Managing the Herd

By Bill Heatherly and Lonnie Hansen | April 2, 2004
From Missouri Conservationist: Apr 2004

"What do you think?" That's a question the Missouri Department of Conservation has been asking deer hunters and landowners throughout the state. Their answers will help determine the future of deer management in Missouri.

Today, Missouri is blessed with abundant wildlife, but it hasn't always been that way. Although early settlers reported large numbers of deer and other wildlife, unregulated market hunting in the late 19th and early 20th centuries nearly eliminated deer in Missouri. By 1925, fewer than 400 white-tailed deer remained in the entire state.

Concerned sportsmen and women demanded change. The Missouri Conservation Commission was established in 1937. The Commission closed the deer-hunting season in 1938, thus beginning the important work of wildlife management and restoration. Those efforts proved successful, and today Missouri is home to nearly a million white-tailed deer.

For the first few years, the guiding principle of deer management was relatively simple: protect the does so the herd could grow. Wildlife biologists have long known that does are the key to successful deer herd management. If does are protected, the herd will expand. The opposite is likewise true. Increasing the doe harvest limits a herd's reproductive potential.

The strategy of protecting does was effective, and deer numbers began to increase. In 1944, the first "modern" deer hunting season for bucks only was opened in a few Missouri counties. By 1951, deer numbers had increased sufficiently to allow limited harvest of antlerless deer in selected areas.

Deer numbers continued to increase. Beginning in 1959, hunters could pursue deer statewide. Deer management units were established in 1970, and the quota system followed in 1974. These two innovations made it possible to manage deer on a more local level. Bonus Deer permits valid for antlerless deer became available in 1987. The first muzzleloader season was held in 1988. The Antlerless-Only portion of the firearms season was added in 1996, and the Youth-Only portion began in 2001.

Beginning with the 2002 season, Any-Deer permits were valid statewide, and in 2003 hunters could purchase and fill any number of Bonus Deer permits in many deer management units.

Because hunting is the primary tool used to manage deer, hunting regulations must continue to change periodically to reflect changes in the deer herd and new management goals.

Deer management in Missouri is now at another crossroads. Surveys indicate that over the past decade, the average age of deer hunters has increased from 36 years to 42. In addition, it's known that older hunters tend to take fewer deer. These trends are a source of some concern for deer managers because it means that in the future we will likely have fewer hunters taking fewer deer.

In addition, deer hunting preferences appear to be changing. In the past, most hunters were satisfied with the opportunity just to take a deer - any deer. Today, however, more hunters want the opportunity to take older bucks.

In the face of these challenges, deer managers are looking for ways to shift harvest pressure from antlered deer (bucks) to antlerless deer (does) so we can more effectively manage deer numbers. This shift would also have the benefit of allowing more bucks to grow older.

It's important that any new regulations have the endorsement and support of hunters and landowners. To give hunters and landowners a chance to express their opinions, the Department of Conservation conducted public meetings around the state. At these meetings, they presented the challenges we face and offered the following five management options that wildlife biologists believe would shift harvest pressure from bucks to does.

  • Antler Restrictions - Would limit the harvest of bucks to only those with specific antler characteristics.
  • Earn-a-Buck - Would require hunters to take an antlerless deer before taking an antlered deer.
  • Buck Quota - Would limit the number of permits valid for antlered deer.
  • Reduced-Length Buck Season - Would limit the time when antlered deer could be taken.
  • Altered Season Timing - Would move the main portion of the firearms deer season out of the peak of the rut.

At the meetings, an open microphone provided everyone with the opportunity to voice their opinion. All comments and suggestions were recorded. Attendees also had the opportunity to interact one-on-one with Department personnel, including, at some meetings, Director John D. Hoskins, Deputy Director John W. Smith and members of the Regulations Committee.

Although each option had its supporters, some of the presented options were more popular than others. People who attended the meetings also were encouraged to offer their own ideas for shifting harvest pressure from bucks to does. Comment cards were also available. Many hunters later offered their opinions via letters, telephone calls and e-mails.

The meetings were well attended and showed that Missouri deer hunters and landowners have a wide range of views when it comes to deer management. Whatever option or options we choose as a result of these meetings will likely disappoint some people.

Biologists are evaluating the public response to the various management options and are formulating their recommendations for the 2004 deer hunting seasons. The regulatory options chosen likely will not be made statewide. Instead, they will be tested at pilot locations that have yet to be finalized.

Once the new regulations have been approved and implemented, the project will be monitored continuously so that we can make necessary adjustments during the trial. Harvest data and other information from the test area will be compared with non-test areas. Surveys will measure hunter and landowner attitudes before, during, and after the trial. At the conclusion of the test period, a complete and thorough evaluation will be made to determine if the new strategy should be implemented on a broader scale.

The recommendations for the 2004 deer hunting seasons will be presented to the Regulations Committee for their approval later this month and then to the Conservation Commission for final approval. After the Commission has approved the seasons, the public will be notified about all aspects of the experiment, including which option was selected and why, as well as when and where it will be tested, and other details.

Regardless of how regulations change, it is imperative that any changes maintain our deer hunting traditions and the high value Missourians place on deer. Any changes must also ensure that hunting continues to be an effective tool for managing our valuable white-tailed deer.

This Issue's Staff

Editor - Tom Cwynar
Managing Editor - Bryan Hendricks
Art Director - Ara Clark
Artist - Dave Besenger
Artist - Mark Raithel
Photographer - Jim Rathert
Photographer - Cliff White
Staff Writer - Jim Low
Staff Writer - Joan McKee
Circulation - Laura Scheuler