Deer hunting in Missouri is richly steeped in tradition. Vacations are planned around deer season, and it's always been an important time to bond with family and friends. Filling a tag is the icing on the proverbial cake. But it also is a very important part of why hunters participate in our favorite pastime. That being said, the forecast for Missouri's 2016 deer season looks like this: stable conditions statewide but with some regions experiencing hot hunting prospects while others experience a much colder outlook.
At the same time, hunters all across Missouri will be facing waves of new hunting regulations for the 2016 hunt.
"The outcome of the 2016 deer seasons certainly depends on factors that we don't know at this time — like weather and the acorn crop," said the Missouri Department of Conservation's Barb Keller. "Our population seems to have stabilized and be in a growth phase right now. Overall I think we will have a good deer season this year."
Barb Keller was appointed as the MDC's cervid supervisor in June 2016. This is a new position within the MDC in which Keller will be in charge of overseeing our state's deer and elk herds, as well as our chronic wasting disease management programs.
In case you didn't know, cervids are hoofed mammals of the family cervidae, which includes the deer and elk. Keller also is a deer hunter, which many feel makes her even more valuable as a biologist.
STATEWIDE DEER NUMBERS
According to MDC estimates, Missouri is home to a statewide population of 1.2 million whitetails. That number is down from 1.4 million about 10 years ago. Deer numbers in Missouri were in a slow declination due to overly liberalized antlerless deer regulations that allowed hunters in most areas of Missouri to harvest as many does as they wanted to, and several rounds of serious outbreaks with high mortality from epizootic hemorrhagic disease.
"The statewide deer population is an extremely hard number to estimate," Keller said. "We are saying 1.2 million but there is a lot of uncertainty with that number."
The MDC is working with Washington University to build a new deer population model for Missouri. This is a huge research project known as statistical population reconstruction.
The MDC and the University of Missouri are working together on another deer research project that will assist in helping with the new population model. This study first began in January 2015 and will evaluate white-tailed deer survival, reproduction, and movement patterns within two contrasting habitats.
STATEWIDE DEER HARVEST NUMBERS
In 2015 there were 508,645 deer hunting permittees in Missouri who harvested a total of 279,397 deer in all seasons combined. That was a 24,364 increase in deer harvest over the 2014 season, which is proof that the population is recovering from the devastating mortality of the 2012 EHD outbreak.
The MDC has the state divided into eight regions to help with managing the overall deer herd. The eight regions include the Northwest, Northeast, Central, Kansas City, St. Louis, Ozark, Southwest, and Southeast. Let's take a look at each of these regions individually and view statistics that could and maybe should influence your decision on where you hunt this fall.
This 19-county region is comprised of mostly agriculture land. Rolling pastures and flat croplands dominate the landscape in habitat known as the glaciated plains.
The estimated deer density is 16 deer per square-mile with a hunter density of 5 per square-mile.
Last year hunters bagged a total of 29,002 deer there, all seasons combined, which is a 1 percent decline from the previous season, and 14 percent lower than the 5-year average, and 24 percent lower than the 10-year average. This harvest tally ranks sixth out of the eight counties in harvest numbers, and proportionally the lowest of all regions.
The top three counties in harvest were Linn, Harrison and Mercer. The bottom three counties in harvest were Buchanan, Clinton and Atchison. Clinton County saw the largest decrease in harvest (14 percent) and Daviess County had the largest increase (14 percent).
The 15-county Northeast region habitat is similar to that of the Northwest. It is glaciated plains topography with rolling pastures and flat croplands making up much of the habitat.
The estimated deer density is 18 deer per square-mile and a hunter density of 7.5 per square-mile.
Last year hunters bagged a total of 38,669 deer, which is ranked fourth statewide. This total is up 3 percent from the 2014 seasons. Although the region's deer population is considered stable for the past three years, it had declined over the past 10 years from a population density of 30 deer per square-mile to just 18.
The top three counties in harvest last year were Macon, Pike and Adair. The county with the largest harvest increase last season was Schuyler with a 20 percent increase. The bottom three harvest counties were Schuyler, Marion and Lewis.
The 15-county Central Region is made up of a mosaic of plains and forest known as Ozark border habitat. You can find everything from pastures and croplands to rugged timbered hillsides in this area.
The estimated deer density is 20 deer per square mile, and the hunter density is 9 per square-mile.
Hunters bagged 42,683 deer in the region last year ranking it second in harvest statewide. Deer numbers seem to be recovering from the severe EHD outbreak of 2012 as total harvest increased by 7 percent from the previous year.
The top three counties in harvest in this region were Callaway, Osage and Morgan. Even though Callaway led the region in harvest last year, its totals were down 1 percent from the 2014 season. However, Morgan and Camden counties had 35 percent and 22 percent increases in harvest respectively. The bottom three harvest counties were Saline, Moniteau and Audrain.
KanSAS CITY REGION
The 12-county Kansas City Region is mostly Osage Prairie habitat. Of course there is a lot of suburban habitat there too, with small tracts of lands on the outskirts of the big city making access to hunting sometimes difficult.
The estimated deer density for this region is 18 deer per square-mile and a hunter density of 6.5 per square-mile.
Last year, deer hunters harvested 26,622 deer from this area ranking it seventh statewide. The total harvest is up 5 percent from 2014, but down 4 percent compared to the five-year average, and down 10 percent from the 10-year average.
The top three counties in harvest were Benton, St. Clair, and Henry. However, Cass County had the highest increase in harvest from 2014 with 18 percent more deer taken. The bottom three harvest counties last year were Clay, Platte, and Lafayette.
St. LOUIS REGION
This eight county region is the smallest in number of counties statewide. Its habitat is mostly Ozark border — a mix of glaciated plains and Ozark forest.
Deer densities in this region are the highest in the state with an estimated 23 deer per square-mile. Hunter density is about 10 hunters per square-mile.
Hunters bagged 26,486 deer last year, ranking it last out of all eight regions. Don't let that last-place showing fool you. Deer densities are greatest there, but the few number of counties within the region help keep total harvest numbers low. The 26,486 total harvest is up 16 percent from 2014. That's 6 percent higher than the five-year average, and 7 percent higher than the 10-year average. EHD has had very limited impact in the region in the past five years.
The top three counties in harvest last year were Franklin, Jefferson and Crawford. The bottom three harvest counties were St. Louis, St. Charles and Warren. The entire region is one of the state's best, and the deer population is very stable.
The 12-county Ozark Region is mostly Ozark forest. But despite the large forested areas, there still are some open pastures and overgrown fields.
Deer densities are estimated to be 19 per square-mile, and hunter densities are 6 per square-mile.
Hunters brought home 43,722 deer from this region last year, ranking it No. 1 in harvest. This is the first time this region ranked at the top in the past five years. The region enjoyed a 24 percent increase in harvest from the previous season, a 14 percent increase over the five-year average, and a 16 percent increase in harvest over the 10-year average. An 11 percent decrease in acorn production in the region is certain to have accounted for higher harvest numbers last year, but recent harvest and population trends indicate this is a region to be reckoned with.
The top three counties in harvest in this region were Texas, Howell and Oregon. The bottom three harvest counties were Carter, Pulaski and Wright. The county with the highest change in harvest last year was Dent, which enjoyed a whopping 45 percent increase.
This 17-county region is comprised of mostly Ozark forest, but there are open areas, like pastures, there too.
Deer densities in this region are estimated at 20 deer per square-mile, and hunter densities are 7 per square-mile.
Deer hunters tagged 42,114 deer in this region last year, ranking it third statewide in harvest totals. That is a record harvest for the region over the past 10 years. Deer harvest was up 10 percent from the previous year and 9 percent higher than the 5-year average — and up 14 percent from the 10-year harvest average.
The top three counties in harvest numbers last year were Laclede, Dallas, and Webster. The bottom three counties were Stone, Dade, and McDonald. Laclede's total harvest increased 24 percent from its 2014 numbers. The area has a slowly growing but stable deer herd and should not be overlooked by hunters.
This 16-county region is made up of a mix of Ozark forest, Ozark border and Mississippi lowlands. Deer densities in the region are 17 deer per square-mile, with a hunter density of 6.5 per square-mile.
Hunters harvested 30,099 deer in this region last year. That was up 4 percent from 2014, up 2 percent from the 5-year average, and up 4 percent more than the 10-year average.
Top counties in harvest were Wayne, Bollinger and Cape Girardeau. The bottom three counties were Pemiscot, Mississippi, and New Madrid. The counties with significant increases in harvest last year were Ste. Genevieve (35 percent), Iron (29 percent), and St. Francois (23 percent). Those trends point to a stable and slowly increasing deer herd.
Hunters will notice some major changes in the 2016-17 deer seasons. That isn't just a prediction; these are approved changes. Here's a list of the new rules for this year's deer hunts.
* Expand the late youth portion to 3 days beginning the first Friday after Thanksgiving.
* Reduce the length of the antlerless portion from 12 to 3 days and begin on the first Friday in December.
* Eliminate the urban zones portion of the deer season.
*Include crossbows as a legal method during the archery deer and turkey seasons.
*Remove the hunting method exemption requirement related to crossbows.
*Reduce the bag limit for antlered deer from 3 to 2 during the combined archery and firearms deer seasons, with no more than 1 antlered deer taken during the firearms deer hunting season and only 1 antlered deer taken prior to the November portion of the firearms deer hunting season.
There you have the 2016-17 Missouri deer season forecast. There are some important trends. Whether or not you take time to utilize this vital information is up to you.
EDITOR'S NOTE: Special thanks to the MDC's Barb Keller, who provided valuable data for this article.