In analyzing the white-tailed deer herd in the Magnolia State, many wonder whether the "glass is half-full or half-empty," because when it comes to the state's deer population, the tendency for people to see the same situation in different ways has never been more prevalent.
An optimist says the glass is half-full, while a pessimist says the glass is half-empty. A realist says the glass contains half the required amount of liquid for it to overflow, but a cynic wonders who drank the other half.
Even discussions with biologists across the state show that concerns and opinions are as varied as individuals. However, every biologist shared one concern: the importance and need to implement a white-tailed deer reporting/tagging system for the Magnolia State. Without the data that a reporting system provides, state biologists are left to extrapolate the numbers from the Deer Management Assistance Program (DMAP) and wildlife management areas to come up with their best guesses as to the current condition of the state's deer herd in order to make recommendations.
Now harvest estimates for last season appear to be lower and on a declining trend when compared to the previous season; there is no doubt that hunters saw and harvested fewer deer last season. However, the reasons for this decline are up for debate.
Kamen Campbell, MDWFP South Region Private Lands biologist, attributes the estimated reduced harvest to a number of factors. An exceptional mast crop combined with rampant supplemental feeding and poor food plot production from a late drought resulted in decreased deer movement during daylight hours. If deer movement during legal shooting hours is reduced, then obviously harvest numbers would also decrease. This reasoning explains that just because hunters are seeing and harvesting fewer deer, it doesn't automatically indicate a marked decline in the population.
While there is no evidence to indicate a statewide decline in the deer population, there is one particular area that may have seen an overharvest in recent years due to its low quality habitat. When overharvest occurs in good quality habitat, deer respond with an increase in reproduction and survival rates. However, deer herds on lower quality soils don't have that capability without intense habitat management.
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In the Southeast Region, very few landowners practice habitat management at a level adequate enough to overcome this shortfall. The potential of overharvest combined with poor habitat, an already expanded coyote population and a rapidly growing wild pig population only compounds the problems in the area.
"Mississippi currently does not have the necessary data to confirm a decline in deer numbers," said Dr. Steve Demarais, Professor of Wildlife Ecology and Management at Mississippi State University. "And we will not be able to do so until we get a mandatory tagging/reporting program in place."
But inadequate data collection is not the only obstacle facing those tasked with managing Mississippi's deer herd. According to MDWFP biologists, there are a number of issues that continue to impact the Magnolia deer herd and ultimately their ability to achieve the goals of the department. Wild pigs continue to be a problematic issue, with MSU Research shows that up to 50 percent of the diet of the wild pig overlaps that of white-tailed deer. And with the continued explosion of the wild pig population across the state, competition for food is certain to cause even more problems.
Another issue, which is partially tied to the wild pig epidemic, is habitat damage from chronic long-term overpopulation. This degraded habitat results in a lower carrying capacity, which leads to both smaller and fewer deer over time.
Widespread supplemental feeding and baiting will continue to be a challenge. Although research has proven that supplemental feeding limits deer movement, many deer hunters continue to feed. Hunters simply need to be aware that if they choose to feed they can expect to see fewer deer as a consequence, and that doesn't take into account the issue of diseases spread from deer congregating around feeders.
With a dozen or more cases of Lacey Act violations in recent years, another issue with which to be concerned is the serious threat of diseases being introduced from illegal importation and escapes of both whitetails and exotics from high-fence enclosures. Chronic wasting disease (CWD), bovine tuberculosis (BT) and brucellosis are just a few of the diseases that can dramatically affect deer in the Magnolia State.
"CWD is not here yet, but if it gets here, it will be a huge management concern," said Demarais. "The transportation prohibition on cervid carcasses was implemented specifically to combat CWD from entering Mississippi."
Currently, CWD is confirmed in captive and/or free-ranging deer or elk in 24 states and three provinces. Those totals include 75 captive herds in 16 states, and free-ranging deer or elk in 22 states. The introduction of this disease into Mississippi could have devastating effects on the sport of deer hunting for years to come.
So far, Mississippi has been fortunate to dodge the CWD bullet, but for how long? According to Campbell, MDWFP has increased road kill surveys to monitor for CWD and implemented carcass importation regulations in response to CWD being identified in Arkansas. Biologists tested 150 road-killed whitetails last year, and set a goal of testing 500 this year. Fortunately, all the deer tested came back negative.
Epizootic hemorrhagic disease (EHD), or bluetongue virus, is another disease that is an annual occurrence in the deer herd. Some mortality from this disease occurs in Mississippi every year. But according to Demarais, bluetongue is a normal part of deer population dynamics in the South. There are several serotypes or varieties of this virus and mortality rates generally increase in all regions when a variety recirculates or a new one arrives. However, mortality rates typically are less than 15 percent in Mississippi, where deer have been exposed for decades. Since bluetongue is a normal part of deer biology, it is not a management concern in the Magnolia State at this point.
Now it is obvious from the estimated harvest data that hunter opportunity alone will not guarantee an exceptional hunting season this year. There are numerous factors that will determine whether the 2017-2018 deer season will be a success or disappointment. However, most of these factors (like winter temperatures, mast production and precipitation) are beyond control. Cold winters and mast crop failures can increase deer movement as deer search for food. Conversely, abundant mast crops and warm winters can keep deer in the woods and decrease movement. Finally, food plots and native browse production are heavily dependent upon adequate rainfall. If we are fortunate to have all these factors come together, as we hope they will, then we can expect a very productive deer season. Only time will tell.
Deer Carcass Importation Ban
Mississippians traveling out of state to hunt big game this fall need to be aware of a rule implemented in May 2016 affecting the transport of their trophy. The Commission on Wildlife, Fisheries, and Parks passed 40 Miss. Admin Code, Part 2, Rule 2.7 — Prohibition on Cervid Carcass Importation, To Protect Mississippi From Chronic Wasting Disease.
Chronic Wasting Disease (CWD) is a fatal neurological disease that affects cervids and has been found in 24 states and three foreign countries. A cervid is a member of the deer family and includes white-tailed deer, mule deer, elk, moose, caribou, red deer, sika deer and fallow deer.
Rule 2.7 states that it is unlawful to import, transport or possess any portion of a cervid carcass originating from any state, territory or foreign country where the occurrence of CWD has been confirmed by either the state wildlife agency, state agriculture agency, state veterinarian, United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) Animal Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) or the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA).
This rule shall not apply to the importation of:
* Meat from cervids that has been completely deboned.
* Antlers, antlers attached to cleaned skull plates or cleaned skulls where no tissue is attached to the skull.
* Cleaned teeth.
* Finished taxidermy and antler products.
* Hides and tanned products.
* Any portions of white-tailed deer originating from the land between the Mississippi River levees in Arkansas.