Trimming the Herd

By Bill Heatherly and Tom Hutton | October 2, 2003
From Missouri Conservationist: Oct 2003

Every day, sometimes many times in the day, we answer the phone and immediately hear the question: "Why don't you do something about the deer herd?"

Some people ask that question believing there aren't enough deer. They want to know what's being done to increase deer numbers. Others believe there are too many deer and want to know what the Conservation Department is doing to reduce deer numbers. This perfectly illustrates the challenge of modern-day deer management. We're constantly trying to find a balance between one person's "too many" and the next person's "not enough." To complicate the matter, those two people might even be neighbors.

Although Missouri is currently home to nearly a million deer, the biological carrying capacity, the number of deer that the habitat can support, has not yet been reached. However, the cultural carrying capacity, or the number of deer that people will tolerate, has generally been reached, and in some areas, exceeded.

The Department of Conservation periodically asks two important groups of Missourians their opinion regarding deer numbers. A survey conducted in 2000 revealed that 88 percent of landowners who generate some income from their property "enjoy" having deer present on their land. Although 43 percent thought there are "more" deer now than five years ago, 65 percent said the number of deer was "about right" or "too few." Twenty-eight percent of those landowners believed there were "too many" deer, but only 8 percent classified deer as a "nuisance."

As you might expect, Missouri's 425,000 firearms deer hunters have somewhat different opinions. A 2002 season survey revealed that 85 percent of firearms deer hunters thought the number of deer to be "about right" or "too few." And although 21 percent believed there are "more" deer now than five years ago, only 9 percent believed there were "too many."

Regardless of your opinion, there is no question that deer numbers can sometimes be above desired levels in some areas.

What are the possible consequence of too many deer? Overbrowsing of forests can virtually eliminate desirable understory plants and prevent their regeneration, resulting in long-term changes in forest composition. Damage to agricultural crops, fruit orchards, commercial nurseries, and Christmas tree farms can mean significant financial losses for the owners. Residents in urban and suburban areas can experience damage to vegetable and flower gardens, and expensive ornamental plants. And one seemingly universal concern is the incidence of deer-vehicle accidents.

In 2001, there were 8,199 deer-vehicle accidents reported in Missouri. In comparison, Illinois typically reports about 17,000 such accidents each year, Wisconsin about 40,000, and Michigan more than 65,000. Of course, such comparisons are of little consolation when it is your vehicle that is involved. Regardless, the number of deer-vehicle accidents reported in Missouri each year has remained relatively constant over the past decade even as the number of roads, traffic volume, and speed limits increased.

Over the past several years, as the deer herd has increased, the Missouri Department of Conservation has liberalized regulations to increase hunting opportunity and put more permits into the hands of hunters. For example, both the firearms and archery seasons have been lengthened, and more bonus permits have been made available for more units.

In 1996, a new Antlerless-Only portion of the firearms season was established, and in 2002 hunters were allowed to use their Any-Deer permits to take a deer anywhere in Missouri. In addition, the number of units where Antlerless-Only Archery Deer Hunting permits are valid has steadily increased.

Nearly 42 million acres, or about 93 percent, of Missouri's landscape is privately owned. Therefore, private landowners play a crucial role in deer herd management. In recognition and appreciation of the significant contributions that they make to Missouri's wildlife, qualifying private landowners have traditionally been allowed to harvest deer during both the firearms and archery seasons without purchasing any permits. Although regulations must be revised periodically to keep pace with the changing deer herd and new management goals, we intend for the landowner privilege to continue, although perhaps with some modification.

Exactly how do hunters fit in? Because there are fewer natural predators today than in pre-settlement times, regulated sport hunting is the best way to control deer numbers. Without hunting, deer management and population control would be impossible.

Beginning in 1944 when the "modern" deer season was established, hunting was for bucks only. Does were protected so deer numbers could increase. This strategy was very effective, and by 1951 deer numbers had rebounded sufficiently to allow a number of "any deer" days in parts of Missouri. Further liberalizations were implemented as the deer herd continued to grow.

Unfortunately, the attitudes of some hunters are still stuck in the 1944 era of "save a doe so the herd can grow." Some have even adopted a "real hunters don't shoot does" philosophy. Such thinking is misplaced in modern deer management. How much better would it be if hunters changed their mantra to "real hunters do what needs to be done" and willingly took does rather than hunting only for antlered deer? If hunters aren't willing to participate to maximum effect, then regulations will have to change to ensure that adequate numbers of does are harvested each year.

The Department of Conservation establishes regulations for deer hunting, but regulations can only do so much to manage deer. The real key to effective deer management rests in the committed involvement of all Missourians, including hunters, landowners, municipal authorities and residents. Active cooperation is necessary, especially when addressing local situations.

For the most part, the Deer Management Unit system has proven very effective in managing deer numbers, but it can't always address local "hot" or "cold" spots. Creating a statewide system to deal with local situations would make regulations too complicated. Consequently, local landowners, neighbors and communities must cooperate to reach consensus regarding deer population goals, and then work together to achieve those goals.

Rural Areas

Landowners can effectively manage deer numbers on their land simply by inviting family and friends to harvest does on their property. Several factors must be considered, including the size and shape of the acreage, the quality of the habitat, and the amount of hunting pressure. If cooperating landowners believe there are too many deer, existing regulations provide management tools in the form of liberal availability of firearms and archery hunting permits. Without adequate doe harvest statewide, deer populations will likely remain high, even if deer numbers remain low in certain localities.

A good example of landowner cooperation occurred recently in Howard and Saline counties. Last fall, a group of landowners dealt with what they judged to be too many deer by inviting youngsters to hunt on their property during the Youth-Only portion of the firearms deer season. Through the cooperative efforts of landowners, the Conservation Department, and the University of Missouri Outreach & Extension 4-H program, young Missourians had the opportunity to learn more about deer, deer hunting, and firearms safety in a carefully controlled environment. They also learned how their efforts contributed to reducing the growth potential of the area's deer herd. It was a significant beginning for what is needed in hundreds of local areas in Missouri.

Towns and Urban Areas

Small towns and municipalities must also take the initiative to address local deer issues. Only local citizens can decide what number of deer is acceptable and then take action to reach the agreed-upon goal.

Often, however, local ordinances prohibit techniques that have proven effective for managing deer. Typically, the use of firearms and archery equipment is prohibited, noisemakers and sometimes even fences are banned, and dogs usually must be penned or on a leash. Ironically, the feeding of deer, which only worsens problems, is often allowed.

Unquestionably, there are good reasons why some activities are prohibited in certain areas. However, these same activities can often be successfully employed in others. Specifically, archery hunting has proved to be safe and effective in managing deer numbers in urban and suburban areas. In one situation, nine carefully selected archers safely removed 35 deer from a single property in only four days.

Each community is unique and must establish guidelines to ensure that residents are comfortable with the selected plan of action. In the case of archery hunting, requirements can include proof of hunter education certification, proof of proficiency with archery equipment, minimum acreage requirements, written permission from landowners, mandatory check-in and check-out, hunting only from tree stands, and buffer zones around residences and roadways. Often, simply granting hunting access to property, either rural or suburban, is enough to solve or prevent a problem.

The Future

White-tailed deer are beautiful animals that provide a variety of unique and exciting recreational opportunities. However, high deer numbers can damage crops, endanger entire ecosystems and threaten human health and safety. The most effective way to manage deer numbers is to manage the number of does in the population, and hunting regulations are one way to ensure adequate doe harvest. The booklet "Missouri Whitetails: A Management Guide for Landowners and Deer Enthusiasts" contains valuable information about managing deer. Obtain this publication by visiting online  or by writing to P.O. Box 180, Jefferson City, MO 65102.

The Conservation Department stands ready to provide technical assistance to anyone interested in managing deer populations.

Will deer hunting regulations change in the future? They must change to keep pace with the evolving deer herd and management objectives. The health and future of Missouri's deer herd depends on it.

New Regulations

New regulations provide more opportunity to take antlerless deer.

  • Firearms hunters may purchase and fill any number of Firearms Second Bonus Deer Hunting Permits for many units.
  • Archers may purchase and fill any number of Antlerless-Only Archery Deer Hunting Permits in most units.
  • The new Urban Deer Management portion of the firearms season provides two more days to take antlerless deer in the St. Louis and Kansas City areas.
  • Qualifying landowners of five or more acres may Farm Tag one deer of any sex or age.
  • Everyone who lives in the home with a qualifying resident landowner of 75 or more acres can receive no-cost Firearms Any-Deer and Bonus Deer Hunting Permits.

See the 2003 Fall Deer & Turkey Hunting Information booklet, available wherever permits are sold, for complete details.

This Issue's Staff

Editor - Tom Cwynar
Managing Editor - Bryan Hendricks
Designer - Les Fortenberry
Artist - Dave Besenger
Artist - Mark Raithel
Photographer - Jim Rathert
Photographer - Cliff White
Staff Writer - Jim Low
Staff Writer - Joan McKee
Circulation - Laura Scheuler