Because I've been doing the annual deer outlook articles for Missouri Game & Fish magazine for the past decade or so, I've come to realize that being a prognosticator is not an easy job. Of course, I'm not a professional wildlife biologist — but Jason Sumners of the Missouri Department of Conservation is. Sumners is the resource scientist (biologist) that oversees our state's deer herd.
According to Sumners, much of the success or failure of our deer season harvest totals rests on weather conditions and acorn production. The hypothesis is that fair weather keeps hunters out in the woods for longer periods of time, thus increasing deer harvest numbers.
The acorn factor is especially in play in regions south of the Missouri River. In years when there is an abundance of acorns, deer harvest is generally down, especially in southern Missouri.
"As far as harvest totals predictions go, I would guess that we can expect a lower than normal deer harvest in north Missouri," Sumners said. "But we should see an increased harvest in southern Missouri.
The total deer harvest in 2014 was 256,753, the second lowest statewide harvest total since the year 2000. However, the good news is that while still significantly low, the harvest totals from last year were 2 percent higher than 2013 numbers. Sumners believes our statewide deer population still is more than 1 million animals.
Reasons for the declines in deer population and harvest over the past five years vary. The over-harvest of does, and mortality from recent hemorrhagic disease outbreaks are two of the primary reasons.
"Things should start to stabilize, and even see an increase in deer numbers in the southern and central Missouri counties," Sumners said. "However, I don't know why we seem to continue to spiral downward in areas like northwest Missouri.
Lack of good deer habitat could be playing a factor in poor reproductive rates and recruitment there. Our deer study should help us determine what's going on there."
Hunters can have a direct impact on the deer numbers in their locale.
"You have at least some ability to determine what the deer numbers look like in your area by the deer harvest decisions you make," Sumners said. "If you are not seeing as many deer as you would like to be seeing, be more restrictive on your antlerless deer harvest."
Missouri deer populations suffered one of the worst outbreaks of hemorrhagic disease in recent history in the year 2012. In those areas, if hunters want to expedite the recovery of the deer numbers, they should drastically reduce the doe harvest there.
To be more accurate, but less politically correct, it probably would be prudent to eliminate doe harvest altogether this year, and maybe even next season in some locales. But that will have to be a hunter's individual management decision in his hunting area.
"Our regulations that we set each year generally point the deer population in the right direction, but when it comes down to it, what you do personally as far as the deer harvest decisions you and your hunting partners make will impact the deer herd in your locale much more directly."
Now let's take a closer look at each of Missouri's regions when it comes to the outlook for this year's deer seasons.
Last year, Sumners gave us some great advice when it comes to analyzing the status of each of the regions. He said that we shouldn't choose to hunt a particular region just because of its overall population status. While on the outside that might seem like a silly statement, when the reasoning behind that advice is examined, it is true because deer numbers vary so greatly between individual counties in these regions.
And they vary even more microscopically within each county's different locales. So while deer numbers and harvest numbers might look good or bad for a particular region, it doesn't mean that a particular county or locale isn't either booming with deer or practically void of them.
You will have to take the time to put each of these prospective counties and locales under a microscope to determine what's hot and what's not locally.
This region still is suffering the effects of doe harvest regulations that were too generous. Harvest data indicates that the region experienced a 21 percent harvest decrease last year from the 10-year average, and is in an extended decline. Aside from overly liberal doe harvest regulations, HD mortality in 2012 and 2013 impacted the region significantly.
The three counties with the greatest declines in deer harvest were Knox, Schuyler and Shelby. In those counties, hunter harvest declined by 21 percent or more from the 10-year average.
"Even though this region has taken some pretty dramatic hits recently," Sumners said, "I believe it will stabilize over the next couple of years."
The Northwest Region displayed the most significant decline in harvest numbers in 2014 when compared to the rest of the state, with a 27 percent decline in harvest numbers compared to the 10-year average, and even 6 percent lower than the 2013 harvest numbers.
"I believe that loss of quality deer habitat may be playing a part in the declining deer numbers within this region," Sumners said. "There have been so many acres coming out of CRP, acres being converted into agricultural land, there just isn't a lot of acres of good deer habitat there as there was a decade ago."
Other factors leading to deer decline in the region is the generous doe harvest regulations from past seasons and high HD mortality from the 2012 and 2013 outbreak.
All is not gloom and doom in this region though. Worth, Harrison and Mercer counties remain a lot more stable in terms of deer numbers, accordig to Sumners.
KANSAS CITY REGION
The 2014 deer harvest in this region was down 17 percent when compared to the 10-year harvest average. All counties were down in deer kill numbers within the region. The most significant declines occurred in Benton, Clay, Henry, Jackson, Pettis, and Platte counties, which had harvest declines of 21 percent or greater.
Excessive doe harvest in past seasons and the 2012 HD outbreak contributed to fewer deer there. "Despite the declines, buck harvest has been stable within this region since 2008 when antler point restrictions were implemented," Sumners said. "This region is doing OK overall."
ST. LOUIS REGION
The 2014 deer harvest in this region remained unchanged from the 2013 season, but did decrease 4 percent compared to the 10-year average. St. Louis, Lincoln and St. Charles County deer kills in 2014 were down 11, 12 and 13 percent respectively from the 10-year average. However, the 2014 harvest in Franklin County increased by 10 percent.
"The St. Louis Region has remained very stable despite big fluctuations in harvest numbers over the years because of acorn production," Sumners said. "Overall, the effects of HD were very limited within this region."
This region is comprised mostly of forested areas where acorn production plays a big role in harvest numbers. A mediocre acorn crop in 2014 kept deer harvests moderate in the region.
"In general, this region is doing very good," Sumners said. "It doesn't appear that the 2012 HD outbreak had impact."
Deer numbers within the region have been stable to slowly increasing over the past 10 years. Oregon, Ozark and Phelps counties had a 10 percent harvest decline in 2014 when compared to the past 10-year average. However, Douglas County hunters enjoyed a 5 percent harvest increase and Pulaski County showed an increase of 10 percent.
Deer hunters within this region enjoyed a 6 percent increase in harvest over the past 10-year average, and an 11 percent increase over the 2013 season. This area is experiencing a slowly increasing deer population.
Greene County harvest increased by 23 percent over the 10-year average, and Polk had a 29 percent increase. Counties with the highest harvest declines were Taney (11 percent decrease) and Hickory (13 percent) when compared to the 10-year average.
"Things are perking along pretty nicely within this region," Sumners said. "With a slowly increasing deer population here, we might consider implementing some APRs because this region could sustain an increase in antlerless harvest."
The Southeast Region had a 4 percent increase in deer harvest in 2014 over both the 2013 season and the 10-year harvest average. The counties with the most significant harvest increases over the 10-year average include Dunklin, with 29 percent, and Cape Girardeau with a 32 percent increase.
The contradiction though would be Ste. Genevieve County where hunters experienced a whopping 30 percent decrease in deer harvest compared to the 10-year average.
"This is a very interesting region where deer numbers definitely are increasing," Sumners said. "However, Ste. Genevieve County has a decreasing population because this county has the highest density of deer hunters in the entire state, and because the APRs have put pressure on harvesting does here. We likely will recommend removal of the APRs in this county."
The Central Region is a good example of a very diversified habitat and varying populations within the region. HD episodes over the past five years have decreased deer numbers regionwide. However, deer harvest increased here in the 2014 season in almost every county, but still remained 12 percent lower than the 10-year average harvest.
Audrain, Boone, Camden, Howard, and Morgan counties have had the largest decrease in deer harvest, ranging from 21 to 26 percent from the 10-year average.
Another dilemma currently facing the region is the fact that Chronic Wasting Disease was found in an adult free-ranging buck in Cole County. APR might be removed within some counties within the region, and some counties may be deemed CWD Containment Zones. Increased CWD sampling will be implemented in the region for 2015.
It is very important that you remember Jason Sumners' advice when it comes to analyzing the information provided here. Just because a region or even a county is down in hunter harvest numbers, does not necessarily mean there are no hotspots for deer hunters within those regions and counties.
It will take good old-fashioned homework to find out what kind of deer populations are within specific locales within these regions and counties. That means boots on the ground scouting for deer sign and drive-by scouting for deer in the fields during late evening when deer are on feeding patterns.
It also means asking local residents what they are seeing. Your neighbors can give you a lot of information if you will just fish for it.
Hemorrhagic disease outbreaks in 2007, 2012, and 2013 have really changed the deer population landscape in Missouri. Many counties experienced 20 percent declines in deer numbers while some locales within those counties suffered as much as 40 percent decreases!
On the other hand, some of the local areas within these same counties experienced little to no effect from HD mortality. That is why it is critical to do your due diligence in scouting and recon efforts.
"I expect another deer harvest this year in the 250,000 to 270,000 range, unless we have a tremendously poor acorn crop," Sumners said.
Last year, the number of firearms antlerless permits available to hunters were reduced in many counties to better meet deer population management goals. In other words, to stabilize or increase deer numbers after years of liberal doe harvest regulations and severe HD mortality. This resulted in 11 percent less firearms antlerless permits being issued in 2014-15 and for the first time since 2001.
Author's note: Special thanks to the Missouri Department of Conservation and their resource scientists Jason Sumners and Emily Flinn for providing information for this article.