The Tides of Change in Missouri Deer Management

Published on: Apr. 18, 2014

The white-tailed deer population in Missouri has seen significant change over the past 100 years, and so have management priorities.

Pre-1930s: Decline of the Herd

Presettlement, white-tailed deer were found throughout the state. However, like many wildlife species in the latter half of the 19th century, deer numbers declined with European settlement. The decline occurred at a time when humans were affecting the Missouri landscape on a scale never before experienced. Throughout much of Missouri, forests were cut, most accessible land was grazed or farmed, and people were scattered on small parcels across the rural landscape. Deer numbers declined to a low of approximately 400 deer in 1925.

1930s-1980s: Restoration of the Herd

In the early 20th century, attitudes toward wildlife shifted from a utilitarian to a more conservation-oriented emphasis. As a result, we entered the modern era of wildlife management and made species recovery a priority.

Although there had been small increases in deer numbers since the low in 1925, the creation of the Department of Conservation and the Conservation Commission initiated the first significant and successful efforts to protect and restore deer and many other wildlife species. In 1938, the Commission put into place several programs that stimulated rapid growth of the deer population, and by 1944 there were an estimated 15,000 deer in Missouri. As a result, the Conservation Commission established the first modern-day firearms hunting season in 1944.

Deer management at the time was relatively simple because the primary objective was to increase deer populations, which could be accomplished in large part by protecting does from harvest.

1980s-2010s: Rapidly Growing Herd

By the late 1980s, deer populations across much of the state were growing rapidly, leading to increased crop damage, deer/vehicle collisions, and the emergence of urban deer issues. This era of rapid population growth was met with liberalization of regulations and expanding hunting opportunities by lengthening seasons, establishing new portions to seasons, increasing bag limits and permit availability, and implementing restrictions on buck harvest in the form of the antler point restriction. All of these changes were intended to slow population growth by increasing harvest pressure on does.

Concerns over hunter recruitment and retention began to emerge as many states began to see declines in hunter numbers. Hunters are the primary tool of deer management and fewer hunters means a reduced capacity to manage a growing deer population. Therefore, numerous efforts to recruit new hunters were implemented.

2010s and Beyond: Localized Population Management

By 2010, changes in regulations (longer seasons, new portions, antler point restriction, increased antlerless permits) were affecting deer populations. Significant losses due to hemorrhagic disease in 2007, 2012, and 2013 resulted in stable or reduced deer populations in many parts of central, northern, and western Missouri. Across much of southern Missouri, deer populations continue to grow slowly, though they largely remain below biological and social carrying capacity.

Traditionally, deer management focused on increasing deer numbers on a large geographic scale, which was relatively simple to accomplish through limited harvest quotas. Now, the focus has shifted to achieving localized population goals, which is more complicated.

Establishing Deer Management Goals

The goal of the deer program is to use science-based wildlife management to maintain biologically and socially balanced deer populations throughout the state that provide recreational opportunities and minimize human-deer conflicts and potential negative effects on ecosystem health. Reaching deer management goals is more challenging today due to the complexity of interrelated factors such as land use, ownership, hunter density, and human population levels. Therefore, the Department of Conservation’s regulatory process incorporates both science-based information and citizen feedback. The Department uses hunter surveys, production landowner surveys, bowhunter observation surveys, deer population simulations, biological data, harvest summaries, and public comments when determining deer management goals for a particular county. If goals aren’t being met, regulation changes are proposed.

In many areas where deer populations are low, we will propose a reduction in firearms antlerless permits for the 2014-2015 deer season to allow populations to stabilize or increase. However, in response to growing deer populations in parts of southern Missouri we will propose increases in antlerless permits in select counties.

White-Tailed Deer Management Plan

In response to the evolving challenges to deer management in the 21st century, we have drafted a deer management plan to outline the current priorities of Missouri’s deer management program and direct deer management over the next 10 years. The plan has four primary goals for deer management in Missouri: 1) Deer Population Management, 2) Hunting and Recreation, 3) Deer Health and Disease, and 4) Education, Communication, and Public Engagement.

In next month’s issue of the Conservationist we will discuss the draft deer management plan, proposed approaches to deer management in the future, and detail our plans to gather public input.

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