There is an old saying that history is the best predictor of the future. And when that theory is applied to hunting whitetails in Mississippi, no statement could be truer. Hunters that spend the extra time acquiring a thorough knowledge of the whitetails that call the Magnolia State home are destined to dramatically improve their chances of putting fresh venison in the freezer this fall.
By examining the data collected from the last couple of seasons, hunters can get a pretty good indication of what awaits in the 2015-2016 deer season.
And based upon the reports from the biologists that make up the Deer Program staff at the Mississippi Department of Wildlife, Fisheries and Parks, the outlook continues to look bright for Magnolia State hunters.
The opportunity for hunters to harvest multiple white-tailed deer is readily available throughout the Magnolia State. According to the Quality Deer Management Association's Deer Density Map, Mississippi has more deer per square mile than any other state in the nation.
Most of the Magnolia State (especially the lower Delta, much of southwest Mississippi, the Black Prairie and several areas in northwest Mississippi) has a deer density greater than 45 deer per square mile.
Only southeast Mississippi, along with a few other pockets scattered across the state, fall into the deer density category of having less than 15 deer per square mile. Most of the state falls between 30 to 40 deer per square mile. However, the extremely high deer population of the state, estimated at close to 2 million animals, is both a curse and a blessing. While hunters favor the increased odds of seeing and scoring on more deer, severe overpopulation is of great concern to biologists and deer managers statewide.
"We would like to see the state's deer population reduced or maintained at current levels, depending on the particular area of the state," said Lann Wilf, MDWF&P Deer Program Coordinator. "Many of the problems associated with overpopulation are habitat related. In some areas of the state, there have been too many deer for so long that they have destroyed the habitat."
According to Wilf, in certain areas, such as east-central and southeast Mississippi, where there are issues with fawn recruitment or lower fertility soils, the deer herd does not need to be reduced. However, other areas, including the lower Delta and much of southwest Mississippi, continue to have excessive numbers of whitetails and certainly need the numbers reduced.
But that is a blanket statement, since harvest numbers are very property specific in every area of the state. When it comes to deer harvest numbers on a particular property, there is no one size fits all in the Magnolia State.
"The MDWF&P Deer Program's goal is to provide a quality white-tailed deer population statewide and offer maximum outdoor recreational opportunity to the public without negatively affecting the resource," explained Wilf. "And that can be a very fine line to draw at times."
While that sounds like a fairly simple task to accomplish, achieving this goal is a much more formidable undertaking than many might think. At present, the staff of the MDWF&P Deer Program consists of three regional deer biologists and one enclosure biologist.
Along with the assistance of other MDWF&P biologists, the Deer Program biologists provide deer-related technical guidance to managers on private and public lands, conduct seminars, speak publicly, write articles for professional publications, conduct statewide disease surveillance and assist Mississippi State University with deer research projects.
The core of the MDWF&P Deer Program is the Deer Management Assistance Program, better known as DMAP. This comprehensive deer management program combines data collection and cooperator education in an effort to put landowners/cooperators in the best possible position to manage their lands for a healthy deer herd, while at the same time maintaining the integrity of the habitat.
The data collected through DMAP is integral in developing site-specific harvest recommendations, and has prompted numerous research projects to better understand deer biology and help the Deer Program achieve its goals. Each year, more than 600 cooperators managing over 2 1/2 million acres in Mississippi voluntarily participate in DMAP.
In all, around 150,000 hunters are expected to hit the Mississippi deer woods during the 2015-2016 season. And with such high numbers, many would expect competition to be fierce, especially on public lands in a state the size of Mississippi. However, there is little need to worry. Deer hunters in Mississippi have a total of 138 days (Oct. 1, 2015 — Feb. 15, 2016) to accomplish the task at hand, if hunters take advantage of the various methods and deer zones available.
With extremely liberal hunting seasons and bag limits, excessive deer numbers in many areas of the state and more than 20 million acres of prime deer habitat, success rates should be through the roof. However, the average harvest rate for the 2014-2015 season was estimated at 1.8 deer per hunter.
Even more amazingly, these same statistics revealed that only 66 percent of hunters in the Magnolia State successfully harvested a deer last season. And one factor that has caused concern for deer biologists across the state is that the harvest numbers and rates have been fairly stagnant over the last few seasons.
It would not be surprising to see the deer harvest numbers in the Magnolia State to start declining next season due to misconceptions by deer hunters and land managers alike.
The term "overpopulated" may be the most misunderstood word in the vocabulary of deer management. Many deer hunters and land managers have the perception that simply because they are not "seeing" deer while on the stand that the herd numbers must be lower than estimated.
In response to seeing fewer deer and concluding that they have harvested too many, hunters start reducing or completely stop harvesting antlerless deer. More often than not, their conclusion is incorrect. Increasing hunting pressure from a four-month long season and rampant supplemental feeding taking place statewide has been proven by research to cause whitetails to go almost completely nocturnal.
That is why it is so important to follow the recommendations of a trained deer biologist when altering harvest rates. Otherwise hunters may be doing the exact opposite of what needs to be done to maintain a healthy deer herd.
According to the MDWF&P Deer Program biologists, there are a number of issues that are currently affecting or could impact the Magnolia State deer herd and ultimately the ability to achieve the goals of the department. Near the top of the list is the need to change the hunter mentality of basing everything on antler score.
Hunters need to remember that the basic reason for hunting shouldn't be to harvest a buck with the largest antlers, but rather for the pure unadulterated enjoyment of the hunt itself.
Wild pigs continue to be an issue for the whitetail herd as well. 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 in Mississippi, competition for food is certain to cause even more problems for the deer population.
Another important issue facing the deer herd is the long-term habitat damage from chronic overpopulation. The degraded habitat results in a lower carrying capacity, which leads to smaller deer and fewer deer over time.
Widespread supplemental feeding will continue to be a challenge. Although research has proven that supplemental feeding limits deer movement, many continue to feed. Hunters simply need to be aware that if they choose to feed they can expect to see fewer deer.
And last, but certainly not least, of the issues 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 and Brucellosis are just a few of the diseases biologists are concerned about.
It is quite obvious from the harvest data that hunter opportunity alone will not guarantee an exceptional hunting season this year. There are a number of factors that come into play in determining whether this season will be a boom or a bust. And many of these factors are beyond winter temperatures, mast production and precipitation. Cold winters result in increased deer movement. Mast crop failures can also increase deer movement as deer search for food, whereas abundant mast crops can keep deer in the woods and decrease movement.
Finally, food plots and native browse production is heavily dependent upon adequate rainfall. If all these factors come together as they should, then hunters can expect a very productive deer season. If not, hunters are in for some long, boring days on the deer stand.
While not everyone has access to private property, there is an abundance of prime deer habitat available for public hunting. Mississippi offers sportsmen more than 2 million acres of wildlife habitat for public hunting within 47 wildlife management areas, 11 national wildlife refuges and six national forests, stretching from the upper edge of the coastal marshes on the Gulf Coast to the lower reaches of the Appalachian foothills in Tishomingo County. Some additional lands owned by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers are also available for public hunting.
Although any of these resources offer ample opportunities for deer hunting success, the state-operated WMAs would be the best bet. The MDWF&P has done an excellent job in collecting deer harvest data for WMAs. This data is available in the Annual Deer Program Report, which can be found www.mdwfp.com. This information can prove invaluable when selecting one of the three deer hunting zones or a WMA to hunt in Mississippi.
According to the MDWF&P Deer Program biologists, expectations for deer harvest in the Delta Zone are expected to be really good this season. The Delta Zone experienced an exceptionally good fawn crop over the last few years, which coincided with below average harvest numbers from excellent mast crops and fewer deer sightings. The numbers in the Delta Zone should be extremely high this season, especially when it comes to deer in the 3 1/2- and 4 1/2-year-old categories. Barring something unexpected, the Delta should see the highest deer harvest rates of the three deer hunting zones in the Magnolia State.
The Hill Zone is the largest of the state's three hunting zones and the most diverse of the trio. There are exceptional numbers of deer found in the counties in the northwest portion of this zone — the Black Prairie Region, the Big Black River corridor and most of the counties in the southwest portion of this zone as well. The exception are the counties in the southwest portion of the Hill Zone that are adjacent to the expansive Homochitto National Forest.
The numbers in and around the Homochitto National Forest have suffered from extreme habitat decline as a result of over browsing because of overpopulation problems. As far as the counties in the east-central portion of the Hill Zone, deer numbers are very property specific. Some properties in the central portion of this zone are loaded with deer, while others are left wanting.
As would be expected in the less fertile soils found in this zone, deer numbers in the Southeast Zone simply are nowhere near those seen in the other two hunting zones. While the data shows good numbers in the Northern Pine Belt above Hattiesburg, the portion of the zone to the south is really suffering.
Hunters and managers in this portion of the Southeast Zone need to be careful not to harvest too many deer this season. However, this is one of the very few areas with this problem. Hunters in most of the state can pretty much take what they want.