2014-15 Missouri Deer Hunting Forecast
By Josh Gowan
I’ve already seen some deer forecasts for my home state of Missouri, and it’s a wonder we even bother buying tags according to a few journalists. With all the doomsday talk about our poor, diseased, malnourished, and miniscule deer herd, I thought a bit of logic and facts might keep a few guys from selling off their rifles!
First of all, there is one other authority on our deer herd that you can safely take advice from, and that’s Mr. Jim Low, the head writer for the Missouri Department of Conservation. As of right now, the only two people I’d listen to in reference to deer numbers are Jim and myself, there may be other legitimate sources out there, I just haven’t come across them yet!
Here’s the deal, many of these journalists base their story on five minutes of tireless research. Looking at the total harvest numbers from the 2012-2013 season, and then at the total numbers from last year’s season, one must come to the conclusion that our deer herd is on a steep decline, and this year will be the worst yet, but that is simply not true.
Deer hunting in Missouri has a $1,000,000,000.00 (that’s one billion dollars, written out for effect) impact on our state’s economy, and supports 12,000 jobs, one of which is mine. I am also an avid deer hunter, having not missed a deer season in 20+ years. So, with a vested interest in my home state’s economy, an even more vested interest in my personal economy, a deep love for our wildlife and its preservation, and an abhorrent sentiment towards journalistic sensationalism, I call BS!
Here are some real, true facts in case anyone’s interested. First of all, making comparisons to last year’s season and the 2012-13 season alone is not “apples to apples”. The 2012-2013 season was the largest harvest ever on record in the state of Missouri. I, as well as others, wrote about the likeliness of a historic deer season, with both a healthy white-tail population and a statewide summer drought that brought the poorest acorn crop in a decade, deer would have to be constantly on the move looking for food, and deer hunters would see and have the opportunity to shoot a lot of deer, and we did.
This is all happenstance with regards to last year’s season (although an argument could be made that you may not kill as many deer the year after the largest harvest in the state’s history). There is one dominant, overwhelming factor that brought down last year’s total numbers, and that was absolutely deplorable weather during the 11-day firearms season, where 2/3’s of our harvest generally comes from. This past year Missouri was pummeled with some of the worst weather we’ve seen in years, namely ridiculously high, sustained winds for both weekends, along with massive thunderstorms that spanned the entire state on the second day, when the grand majority of hunters are in the woods. Deer do not move in such weather unless they’re forced to. Due predominantly to this weather, the total number of deer harvested in the 11-day firearms portion was 157,272, down from the 5-year average of 186,677.
EHD, or Epizootic Hemorrhagic Disease, receives most of the blame. While EHD, or HD (which generally encompasses both EHD and Blue Tongue, as they are very much alike) did have an impact in 2012, it has an impact in every year there is a drought, namely 1980, 1988, 1998, 2007, and now 2012. The impact of HD is extremely localized among herds, and proof of this is evident in the county with the largest suspected deer loss from HD, Osage County, which was also in the top 10 counties of the state in respects to total harvest.
The next issue that is getting a ton of heat (with the flame aimed directly at the MDC’s green pants), is the “liberalized hunting regulations” that allows taking unlimited does in many counties. Well, a little research turns up an interesting fact, no one seems to take advantage of the allowance! Of the 9,270 archery hunters using antlerless (bonus) tags, 93 percent harvested two or fewer antlerless deer, and of the 65,026 firearm hunters using antlerless tags, 95 percent harvested two or fewer deer. The ability to shoot “unlimited” does as we like to brag about to our friends from states or areas with tighter restrictions, does not force, nor does it necessitate a hunter to take advantage of the rule, that is not why it’s there, but we’ll get to that.
As to the two years of drought, that is Mother Nature’s whim, and as I said earlier, was one of the primary reasons the 2012-2013 season was so successful. Last year’s drought on the other hand was regional within the state, and the east and southern half of the state was not as affected. In fact, the wet weather we had in the Ozarks of southern Missouri produced a bumper acorn crop, quite the opposite of the year before, and while plentiful acorns are great for deer population, they are not necessarily conducive to deer hunting.
The history of Missouri’s deer population and the MDC’s involvement is an important part of this entire debacle. In 1925, our state’s deer herd was estimated to be only around 400 due to the European settlers raping and pillaging the land. In 1937 the first Conservation Commission formed and closed deer season for five years, while stocking deer from northern states and existing refuges. The first professionally trained conservation agents were trained to enforce the ban, and by 1944 the state’s deer population was up to 15,000. That year Missouri held a two-day, bucks-only season, and 7,557 hunters took 583 deer. On a steady incline for the better part of a century, it wasn’t until 1995 that Missouri’s harvest broke 200,000, and not until 2001 that we reached 250,000. While our numbers are impressive, our size is even more so, and at last count, Missouri ranked 5th in the nation for the most recorded Boone and Crockett deer.
The Conservation Department has a deer management goal each year. The idea is to have a population that provides hunters with good opportunities to take a deer, but that is not so large that crop/landscape damage and deer-vehicle accidents skyrocket.
What these writers have blatantly missed, like an arrow off a limb, was the fact that just because there was an impact on a small area, or a county, or even an entire region of our large, geographically diverse state, which may have seemed like a tidal wave if you were standing near it, may not have even made a wake 100 miles away.
I spent a week in northeast Missouri last year and saw deer on every hunt, and have mostly erased the 10,000 or so game camera pics of deer from my computer. I also spent a week in the Ozarks of southern Missouri and again, deer were plentiful. Finally, my season concluded with a week in the river bottoms of southeast Missouri, the region with the lowest (albeit growing) deer population in the state, and guess what, I saw a lot of deer. So just because your uncle didn’t get a deer, and he always gets a deer, doesn’t mean our 1,000,000+ deer population have either died from disease or swam the Mississippi for Pike County, Illinois!
The nail in the coffin is the numbers, which rarely lie. The five-year total harvest average is 285,000 respectively, this past year we rung up 250,000. This is a variance of 35,000, and to find where this number comes from it takes but to look. The five-year average of our 11-day firearms season is 186,000, in this past year’s season we only took 157,000, accounting for 30,000+ in those 11 days, during gale force winds and storms. The next largest portion of the harvest is archery season, which runs from mid-October to early January. The five-year archery average harvest is 50,486, last year’s archery total was 50,507, an increase. The next largest portion is the youth season, and without further ado, the five-year average is 17,902 and last year’s numbers were 19,859. We lost the last couple thousand during antlerless and alternative methods season, which would have been unnoticeable with a normal firearms season.
Here is the other number that’s very important to our state’s deer herd, 90 percent. This is the amount of land in Missouri that is owned by private citizens. It is as much, if not actually more, up to us to regulate our deer population than the MDC. If your numbers are down on your property, stop shooting mature does for a few years. If your property isn’t big enough to regulate the deer traveling through it, talk to your neighbors and formulate a plan. The ability to shoot every doe you see does not mean that you should, it is a liberal policy, and it’s dependent on landowners making the right decision for their own property.
To the MDC I say, good job, but beware. The 4-point rule was a risk. If the “4-point on one side” restriction was put in place to increase the doe harvest by giving hunters fewer opportunities on bucks, then say so, and if our deer population is lower in some counties than it should be, lift the restriction. If the 4-point rule was put in place to grow bigger/older bucks to balance the herd, than say so, and lift it in the counties where it isn’t necessary, like Knox and Lewis where I do most of my hunting, and where 18 month old deer often have four points on one side. John Q. Public may get irritated that you’re lifting the ban and his neighbor will resume shooting forked horns, but if the population is low and hunters still want to take an animal home for the freezer then they should shoot bucks, even if they’re small bucks. This decision should be made by county, and as you well know everyone will never be happy, but progress by misrepresentation, regardless of intent, is dangerous.
As for this year’s forecast, the acorns are good but not great, so the Ozarks will show up and we should see good numbers from southern Missouri. The northern half of the state will have a dramatic increase if we get cold weather without sustained gale-force winds. The deer that we never saw last year (mostly because they were hunkered down in hiding) have grown and had fawns, the mild summer with ample rain means they’ve been eating well and will be healthy, and as long as Mother Nature complies, we should see at least a 20 percent increase from last year’s numbers statewide and be very close to the five-year average.