According to the Webster dictionary, to prognosticate means to foretell or predict what is coming. While a fortuneteller or palm reader might claim special powers for seeing into the future, its doubtful that either could foretell what lies ahead for the 2016-2017 deer season in the Magnolia State. However, hunters can prognosticate by looking at real evidence and making a reasonable conclusion about how events might unfold.
A pretty good indication of what awaits hunters in the 2016-2017 deer season can be found by examining data collected from the last few seasons. The data, along with the reports from the biologists that make up the Deer Program staff at the Mississippi Department of Wildlife, Fisheries, and Parks, makes it appears that the Magnolia State's hunters are in for another banner year.
The opportunity for hunters to fill all eight "tags" 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 around the state, fall into the deer density category of having less than 15 deer per square mile. The majority of Mississippi falls somewhere between the two. However, the state's extremely high deer population, estimated at nearly 2 million animals, is both a curse and a blessing. While the increased odds of seeing deer is favored by hunters, severe overpopulation in many areas is of great concern to biologists and managers statewide.
"Depending on the particular area of the state, we would like to see the state's deer population reduced or maintained at current levels," said Chad Dacus, MDWFP director of Wildlife. "Currently, the deer numbers are stable statewide. However, we have received an increase in the number of road kill, especially around metropolitan areas."
According to Dacus, in certain areas, such as east-central and southeast Mississippi, where there are issues with fawn recruitment and lower fertility soils, the deer herd does not need to be reduced. Other areas, such as the lower Delta and much of southwest Mississippi, continue to have excessive numbers of whitetails and certainly need higher harvest rates. However, since harvest numbers are very property specific in each area of the state, there is no one size fits all for deer harvest numbers across the Magnolia State.
"The goal of the MDWFP Deer Program is to provide a quality white-tailed deer population statewide and offer maximum outdoor recreational opportunity to the public without negatively affecting the resource," Dacus noted. "And that can be quite challenging at times."
In order to accomplish this task, the MDWFP Deer Program consists of six private land biologists and one enclosure biologist. These Deer Program biologists provide 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 Deer Management Assistance Program, better known as DMAP, is the core of the MDWFP Deer Program. This comprehensive deer management program combines data collection and cooperator education in an effort to put the landowner/cooperator in the best possible position to manage 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, over 600 cooperators managing over 2.5 million acres in Mississippi voluntarily participate in DMAP.
In all, around 150,000 hunters are expected to hit the Mississippi deer woods during the 2016-2017 season. And with such high participation numbers, folks would expect the 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 to accomplish the task at hand, if they take advantage of the various methods and deer zones that are at their disposal.
With extremely liberal hunting seasons and bag limits, excessive deer numbers in many areas of the state, and over 20 million acres of prime deer habitat, one might expect hunter success rates to be through the roof. However, the average harvest rate for the past five seasons was estimated at 1.9 deer per hunter. Even more amazingly, these same statistics revealed that on average only 66 percent of hunters in the Magnolia State successfully harvest a deer each season.
The fact that the harvest numbers and rates have been fairly stagnant over the last few seasons has caused concern for deer biologists across the state. Due to misconceptions about herd numbers versus sightings in the field, it would not be surprising to see the deer harvest numbers in the Magnolia State to start declining this season.
The term "overpopulated" may be the most misunderstood word in the deer hunter's vocabulary. Many hunters and managers strongly believe that if they are not seeing deer from the stand then the herd numbers must be lower than estimated. In response, hunters start reducing or completely stop harvesting antlerless deer. In almost every case, their conclusion is incorrect. Increased hunting pressure from a four-month season, combined with rampant supplemental feeding 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 MDWFP Deer Program biologists, there are a number of issues that continue to impact the Magnolia State deer herd and ultimately the ability to achieve the goals of their department. Wild pigs continue to be a problematic issue for the whitetail herd. Research shows that up to 50 percent of the diet of the wild pig overlaps that of 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, and partially tied to the wild pig epidemic, is the long-term habitat damage from chronic overpopulation. The degraded habitat results in a lower carrying capacity, which leads to both smaller and fewer deer.
Widespread supplemental feeding and baiting also continues 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 that doesn't take into account the issue of diseases spread from deer congregating around feeders.
With a half dozen cases of Lacey Act violations in the past couple of years in Mississippi, another issue that could impact the deer herd is the 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 that could hurt deer in the Magnolia State.
Of course, it is apparent from the harvest data that hunter opportunity alone will not guarantee an exceptional hunting season this year. There are several factors that will dictate whether this deer season will be a boom or a bust. Unfortunately, many of these factors, such as 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 keep deer in the woods and decrease movement. And finally, food plots and native browse production are heavily dependent upon adequate rainfall. If these factors come together, then hunters can expect a very productive deer season. If not, the season could be tough.
Of course, not everyone has access to private property, but Mississippi has more than 2 million acres of public land in 49 WMAs, 11 national wildlife refuges and six national forests. 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 opportunity for success, the state-operated WMAs would be the best bet. The MDWFP has done an excellent job in collecting deer harvest data for each of the WMAs. This data is available in the Annual Deer Program Report, which can be found at www.mdwfp.com, to help hunters determine where to go hunting.
According to the MDWFP Deer Program biologists, expectations for deer harvest in the Delta Zone are expected to be similar to last season. Extensive and prolonged flooding over the past couple of years is certain to impact the deer in the Delta Zone, especially the counties in the southern Delta. Dacus indicates that the negative effects of the 2011 flood continue to be seen. Once those animals are stunted from the negative impacts of the flooding, they more than likely will never fully recover. The numbers in the Delta Zone depend heavily on the impact of this past year's flooding. The silver lining to this seemingly dark cloud is the extremely mild winter experienced statewide. The deer herd is expected to be in much better condition than if they had been forced to endure a harsh normal winter along with the stress of extensive flooding.
Encompassing more land area than the other two hunting zones combined, the Hill Zone is the largest and most diverse of the state's three hunting zones. Deer are abundant in the counties of this zone. The exception would be those areas adjacent to the expansive Homochitto National Forest. The numbers in and around the Homochitto have suffered from extreme habitat decline as a result of poor habitat management and years of overpopulation. As far as the counties in the east-central portion of the Hill Zone, the deer numbers remain very property specific. Some properties in the central portion of this zone are loaded with deer, while others are left wanting.
"The Southeast Zone is an enigma," said Dacus. "Even though we no longer see any impact from the effects of Hurricane Katrina, some parts of this zone continue to struggle while other parts are quite productive. Those landowners that are better educated on deer management and are willing to cooperate with their neighbors appear to be having the best success."
As would be expected in the less fertile soils found in this zone, the 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 continues to suffer. Hunters and managers in this portion of the Southeast Zone need to be careful not to harvest too many deer this season.