Regulation Changes Could Affect Deer Harvest

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Missouri's deer herd is in good shape, and new deer regulations are designed to keep it that way, according to the Missouri Department of Conservation. Those new regulations, however, could affect the number of deer taken by hunters this year.

Missouri's firearms deer hunting season--when the majority of the annual deer harvest takes place--runs from Nov. 13 through 23 statewide. Last year's November firearms deer harvest was a record.

Greater availability of deer hunting permits this year allows hunters to take more antlered deer. However, restrictions on taking antlered deer could shave numbers off the deer harvest.

This year, for the first time, antlered deer in 29 counties must have at least four points on at least one side to be legal. Deer without antlers and those with spike antlers less than 3 inches long will be legal.

Hunters in other states have adapted easily to similar restrictions. Conservation Department Resource Scientist Lonnie Hansen said he expects the change to go smoothly here, too.

"Change is always a little unsettling," said Hansen, "but antler-based harvest restrictions have a proven track record. Hunters told us this is the way they want to go to manage the state's deer herd." Hansen said Missouri's deer herd remains stable at about 1 million. Hunting is the Conservation Department's primary tool for regulating the size of the herd. Like most tools, it occasionally needs sharpening.

"Changes in the hunting population--their age, their numbers, their attitudes--make a difference in how well hunting works in paring down deer numbers," said Hansen. "We have to keep up with those changes to be sure hunting remains effective."

All Missourians have a stake in deer hunting, whether they hunt or not. Without the annual deer harvest, deer numbers would increase dramatically, causing a number of serious problems. Those include more deer-vehicle collisions, property damage and crop damage. In areas where deer populations go unchecked, deer browsing even damages their habitat.

The only practical way to control deer numbers is to reduce the proportion of does--female deer--in the population. To find out how Missourians preferred to accomplish this, the Conservation Department held public forums around the state. A majority of hunters who attended those meetings said they preferred antler restrictions as a way of shifting the annual deer harvest to does.

"Putting smaller bucks off limits does two things," said Hansen. "First, it encourages hunters to shoot does by making them pass up shots at young bucks. Second, it allows more deer to grow to an age where they have large antlers. That is another thing hunters told us they want."

Hansen said the antler restriction puts a new twist in his job. Each year he estimates how many deer will be killed during the November Portion of Firearms Deer Season. Last year, for example, he predicted a good chance of a record-setting season. He based his projection on the size of the deer herd and on regulation changes that included a longer hunting season and an unprecedented abundance of deer permits.

The prediction turned out to be correct. Hunters bagged a 208,834 deer during the November Portion of Firearms Deer Season. This year, Hansen has to include the antler restriction in his estimate.

"We have some changes that will tend to increase harvest and others that have the opposite effect. If this year's harvest includes more does and fewer bucks, we could actually harvest fewer deer overall while maintaining the same control on over the state's deer population."

Some hunters will have to pass up shots at young bucks in the 29 counties where antler restrictions apply. However, they will have another opportunity to shoot legal bucks or does during the Muzzleloader Portion of Firearms Deer Season Nov. 26 through Dec. 5. The Antlerless Portion of Firearms Deer Season Dec. 11 through 19 will give them a final opportunity to bag a deer.

In the past, weather exerted a powerful influence on deer harvest. Three or four days of cold, rainy weather could keep hunters out of the woods, depressing harvest numbers. This was particularly true when Missouri's deer season was only a week long, and hunters had little opportunity to make up for a poor opening weekend.

In recent years, however, the lengthening of firearms deer season--now a total of 34 days--has lessened the impact of a few days of foul weather. The twenty-fold increase in deer harvest during this year's Urban Portion of Firearms Deer Season also will help offset whatever decrease may occur due to the antler restriction.

This is the final year of a three-year testing program designed to determine whether chronic wasting disease (CWD) exists in Missouri's deer herd. Tests on more than 12,000 deer the first two years were all negative.

Counties where the Conservation Department will collect samples for CWD testing this year are Adair, Atchison, Barton, Benton, Butler, Camden, Cape Girardeau, Carter, Cedar, Cole, Cooper, Crawford, Dade, DeKalb, Dogulas, Dunklin, Gasconade, Henry, Hickory, Howard, Howell, Iron, Jackson, Laclede, Lafayette, Lawrence, Lincoln, Linn, Livingston, McDonald, Mississippi, Moniteau, Montgomery, Morgan, New Madrid, Ozark, Pemiscot, Perry, Pettis, Phelps, Polk, Pulaski, Putnam, Ralls, Randolph, Reynolds, Schuyler, Shannon, Shelby, Stone, St. Charles, Vernon, Wayne and Wright.