 4,216.

Muzzleloader Season

Muzzleloader hunters managed to take 9,436 deer during the 10-day season. This total is down 679 deer, or 6.7 percent, from 2005's total of 10,115; it's also 21 percent less than the record-setting 11,938 muzzleloader harvest in 2004. Deep snow and ice across much of the state is to blame for the low harvest totals during this portion of the firearms deer season last year. Top counties: Franklin, with 227 deer taken; Osage, 218; and Ste. Genevieve, 212.

Antlerless Season

There were 23,098 deer checked in during the 9-day, antlerless portion of the firearms deer season in 2006. The antlerless deer kill total exceeded the 2005 harvest of 21,922 deer by 1,176. However, it fell short of the previous antlerless record harvest of 25,151 set in 2003. Top counties: Pike, with 930 deer taken; Callaway, 724; and Macon, 720.

Archery Season

The 92-day archery season of 2006 resulted in yet another record harvest with bowhunters taking 43,524 deer in Missouri. This beats the old record of 37,646 set in 2004, by 5,878 deer. Top counties: St. Louis, with 1,151 deer harvested; Callaway, 966; and Jackson, 964. The fact that St. Louis and Jackson counties, both urban counties, were in the top three in archery harvest, shows that the hard work that urban bowhunters and urban deer biologists/managers are both doing, is paying off in reducing deer numbers in these highly populated deer zones.

Combined Totals

The combined number of deer taken during the urban, youth, November, muzzleloader, and antlerless portions of the firearms deer seasons in 2006 was 280,856. This total

exceeds the previous record of 275,329, set in 2004, by 5,527 deer. When the archery kill of 43,524 deer is added to the mix, Missouri hunters teamed up to reach a new plateau in harvest numbers by taking a record number of 324,380 deer last year!

REGULATIONS

At press time, the MDC had yet to meet regarding deer season regulations. Their first meeting comes in March, followed by subsequent meetings in April and May.

"I don't see any huge changes in regulations at this time," Hansen said. "We do want to carry through with the antler point restriction pilot test through 2007 and go from there."

DEER POPULATION FACTS

With 324,380 deer taken in 2006, is there room for any more records to be broken? The answer seems to be a resounding, yes! Missouri's deer herd is very resilient despite high harvest numbers year upon year.

As stated earlier, the MDC's computer population models estimate the state's deer herd to be slightly over 1 million animals -- 1.3 million to be exact. Each autumn, before the deer seasons begin, about 40 percent of that population is male, including button bucks. In all, about 40 percent of our deer are fawns, deer that are six-months old, each fall hunting season.

The MDC has a computer population model built for every county that gives the agency its best guesstimate on how many deer there are in that county, given the number of deer taken in a season, reproductive rates, and how many deer died.

"In our population models, in order to have a stabilized deer population (one that isn't increasing or decreasing), we need to have about 23 percent of our does die each year, and 15 to 20 percent of that must come from hunting," Hansen said. "From a buck standpoint, it doesn't matter. We could kill a high number of bucks because all of the bucks left would breed does."

The key to maintaining our deer population doesn't really relate to how many bucks versus does we kill, but rather how many deer we have to begin with. There's no reason to believe that we couldn't have another record-breaking deer season sometime soon.

"The 2007 deer seasons ought to be good," Hansen predicted. "We had a great harvest in 2006, and I doubt that we will beat that this year. But I really do expect it to be a great year."

Find more about Missouri fishing and hunting at: MissouriGameandFish.com

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