November 06, 2018
By Cliff Covington
When assessing the status of the white-tailed deer herd in the Magnolia State, the tendency for people to see the same situation in different ways has never been more prevalent. Depending on the specific area of the state, some see the deer herd as thriving while hunters in other locations paint a more dismal picture. Throw in a few disease outbreaks, predator problems, weather and habitat issues, and the range of differing opinions gets even wider.
Even the opinions of deer biologists across the state are as diverse as the individuals. However, there was one common concern shared by every biologist. Each one emphasized the importance and need of implementing a white-tailed deer reporting/tagging system for the Magnolia State.
Without the data that a reporting system provides, biologists are left to extrapolate the numbers from the Deer Management Assistance Program, wildlife management areas and the Annual Telephone Survey to come up with their best estimates as to the current condition of the state’s deer herd and to make recommendations. With an adequate tagging/reporting system in place, deer biologists can make decisions based on real data rather than educated guesses.
Rather than manage the deer herd and adjust season lengths and bag limits by Deer Management Zone, data collected from a deer reporting/tagging system would enable them to make adjustments on a county-by-county basis. For example, the data might indicate a need to increase in the bag limit in one county while reducing the bag limit in another. Accurate data is paramount; because biologists can’t manage something that they can’t measure.
Statewide harvest estimates for last season appear to be higher, with a reversal of the declining trend seen in previous seasons. William McKinley, MDWFP Deer Program coordinator, contributes the estimated increased harvest to a number of factors, including a marginal mast crop combined with a colder and wetter than normal winter with good food plot production, resulting in increased deer movement during daylight hours. If deer movement during legal shooting hours is increased, then obviously deer harvest numbers should also increase. However, just because hunters are seeing and harvesting more deer doesn’t always indicate a marked increase in the population, or vice versa.
While there is no evidence to indicate a statewide reduction in the deer population, there are some localized areas across the state where the herd is declining. One particular area that may have seen an overharvest in recent years due to its poor-quality habitat is southeast Mississippi. 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. And in the Southeast Region, very few landowners practice intense habitat management at levels adequate enough to overcome this shortfall. The potential of overharvest combined with poor habitat and a rapidly growing wild pig population only compounds the problem in the Southeast Region.
Biologists also report localized areas in the southwest part of the state where the deer herd is declining. However, an explosion in the wild pig population, rather than poor habitat quality, seems to be the primary culprit. According to McKinley, deer numbers trend downward in areas where wild pig numbers are on the rise.
Until a viable solution is found, wild pigs will continue to be problematic for the whitetail herd. Research from Mississippi State University shows that up to 50 percent of the diet of wild pigs overlaps that of white-tailed deer. And with the continued explosion of the pig population across the state, competition for food is certain to cause even more problems for the deer herd.
Another factor facing the deer herd, and partially tied to the wild pig epidemic, is the long-term habitat damage from chronic overpopulation. The resulting degraded habitat brings about a lower carrying capacity, which leads to smaller and fewer deer over time.
Widespread supplemental feeding and baiting will also continue to be a tremendous challenge. Despite research proving that supplemental feeding hinders deer movement, many continue to feed. Hunters simply need to understand that if they choose to feed they can expect to see fewer deer. And that doesn’t take into account the very real threat of diseases spread by deer congregating around feeders.
But inadequate data collection, wild pigs, poor habitat and supplemental feeding are not the only obstacles facing Magnolia State’s deer herd. According to MDWFP biologists, there are a number of issues that continue to impact the deer herd and ultimately their ability to achieve the goals of the department.
With a dozen or more cases of Lacey Act violations in recent years, another issue to be concerned about impacting the deer herd 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, bovine tuberculosis and brucellosis are just a few of the diseases to be concerned with in the Magnolia State.
On February 9, 2018, CWD reared its ugly head in Issaquena County in the lower Mississippi Delta. And this was despite warnings from deer biologists and a strict transportation prohibition on cervid carcasses implemented specifically to combat CWD from entering Mississippi. This fatal deer disease is already causing huge management issues for the state, especially in the six counties — Claiborne, Hinds, Issaquena, Sharkey, Warren and Yazoo — included in the CWD Management Zone.
Currently, CWD is confirmed in captive and/or free-ranging deer or elk in 25 states and three provinces. Those totals include 75 captive herds in 16 states, and free-ranging deer or elk in 23 states. The introduction of this disease could possibly have devastating effects on the deer herd and the sport of deer hunting in Mississippi for years to come. The overall impact will depend heavily on how seriously deer hunters in Mississippi respond to the CWD Response Plan.
According to McKinley, MDWFP has increased road kill surveys to monitor for additional cases of CWD and implemented regulations banning feeding/baiting and mineral sites in the six county CWD Management Zone. MDWFP biologists have tested more than 1,500 whitetails, with many more to be tested this year. Fortunately, all the deer that were tested to date came back negative.
Epizootic hemorrhagic disease and bluetongue virus are more diseases that are an annual occurrence in the deer herd. Some mortality from these diseases occurs in Mississippi every year. However, they are a normal part of deer population dynamics here in the South. There are several varieties of this virus and mortality rates generally increase in all regions when a variety recirculates or a new one arrives. Fortunately, mortality rates typically are less than 15 percent in Mississippi, where deer have been exposed for decades. Both are a normal part of deer biology and is not a management concern in the Magnolia State at this point.
As you can easily surmise, there are numerous factors that will determine whether the 2018-2019 deer season will be a boom or a bust. However, most of these factors, such as winter temperatures, mast production and precipitation, are beyond our control. But if the proverbial stars align and all these factors come together, then we can expect a very successful deer season.
CWD Response Plan Basics
Chronic wasting disease is a contagious neurological disease affecting deer, elk and moose. It causes a characteristic spongy degeneration of the brains of infected animals resulting in emaciation, abnormal behavior, loss of bodily functions and death. CWD belongs to a group of diseases known as transmissible spongiform encephalopathies.
Eradication of CWD once it is established is unlikely due to the persistence of prions in the environment. This plan focuses on detection and control of the disease with major efforts focused on containing the disease and monitoring its prevalence within a defined area.
* Once a CWD positive has been confirmed in Mississippi, a CWD Containment Zone, High Risk Zone (HRZ), and Buffer Zone will be developed having sampling areas with a radius of five, 10, and 25 miles, respectively, from the point of detection.
* Ban supplemental feeding of all species in all counties within the buffer zone.
* Target sample size for each zone should be sufficient to detect CWD with 95 percent confidence if the disease exists at a prevalence of at least 1 percent throughout the zone.
* Establish a moratorium of all captive cervid movement into, out of and within Mississippi.
* The CWD Response Team will coordinate the immediate inspection of all captive cervid facilities within the CWD HRZ.
* Hunter harvested deer within the HRZ will be individually tagged and numbered at special CWD check stations.
* CWD surveillance will continue until the sample goal is obtained even if no additional positives are confirmed.
* Carcasses may either be left on site or disposed of by incineration, deep burial or transported to a lined landfill.