A below-average harvest of deer is expected this year across the state, the Missouri Department of Conservation says.
Missouri has an abundance of deer, according to Emily Flinn, a resource scientist with the Missouri Department of Conservation. She says the key to understanding this year’s deer forecast is regional and even local differences in deer number.
Flinn specializes in managing Missouri’s economically valuable white-tailed deer herd. She said the state’s deer harvest has been stable for the past 10 years. However, she expects a below-average harvest this year.
Flinn said the past 10 years have seen short-term and long-term changes in deer abundance across the state. For example, changes in hunting regulations have achieved the long-term goal of reducing deer numbers in parts of northern, western and central Missouri. During the same period, less liberal harvest regulations have allowed deer numbers in the Ozarks, southwest and southeast regions of the state to increase slowly but steadily.
Flinn said differences in how Missouri’s estimated 1.4 million deer are distributed across the state also occur at much smaller scales than regions. The most dramatic differences often occur in surprisingly small areas.
To illustrate, Flinn points to the differences in deer population densities that resulted from last year’s unusually severe outbreak of hemorrhagic diseases, commonly called blue tongue or EHD (epizootic hemorrhagic disease). These diseases occur annually, but they are more prevalent in drought years. The extraordinarily severe drought of 2012 led to the worst hemorrhagic disease outbreak ever recorded in Missouri.
Reports of deer deaths come to the conservation department from its field staff and from citizens. Last year, the number of reports topped 10,000. Regions with the highest prevalence of deer deaths from hemorrhagic disease were northwest, west-central, and east-central Missouri. Southeast Missouri had relatively low rates of hemorrhagic disease reports. A map showing county-by-county hemorrhagic-disease reports is available at mdc.mo.gov/node/16479.
Even within counties and regions, the distribution of hemorrhagic disease losses was uneven.
“That is the nature of hemorrhagic diseases,” Flinn said. “You can have significant losses in a particular locality, and almost none in another part of the same county. This is one case where hunters and landowners are in the best position to know how deer populations in their areas are doing.”
That brings up an important point about the challenge of managing deer in the wake of a severe hemorrhagic-disease outbreak, Flinn said. Past experience shows that deer numbers often continue to decline in a particular area for as much as three years after an outbreak. That is because hunters continue to harvest about the same number of deer — including does — even though they are not seeing as many deer.
“Most hunters don’t shoot more than one deer a year,” Flinn said. “If deer numbers are down in a particular area, and everyone in the area continues to shoot as many does as they have in the past, what starts out as a moderate reduction in deer numbers can turn into a big reduction. By the time hunters realize what has happened, deer numbers are down so much that it may take a few years to get back to where they were.”
The lesson here is that hunters who noticed lots of deer dying from hemorrhagic disease in their area last year should consider the numbers of deer they are seeing this year and potentially pass up shots at does to allow local populations to recover.
Flinn said Missouri’s deer harvest also is significantly affected by acorn abundance. This is most important in southern Missouri, where the landscape is heavily forested, and acorns outweigh all other deer food sources in the fall. When acorns are scarce, deer must move around to find food, and that makes them more visible to hunters. Deer behavior and deer harvest are much less dependent on acorn availability in northern Missouri, where acorns make up a smaller percentage of their diet.
The severe shortage of acorns last year due to drought is part of the reason that southern Missouri had a larger-than-usual deer harvest in 2012. Southern Missouri should have higher acorn production this year, so hunters will need to be more active to find deer.
The combined effects of reduced deer movement, a strong deer harvest in 2012, and losses to hemorrhagic diseases in a few Ozarks counties are likely to result in lower harvest totals this year.
The long-term downward trend in deer numbers in some counties prompted the conservation commission to reduce availability of antlerless-only deer tags this year in Atchison, Bates, Caldwell, Callaway, Carroll, Dallas, Howard, Laclede, Ray and Vernon counties, and parts of Boone and Cass counties. Details are explained on page 28 of the 2013 Fall Deer and Turkey Hunting Regulations and Information booklet, which is available wherever hunting permits are sold, at MDC offices and online at mdc.mo.gov/node/3656.
Flinn said an important point for hunters to remember this year is the fact that chronic wasting disease (CWD) now exists in north-central Missouri. There is no evidence that CWD can affect humans or domestic animals, but it is a threat Missouri’s deer-hunting traditions. It also threatens the $1 billion in economic activity and 12,000 Missouri jobs that depend on a thriving deer herd.
To minimize the risk of spreading this and other deer diseases, hunters are urged to properly dispose of deer carcasses and take other precautions. These are outlined on page 4 of the 2013 Fall Deer and Turkey Hunting Regulations and Information booklet.
“The long-term health of our deer herd depends on carefully managing CWD,” Flinn said. “I can’t overemphasize the importance of hunters’ role in this effort. We can’t do it without their active help, especially with proper disposal of deer carcasses.”
MDC deer hunting seasons this year include: Early youth, Nov. 2-3 and fall firearms, Nov. 16-26.
The Missouri State Highway Patrol reminds drivers that deer are more active this time of year. The public is reminded to be especially vigilant during evening and early dawn hours.
Deer behavior changes due to mating season, which may cause an increase in sightings and roadway crossings. Hunting and crop harvesting may result in these animals being in places they aren’t usually seen. Drivers are urged to remain alert.
Last year, drivers in Missouri experienced 3,980 traffic crashes where deer-vehicle strikes occurred. One deer strike occurred every 2.2 hours in the state. In these crashes, five people were killed and 411 injured.
When you see deer, the patrol says slow down and proceed with caution. Deer often travel in groups –– stay on guard after a close call or when you see a single deer. Natural features also affect deer movement. In areas where there are streams or wooded corridors surrounded by farmland, look for more deer to cross roadways. The patrol says rural areas are not the only place where deer/vehicle strikes occur. In 2012, 25.5 percent of the traffic crashes involving deer happened in urban areas.
The majority of deer strike crashes occur from October through December each year, with the largest number taking place in November. Most deer strikes occur between the hours of 5 p.m. and 6:59 a.m. The Missouri State Highway Patrol reminds drivers that an attempt to avoid striking a deer could result in a more serious crash involving oncoming traffic. Try to remain calm. Panicking and overreacting usually lead to more serious traffic crashes.