For hunters, Missouri's changing deer numbers are the new norm

So how will Missouri’s deer hunting be this fall?

Talk to Jerry Norman, who lives in the north-central part of the state, and he’ll tell you he is worried. An avid deer hunter, he has taken some trophy bucks on his land over the years. But he just isn’t seeing the deer he once did.

“It’s noticeable,” said Norman, 68, who lives north of Wheeling, Mo. “Our deer numbers are way down.”

Now talk to Jason Caldwell, who lives outside the town of Dudley, Mo., in the Bootheel. He is seeing more deer than ever before and is excited about the prospects of the future.

“I’d say we’re seeing 30 to 40 percent more deer than we have in the last five to six years,” he said. “Our county (Stoddard) never has been known for its deer hunting, but I think that’s changing.

“We’re just seeing a lot more deer down here.”

An isolated contrast? Hardly. More than ever before, Missouri’s deer picture is fragmented.

Gone are the days when wildlife biologists could issue sweeping generalities when talking about hunting prospects.

After a year in which more than 10,000 deer were lost to a severe outbreak of hemorrhagic disease, coupled with the long-term effects of liberal hunting regulations in parts of the state, the aftermath of two years of drought, and efforts to control the budding threat of Chronic Wasting Disease, deer populations vary greatly across the state.

Wildlife biologists say Missouri still has a sizable population of deer and that hunting should be fair this fall. But they acknowledge that whitetail numbers are down.

“The effects of the hemorrhagic disease can be very localized,” said Emily Flinn, wildlife biologist for the Missouri Department of Conservation. “In some cases, there can be a drastic difference in deer numbers within one county.

“The deer hunting could be very good on one farm, and poor on another not that far away.”

The bottom line: The once-robust deer herd in Missouri is facing challenges like never before. And the wildlife biologists managing that herd are facing challenges, too.

“I think the days of statewide deer management are over,” Flinn said. “We’re seeing so many different factors affecting deer on a regional, even local, landscape, that it’s become more and more challenging to manage populations.”

The boom days — and the fall

The problem for hunters such as Norman is that they still have vivid memories of the glory days.

They weren’t so long ago. In the 1990s, deer populations were booming in northern Missouri. So much so that the Department of Conservation had to liberalize hunting regulations to reduce numbers.

Norman remembers days when he would see many deer from the tree stand he was sitting in. And he went into each season with realistic hopes of shooting a big buck.

He has 12 mounts of big whitetails that he, his wife and his grandson took off his land.

“I used to take the entire month of November off to hunt deer,” he said. “I would hunt with my bow and rifle.”

Eventually, the Department of Conservation liberalized the regulations to the point that rifle hunters could take unlimited numbers of antlerless deer in the county in which Norman hunts. Then came periods of drought alternated with harmful floods. And to top it off, the outbreak of hemorrhagic disease, which hit hard in Norman’s hunting area, took its toll.

The result? A tainted paradise.

“It’s not like it used to be,” Norman said. “We had hunters who really took advantage of that regulation that allowed people to take as many does as they wanted.

“We could see our deer numbers go down. I wish they would do away with that.”

The Department of Conservation acknowledges that deer populations in northern Missouri have been on the decline for the last decade. Biologists estimate deer numbers have fallen by 10 percent over the last decade in the northwest region alone.

“Part of it had to do with the increased antlerless hunting opportunities,” Flinn said. “And then with the antler-point restrictions (requiring hunters to shoot only bucks with at least four points on each side of their racks), more people were shooting antlerless deer.

“But we’ve also seen a change in habitat. More cover is being removed for agriculture. Then you add a severe outbreak of hemorrhagic disease, and it takes a toll.”

The Department of Conservation did change regulations this year, removing the measure allowing firearms hunters to take unlimited numbers of antlerless deer and reducing that number to two in 12 counties — Atchison, Bates, Caldwell, Callaway, Carroll, Dallas, Howard, Laclede, Ray and Vernon and parts of Boone and Cass.

But biologists believe that is only a start, not a cure-all in those areas. They cite surveys that show most hunters take only one deer per season.

Flinn said it could take several years for whitetail populations to rebound in areas that were hit hard by the hemorrhagic disease.

“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,” Flinn said in a news release. “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 big concern

Wildlife biologists know that deer herds will bounce back from the outbreak of hemorrhagic disease.

Missouri was the epicenter of the disease, which occurs in droughts when deer are concentrated around water sources and are infected by disease-carrying midges. But there was little problem with the disease this year. And though hunters will undoubtedly see the effects of last year’s losses, past experience has shown biologists that the deer populations do slowly recover.

Of a bigger concern right now is the discovery of Chronic Wasting Disease (CWD) in northeast Missouri. The disease can spread quickly among deer herds and is always fatal to those animals infected.

The disease has already caused widespread fatalities in other states such as Wisconsin, and wildlife biologists worry that something similar could play out in Missouri in a worst-case scenario.

CWD was first discovered in Missouri in 2010 and 2011 in captive deer at private hunting operations in Linn and Macon counties. Eleven deer with CWD have been found at those facilities. What worries wildlife biologists is that they have found CWD in 10 free-ranging deer within two miles of that captive-deer operation.

So far, 38,000 free-ranging deer have been tested for the disease, and only those in northwestern Macon County and northeastern Linn County have been found with CWD. The Department of Conservation is taking aggressive measures to see that the disease doesn’t spread. That includes liberalizing hunting regulations in the containment zone, removing antler restrictions, restricting feeding of deer in an effort to discourage whitetails from congregating in one area, placing new requirements on existing captive-deer operations and not allowing new operations to get started.

Though CWD isn’t believed to be a threat to humans, it is highly contagious to deer and can even be transmitted through carcasses and even deer’s contact with infected soil.

A series of public meetings across the state in September and early October addressed everything from the proper disposal of carcasses to the handling of deer meat.

“We need the public’s help with this,” said Jason Sumners, a deer biologist for the Department of Conservation. “The landowners in the containment zone have been great. They have sacrificed in reducing deer numbers on their land.

“But we’re asking for help from everybody in the state so that we don’t inadvertently spread this disease. We have to be proactive.”

And now for the bright side

Even with the onset of these problems, Missouri still has plenty of deer.

Hunters took 309,929 deer in the 2012-13 season, the third highest on record and the highest total since 2006. Bow hunters set a record when they took 51,008 whitetails.

Much of that harvest was bolstered by a substantially higher kill in southern Missouri, where hunters benefited from a poor acorn crop, which forced deer to come out of the deep woods to feed in more open fields where they were more visible to hunters.

Hunters such as Caldwell certainly are encouraged.

“We’re seeing a lot of young bucks and does, which is good for our future,” he said. “And that’s with no special management like planting food plots or anything. We’re just letting nature take its course.”

But that isn’t to say that everything is status quo statewide. Flinn and Sumners predict a reduced harvest this year, the result of a continued drop in deer numbers in northern Missouri and an improved acorn crop in the Ozarks, which will keep deer in the deep woods where they are less vulnerable to hunters.

“We have seen a decline in deer numbers in some areas, but we still have a lot of deer,” Sumners said. “I don’t know if we’ll ever have the numbers we did when the population was growing so fast.

“I think hunters are going to have to expect a new ‘normal.’”