This month we take a special look at the Show-Me State's herd, and at what hunters can expect from the whitetails this winter. (July 2006)
You've heard hunters talking about the vast numbers of wildlife they saw while hunting in seasons past and how easy it was to fill a limit back in yesteryear. Those good ol' days bring back many good memories for most of us old timers. While those fond thoughts of seasons past might apply to rabbits, quail and other species, it does not apply to whitetails. The "good ol' days" are right now when it comes to deer hunting in Missouri.
With an estimated fall population of just over one million deer in Missouri, hunters today are experiencing the best times of their hunting lives when it comes to seeing and harvesting numbers of deer. When I cut my teeth as a young deer hunter in the early 1970s, you could spend all nine days of the firearms season in the woods and be lucky to see a few deer. Today, it's not uncommon for hunters to see five to 25 deer or more per day depending on what part of the state they are hunting.
Whether they know it or not, Missouri deer hunters are also experiencing history in the making when it comes to deer management in the Show-Me State. Major changes have taken place that will dramatically affect deer hunting as we know it today.
Sometimes you have to take a step back and look at the past before you can get a clear look at the future. Read on to learn a little about Missouri's deer management history, today's history-making management changes, and more about our state's deer herd.
DEER MANAGEMENT THEN AND NOW
For years, the Missouri Department of Conservation (MDC) managed the whitetail deer herd in the Show-Me State for quantity of deer not quality, and for good reason. As recently as 50 years ago, there weren't many deer anywhere in Missouri and the MDC had to manage the herd to multiply in numbers. This was done by first closing deer season all together and eventually limiting the number of does harvested.
When I first began deer hunting in 1972, the first seven days of the firearms season was bucks only. The final two days of the season were for any deer. Protecting does means more fawns and more fawns mean more deer the following season.
The MDC's plan to increase the Show-Me State's deer population was a resounding success. Missouri's deer numbers soared from 15,000 deer statewide in 1944 to over one million today! Folks in the Show-Me State hit about 9,000 deer each year with their automobiles, which is more than hunters tagged during the entire firearms season back in the early days of modern deer hunting in Missouri.
With high numbers of deer/vehicle collisions and agricultural/residential crop and plant damage by deer, the MDC had to start reducing deer numbers in certain parts of the state, namely the agricultural areas north of the Missouri River and in major metropolitan areas.
HISTORY IN THE MAKING
In 2003, the MDC first announced the initial shift in management goals from unregulated buck harvest and restricted doe harvest to regulated buck harvest and increased doe harvest where needed. These changes are intended to produce a more balanced deer herd sex ratio and age structure, increase hunter satisfaction with deer management, and overall public acceptance of deer.
In 1996, the January Extension, now known as the antlerless portion of the firearms deer season in December, was first initiated to reduce antlerless deer numbers primarily in north Missouri. In 2003, the state's first urban portion of the firearms season was created to increase the harvest of does and reduce deer numbers in and around metropolitan regions.
Although these newly created seasons and others, including the youth portion of the firearms deer season, and other liberalizations like the extended archery, muzzleloader and firearms hunting seasons, did increase statewide combined deer harvest totals to over 300,000 deer in 2004, Missouri's deer numbers continue to flourish. Thus, another deer management effort was launched -- antler point restrictions in select counties.
ANTLER POINT RESTRICTIONS
In 2004, the MDC launched its first ever attempt to manage for trophy bucks, aka quality deer. This pilot antler point restriction effort was limited to 29 counties, including Adair, Andrew, Atchison, Boone, Chariton, Cole, Daviess, DeKalb, Franklin, Gasconade, Gentry, Grundy, Harrison, Holt, Howard, Linn, Livingston, Macon, Maries, Mercer, Miller, Nodaway, Osage, Pulaski, Putnam, Randolph, Schuyler, Sullivan and Worth.
Hunters in these counties have been restricted to shooting bucks with at least 4 antler points on one side of their rack. This applies to all types of deer hunting except for the two-day youth portion of the firearms deer season. This management practice was launched to increase the harvest of does and allow 1.5-year-old bucks to live to see another year of antler development.
These pilot regulations are currently being evaluated and will continue to be monitored for an additional three years. After two full years in the program, the MDC has accumulated some interesting data.
Lonnie Hansen is the Missouri Department of Conservation's wildlife biologist primarily in charge of Missouri's deer herd. He was happy to share his knowledge of the Show-Me State's deer management with Missouri Game & Fish.
"We've seen the number of 2.5-year-old bucks harvested in these 29 antler point restriction counties increase by 20 percent from the first year of the study," Hansen said. "It appears that some of the 1.5-year-old bucks we protected in 2004 were taken as 2.5-year-olds in 2005."
The MDC also noted that in 2005, the total antlered deer harvest was up 13 percent in the 29-county pilot region. However, one thing the MDC didn't count on is the high number of does being harvested in some portions of the test area. Although increased doe harvest was a major goal of this program, especially in the northern counties, there was a noticeable increase in antlerless deer harvest in the central counties where an overharvest of does was certainly not intended.
Areas affected by the high antlerless deer harvest include those in the pilot region south of the Missouri River in and around Gasconade and Osage counties.
"Although the doe harvest in 2005 in these areas was down from 2004, the doe kill was still higher than that of 2003, before the antler restrictions began," Hansen said. "We do have some concerns about taking too many does in those central counties in the antler restriction program and we are continuing to monitor the situation."
With some success and some concerns over the
antler point restrictions, at press time, the MDC is currently considering expanding the program to 15 additional counties in southern Missouri. Counties being considered are Ste. Genevieve, Perry, Madison, Wayne, Bollinger, Cape Girardeau, Scott and Stoddard in the southeast region of the state and Bates, Henry, Benton, Hickory, St. Clair, Vernon and Cedar counties in west-central Missouri.
In some of the proposed counties in the southeast region of the state, the deer population is somewhat sparse. If hunters were required to pass on 1.5-year-old bucks, more than likely they would turn their attention to shooting antlerless deer instead. More does being shot mean less deer, period. This is not something that hunters in counties already stressed with low deer densities are in favor of. Keep in mind that these additional 15 counties are on a proposed-only basis at this time.
"So far, Wayne and Bollinger county residents aren't very much in favor of the idea of antler point restrictions," Hansen said. "We might throw out some of these counties or add some additional ones, or we may not even test the southeast region at this time depending on overall public opinion."
If you like seeing plenty of deer and the size of a buck's antlers means nothing to you, then you are probably not in favor of the MDC expanding the antler point restriction areas any further. However, if you don't mind seeing fewer numbers of deer overall while hunting and would rather see larger antlered deer more frequently, then you are probably in favor of antler point restrictions. Such management practices lead to lesser numbers of deer overall as doe harvest increases. However, hunters are likely to see older age-classes of bucks more frequently than in recent years in these areas.
Missourians are blessed with an abundance of public-hunting lands. The MDC owns approximately 1,000 public-use areas that total around 800,000 acres. Of course, with over 400,000 firearms deer hunters taking to the woods on opening weekend, you can imagine that many of these areas receive heavy hunting pressure.
The recent extended and liberalized deer seasons, and the recently created seasons, the antlerless portion of the firearms season in particular, has taken its toll on the deer populations on many of Missouri's public-hunting areas. Hunters from across the state have flocked to these areas in north Missouri in seasons past to take advantage of additional hunting opportunities. The result of this added pressure and harvest has been devastating to deer numbers on those areas.
The MDC took action to reverse this trend by making harvest and regulation changes on many public-use areas beginning in 2005. These changes included allowing only archery or muzzleloading deer-hunting methods on some areas that were open to firearms hunting. In other areas, hunters were prohibited from shooting any antlerless deer at all.
While unpopular for hunters restricted to hunting public land, this measure was necessary to bring back deer numbers to satisfactory levels in these areas.
It's no secret that some of Missouri's biggest bucks come from the suburbs of the state's large metropolitan areas. These bucks grow big because in many instances, hunting in these areas is either limited or prohibited.
Clarkson Valley, a small suburb in St. Louis County, is breaking barriers when it comes to deer management in an urban area. This township recently authorized bowhunting as a legal means to reduce excessively high deer numbers within their city limits. In 2005, archers tagged 81 deer in Clarkson Valley alone.
Overall, the St. Louis and Kansas City regions, the two smallest protection regions in the state, tallied a combined deer harvest of 52,686.
EpizoÖtic Hemorrhagic Disease
EpizoÖtic hemorrhagic disease, commonly referred to as "EHD," has struck Missouri in major proportions in 2005. Hunters in some of the affected counties will definitely note a decrease in deer numbers in 2006 after this major outbreak.
EHD is caused by a virus transmitted by a midge fly from one deer to another. It is very deadly to deer, especially in the Midwest. Once a whitetail contracts the fatal disease, it usually dies within several days. EHD outbreaks occur more frequently during periods of drought like Missourians experienced in 2005.
"Small outbreaks of EHD occurred around and just to the north of Kansas City," Hansen said. "Counties hit the hardest were in the Osage and Gasconade counties region and those southwest from there."
The counties most affected by this latest outbreak of EHD were spread on a diagonal band from Osage County in central Missouri to Greene County in the southwest portion of the state.
"Although I don't believe this outbreak of EHD was as bad as it was in 1988 or 1998, it will have an impact on next year's deer season for some hunters," Hansen said. "I believe that in most instances, though, high mortality from EHD was experienced in restricted locales within these counties."
At press time, Hansen doesn't believe the deer death toll from EHD will affect management decisions in these areas, but also said that he couldn't say for sure.
Chronic Wasting Disease
The final round of testing for chronic wasting disease (CWD) found no signs of the deadly deer disease in Missouri. After some 22,000 tests completed in 2004, Missouri is still officially CWD free.
"This doesn't necessarily mean we don't have it, it just means we haven't found it yet," Hansen said. "CWD is still a concern of ours."
A case of CWD was recently reported in Kansas, Missouri's neighboring state to the west. Two other border states, Illinois and Nebraska, have also produced deer that tested positive for the disease.
"We're fortunate that these cases of CWD in our neighboring states were all found in the outer perimeters of these states, still a good distance from Missouri," Hansen said. "Hopefully, CWD will not be an issue we will have to deal with any time soon."
WHERE TO GO IN 2006
The best place to go deer hunting in Missouri in 2006 depends quite a bit on what you want to achieve on your hunt. If you're looking for bucks of older age-classes, then the 29 counties that have been in the antler point restriction program for going on three years is the place to look for your big antlered buck. If you're looking to see numbers of deer, anywhere north of the Missouri River, central Missouri or in the prairie counties of west-central Missouri are your best bets. Also, don't overlook the urban reaches of St. Louis and Kansas City for good deer numbers and big antlered bucks. However, gaining access to these urban areas is often the most difficult part of hunting them.
When it comes right down to it, the question of what the best deer hunting venue in Missouri might be is a relative one. Realistically, the best place to go is wherever you h
ave permission to go. For some, this might be public land, for others a prime lease. For all of us, it should be wherever we can spend quality time with our friends and family members enjoying God's great outdoors. Filling tags is just icing on the cake.
(Editor's Note: The author is editor of Missouri Deer Hunter Magazine. Reach him for comments by visiting www.modeerhunter.com.)
Find more about Missouri fishing and hunting at: MissouriGameandFish.com