Evolution of Deer Management
Deer hunting regulations in Missouri have changed a great deal since 1944, when 7,757 hunters harvested 519 bucks during a two-day buck-only season. Today there are approximately 500,000 deer hunters in Missouri harvesting nearly 300,000 deer annually. The Conservation Department’s deer management goal is to maintain a statewide deer population level that provides adequate opportunities for hunters and for people who enjoy watching deer, but low enough to minimize crop/landscape damage and deer-vehicle accidents. This goal hasn’t changed, but as deer populations and public attitudes toward deer have changed, so have management strategies.
Aldo Leopold wrote, “Few biological arts depend as much on ingenuity and resourcefulness as the art of game management.” Managing a deer population is about more than the biology and ecology of the species; it is the art of balancing the needs of society within the realities of the natural world.
In the late 1920s and early 1930s several efforts to restore deer numbers were made, but they were unsuccessful. It wasn’t until the formation of the first Conservation Commission in 1937 that restoration efforts began to bear fruit. One of the first actions of that commission was to prohibit deer hunting. Finally, in 1944, with an estimated population of 15,000 deer, a two-day forked-horn, buck-only firearms season was held.
Antlerless harvest is the most effective tool for managing deer numbers. As deer populations in Missouri steadily increased, biologists began to liberalize seasons to control the rate at which deer populations grew. The liberalization of the antlerless harvest has driven many of the regulations changes over the past couple of decades. Today we have antlerless permits in nearly every county including an antlerlessonly season. The general trend has been to make antlerless permits more accessible and increase hunting opportunities.
Antlerless permits have been successful in reducing deer numbers in many rural areas. Deer overabundance is less of an issue in rural Missouri than it has been in the past, although hot and cold spots continue to occur. On the local level, deer numbers are affected by the number of hunters, patterns of land ownership, access to hunting land, posted property, etc. Outbreaks of epizootic hemorrhagic disease, an irregularly occurring event, can also play a big role in reducing local deer populations. We estimate that up to 20 percent of the deer herd was lost in some areas during past outbreaks. Some of the areas hit hard by the 2007 outbreak had also seen hemorrhagic-related deaths in 2005 and 2006.
Unlimited antlerless permits and additional opportunities to harvest antlerless deer do not constitute site-specific harvest recommendations but provide the flexibility for landowners and hunters to make the management decisions that are appropriate for their individual situation.
An appropriate level of doe harvest is the key to successful deer management. In some areas, harvest pressure exceeds the growth rate of the population and a regulation change is necessary to reduce doe harvest. In 2008, in response to declining deer numbers in southwest Missouri, several counties were changed from unlimited firearms antlerless to one antlerless permit in an attempt to reduce doe harvest and allow populations to recover.
Buck-only seasons were a popular management tool for biologists when deer populations in Missouri were small and increasing deer numbers was desirable. Buck harvest generally has little impact on the growth of deer populations, while providing harvest opportunities. However, if buck harvest is too intense, it can have negative impacts on the population as it changes buck age structure, sex ratios and timing of breeding.
In 2004, antler point restrictions were instituted to shift harvest pressure from bucks to does and has the potential to decrease the proportion of does in the population and reduce the total number of deer that need to be harvested to maintain stable populations. Additionally, antler restrictions reduce yearling buck harvest resulting in the recruitment of more bucks into older age classes. Antler point restrictions were successful in meeting the goal of reducing the harvest of yearling bucks and have increased doe harvest in central Missouri. Due to the success of reducing yearling buck harvest, increased doe harvest in some areas and widespread popularity, antler point restrictions were expanded from 29 counties to 65 in 2008.
The new APR counties followed a trend similar to the counties added in 2004. We saw a 32-percent decrease in buck harvest in the new APR counties north of the Missouri River and a 38-percent decline in west central Missouri, while doe harvest increased 4 percent and 15 percent, respectively. Despite the overall decline in the total number of deer harvested in 2008, doe harvest increased 2 percent, while buck harvest declined 21 percent. This means there is increasingly a larger proportion of adult bucks in the population and fewer does.
Season Length and Timing
Another method biologists use to affect the age and sex structure of the harvest is to adjust the season length and timing. Hunting seasons historically occurred over very short time periods and coincided with the peak of the rut. Placing the November portion of the firearms season in the peak of the rut was an effective management tool that allowed the harvest of bucks during their most vulnerable time, while not limiting the growth of the population. Buck harvest during the November firearms portion is closely tied to the peak of the rut, with an earlier opening to the November portion tending to result in greater buck harvest than later openings. Additionally, there is evidence that antlerless harvest increases with a later season opening as hunting pressure shifts away from bucks to does. Now that deer populations are well established, our management strategy must shift away from one of increasing deer numbers toward managing for stable populations. Altering the opening of the November portion of the firearms season may contribute to our ability to manage for stable populations.
One common reason for lack of participation in the hunting season is time. Today, hunting seasons range over much longer periods and include a variety of methods. The expanded seasons allow for greater opportunities, as well as reducing hunter densities and conflicts.
The management of deer in our cities is one of the biggest management challenges in Missouri. Deer are extremely adaptable and are able to thrive in developed areas. Lack of hunter access and city ordinances against the discharge of bows and guns in urban areas limits our ability to use hunting to manage these populations. Department field staff work with city councils and other organizations to address these management issues and have been successful in increasing hunting opportunities in many urban communities. We will continue to look for new ways to manage urban deer populations.
Citizen Effort and Influence
Ultimately, landowners and hunters are the key to management of deer populations. They are the ones who control harvest and dictate local deer numbers. So developing hunting regulations that meet the needs of all Missourians is important. Dale McCullough, author of the wildlife management classic, The George Reserve Deer Herd, wrote that a successful manager “… will be dependent upon his ability to listen. His finger must seek the pulse of society, and not his own.”
The Conservation Department is teaming with groups of landowners and hunters to help manage deer populations. We place a great deal of value in, and devote a considerable amount of time and resources to, monitoring the attitudes of landowners and hunters. In addition to biological data, public meetings, scientific attitude surveys and comments taken by field staff all play an important role in the management decision-making process.
Successful deer management requires flexibility to changing conditions. It is important that we continue to anticipate changes in hunter participation and behavior, land access, and patterns of landownership, and acknowledge the increasing urbanization of the landscape. Declining numbers of hunters, limited access to deer on private lands and decreasing willingness of hunters to harvest antlerless deer present significant challenges to controlling deer populations in the future. Deer management must continue to evolve in order to meet those challenges.