Missouri Whitetails: Scouting The Future

Missouri Whitetails: Scouting The Future

Missouri's whitetail herd comprises more than 1 million animals, so Show-Me State deer management is hardly an exact science. What exactly, then, lies in store for our state's deer hunters this season? (July 2008)

The MDC might move November's portion of the firearms season one week later in the same month to take pressure off bucks during the peak of the rut.
Photo by BillKinney.com.

Missouri is blessed with an estimated 1.3 million whitetails and supports an annual harvest of more than 300,000 deer. Sprawling urban communities, deer/vehicle collisions, damage to crops, deer diseases and an aging population of deer hunters are some of the factors influencing the way the Missouri Department of Conservation is managing our herd.

"I think our deer herd is in overall excellent condition," said MDC resource scientist Lonnie Hansen. "In some parts of the state, we have declining numbers of deer, while in others we have slightly increasing numbers." He added that the Show-Me State's hotspots and not-so-hot spots for deer numbers will always be with us, given the high percentage of land in private ownership.

Missouri is in what could be thought of as a test period for new and challenging changes in regulations, all aimed at decreasing doe numbers and increasing hunter numbers. That last is especially critical, because overall, deer hunters are graying in Missouri, and as their numbers are projected to fall in the future, harvest numbers are likely to decrease, too. Harvest data show that hunters in Missouri's older age-brackets are less likely to shoot any deer at all, which could further depress harvest.

The MDC is taking preventative measures now to offset these trends and to ensure that the state doesn't suffer from overpopulation by whitetails. How? By reducing current deer numbers through a variety of possible management practices aimed at increasing doe harvests. The only sure way to control deer numbers is to harvest female deer, since it takes just a small number of bucks to breed with does to sustain or increase the population. Harvesting does is the most effective way to prevent herd growth or reduce deer numbers when and where necessary.

At press time, the MDC was hosting 16 public forums across Missouri to obtain hunters' opinion on several changes in regulations. Among those under consideration are: continuing or expanding the 29-county antler point restriction program; moving the antlerless portion of firearms deer season into October; pushing the November portion of firearms deer season one week later in the month; and moving the muzzleloader season into late December. Public input will weigh heavily in the MDC's final decision on what to do.

"The final decision about changes to deer hunting regulations will be made by the (MDC) based on citizen preferences collected at these meetings and mail survey and scientific data," Hansen stated.

The MDC implemented a three-year pilot antler-point restriction program in 29 counties in 2005. The restriction allows hunters to harvest bucks with at least 4 antler points on one side of the rack. The goal: to shift the deer harvest from bucks to does and, as a byproduct, allow bucks to reach older age-classes.

The 29 counties involved in this pilot program are divided by the Missouri River. Counties north of the river: Atchison, Holt, Nodaway, Andrew, Worth, Gentry, DeKalb, Harrison, Daviess, Mercer, Grundy, Livingston, Putnam, Sullivan, Linn, Chariton, Schuyler, Adair, Macon, Randolph, Howard and Boone. Southern-tier counties: Cole, Miller, Pulaski, Osage, Maries, Gasconade and Franklin.

The 2007 firearms and archery deer seasons were the last seasons in the pilot program. The MDC is now reviewing whether to continue with these limitations in just the original counties or to expand the regulation into additional counties.

The three-year study's trial methods proved partially successful in meeting MDC goals. In the northern tier of counties under the antler restrictions, doe harvests didn't increase. In the central group of counties, a 13 percent increase in doe harvests was seen. Harvests of adult bucks -- those 2 1/2 years old and older -- in both northern- and central-tier counties in the antler-point restriction zones have increased by 20 percent.

The antler-point restrictions don't apply to the special two-day youth firearms deer season. However, concerns have been voiced that this restriction could turn youngsters away from the tradition of deer hunting in Missouri by preventing them from pulling the trigger on any antlered deer. Other naysayers of the antler-point restriction have suggested that the MDC shouldn't regulate which bucks will be legal for shooting on private property.

The issue is indeed a hot topic among deer hunters in Missouri. However, MDC surveys from 2006 show an overall interest in more broadly implementing the antler-point regs. Statewide, 57 percent of hunters surveyed agreed with the restrictions, while 22 percent disagreed; the remainder had no opinion.

The antlerless portion of the firearms deer season is open in 73 Missouri counties to hunters who have a firearms deer-hunting permit of any type (except a managed deer hunting permit). Hunters may take as many antlerless deer as they wish in these 73 counties as long as they have a valid firearms permit for them.

The antlerless hunt has taken place in December in recent years; 2007's season dates were Dec. 8-16. However, the MDC is considering moving this season into October as another way to shift pressure from bucks to does. "Based on what I've seen happen in other states, moving the antlerless portion of the season into October could increase our doe harvest," Hansen said.

Concerns about this regulation stem from fears that it might interfere with both the traditional archery deer season and the fall firearms turkey season. Archery deer and firearms turkey hunters would also likely be required to wear hunter orange during this proposed experimental season. Another worry: Unscrupulous hunters might use the October antlerless season as an excuse to be in the woods with a firearm to shoot a trophy buck.

The MDC is also considering moving the November portion of the firearms deer season one week later into November in an effort to take pressure off bucks and increase it on does. This shift would cause the season to run through the Thanksgiving holiday.

"Right now the November portion of the firearms deer season begins at the start of the rut, and we kill about half of our antlered deer population before they h

ave a chance to breed," Hansen said. "By moving the season a week later, the bucks may be a little less vulnerable."

One objection to this innovation foresees conflicts with traditional family or other gatherings at Thanksgiving. Another possible problem: hunters might encounter fewer bucks.

The MDC is also looking at moving the state's muzzleloader season into late December, the object being to allow the deer to get back into their normal patterns after being bombarded by hunters during the November portion of the firearms season and other previous deer seasons. In 2007, the muzzleloader season began on Nov. 23, just after the November portion of the firearms season closed on Nov. 20.

Some wonder if this late December muzzleloader hunt might result in those bucks that might already have lost their antlers being mistaken for does.

As stated earlier, the MDC estimates the statewide deer herd to be somewhere around 1.3 million whitetails. This number has increased from previous estimates of 1 million animals owing to a change in the MDC's method of population modeling from a management-unit basis to a county-by-county basis.

According to Hansen, northern Missouri deer numbers are slowly decreasing while the low-density deer region of the southeast Ozarks is experiencing a slight uptick in deer numbers. The western and central regions of the state have remained fairly stable in terms of deer numbers, although they too experience ups and downs.

Concerns over declining numbers of deer in southwest Missouri have recently surfaced, and the MDC currently is weighing various options for reducing deer harvests in this region. A final decision on this change hadn't been made as of press time.

A misconception among many Missourians: We have a highly skewed doe-to-buck ratio, in the area of 10:1 -- 10 does for every antlered deer.

"It's biologically impossible for us to have 10 does for every antlered deer," Hansen said. "We would have to literally experience no reproduction for that to occur. We have an influx of too many button bucks each year for that to happen."

That's good news for Missouri deer hunters. Currently, our ratio is approximately four antlerless deer for each antlered deer. Perhaps even better news is that the doe:buck breakdown each autumn before the hunting seasons begin is about 58 percent female deer to 42 percent male.

"Each fall we shoot about 50 percent of our bucks," Hansen said, "and about 15 to 20 percent of our does, which maintains a stable population. We can't kill enough bucks to change the reproductive rate."

Perhaps the biggest challenge facing Missouri's wildlife biologists is that of urban deer populations. Many urban areas have city regulations that prohibit of firing single projectiles -- arrow or bullet -- within the municipal limits. Prohibiting the firing of single projectiles disallows the most viable means of controlling the overabundant deer populations in many of these urban settings: hunting.

The MDC does a good job of working with communities to negotiate exceptions to such ordinances so hunters can help reduce deer numbers -- but it's difficult at best to obtain community approval of such measures.

Recent attempts at trapping and relocating deer from the St. Louis region failed. Contraception is another possibility for controlling urban deer populations, but isn't a financially viable means of reducing the deer numbers. The only options left are sharpshooting and trapping for euthanization, both of which may become more prevalent in the management of urban deer populations. Many citizens in these communities simply don't want to see a deer killed in any way, which limits the MDC's options for addressing overpopulation by deer in these areas.

Two major deer disorders currently concern the MDC: epizoÖtic hemorrhagic disease and chronic wasting disease, both deadly to whitetails.

EHD is spread by the mosquitolike midge fly, which thrives on muddy banks in the low water common during droughts. An infected fly bites a deer and transmits the pathogen. As deer frequent these water sources during dry periods, infectious bites from midge flies increase the prevalence of EHD. A deer bitten by an infected fly will start hemorrhaging internally and can die as quickly as eight hours after infection.

The drought of 2007 brought on the most severe outbreak of EHD ever recorded in Missouri. Some counties reported large numbers of dead deer that succumbed to the devastating illness. Lincoln County reported more than 400 deer killed by EHD, the most ever recorded in a Missouri county. Other hard-hit counties included Pike, St. Charles, Lewis, Howard, Boone, Crawford, Gasconade, Osage, Phelps, Daviess and Grundy. Statewide EHD mortality wasn't available at press time.

"This (was) the widest outbreak of EHD I've ever seen," said Hansen. "So many deer died from the disease that it may eventually influence the way we manage the deer in those counties hit hardest."

No meaningful method of protecting the state's deer herd from EHD exists, as the disorder is associated with uncontrollable drought conditions.

CWD, a member of the group of maladies called "transmissible spongiform encephalopathies," causes degeneration of a deer's brain. While the disease agent is known -- a rogue protein structure called a "prion" -- the means of transmission is currently a mystery, though some experts believe that it could be spread through animal-to-animal contact or through animals congregating at food or water sources. In the period 2002-04, the MDC tested more than 22,000 deer in all 114 counties across Missouri and found no evidence of CWD.

CWD could come into Missouri through the natural movement of wild deer and elk or by the interstate shipping of hunter-harvested or captive whitetail deer, mule deer or elk.

With the help of cooperating taxidermists, the MDC is once again stepping up efforts to monitor Missouri's deer herd for this devastating disease. The taxidermists collect a lymph node out of an adult buck's neck and place it in a vial provided by the MDC, which then ships it off to be analyzed and tested for CWD. This first round of testing took place in 2007 in the northern third of the state. In 2008, the central portion of the state will be tested and in 2009, the southern portion will be monitored for CWD.

The MDC is working to monitor captive deer and elk transported to Missouri game farms from other states. Animals entering Missouri must be certified as originating from a CWD-free zone.

If you see any deer that seems to be sick, emaciated, staggering or drooling, or that is inappropriately unafraid of humans, it could be a victim of one of the two diseases. Report any such sightings to the MDC immediately at (573) 882-9880.

In an effort to recruit more young hunters as an offset against the projected decrease of hunters from the "baby boomer" generation, the conservation commission approved the Apprentice Hunter Authorization. For $10, an adult novice hunter can buy an AHA, which would allow the purchase of firearms hunting permits without having to take the state's hunter education course. To be able to participate as an apprentice hunter and buy an AHA, hunters must be 16 years old or older and must hunt in the immediate presence of a properly licensed hunter 21 years old or older who is hunter education-certified. The apprentice's mentor must also have a filled or unfilled permit for the prescribed hunting season.

The AHA allows the apprentice to purchase firearms hunting permits for various seasons throughout the year. The AHA may be purchased for two consecutive permit years. After the second year, the apprentice hunter is required to become hunter education-certified to be able to continue to hunt game with a firearm.

The MDC is also developing an online hunter workshop to improve the convenience of hunter education; it should be available by the start of the 2008 season.

The MDC is trying to find the happy medium among hunters, landowners, farmers and commuters. While deer hunters never think that enough deer roam the woods, other parties disagree. Landowners and farmers who lose crops and ornamental plants to browsing deer believe that deer are too many, as do commuters who've collided with one. Nor are insurance companies happy about the number of claims they have to pay out for deer collisions and crop damage.

As the future management of Missouri's deer herd is aimed at reducing doe numbers, hunters can probably expect to see fewer deer in the future.

My dad always said, "You can't please half the people all the time, or all the people half the time." Only time will tell who's most -- and least -- pleased with Missouri's deer management policies as we make our way though this 21st century.

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

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