From his waterfront home in Bokeelia, Fla., Dick May no longer feels the same long-range excitement over the Missouri deer season that he once did.
Oh, he will still join relatives and friends for their annual deer camp near Lake of the Ozarks for the firearms season in November. Tradition can’t be messed with.
But the promise of good hunting won’t be there.
“Last year was absolutely the worst season we’ve ever had,” said May, 78, who lived most of his life in Kansas City before retiring to Florida. “It was just awful.
“Five of us shot only one deer, and that was a doe. And people we get together with down there had a terrible time finding deer, too.
“We didn’t even see deer. let alone shoot them.”
What makes it even worse for May is that he remembers the good times. When he still lived in Missouri, he and others bought a large parcel of wooded land in Camden County, and he had a deer-hunting paradise. A group of 20 family and friends would gather for the opener, and it wasn’t unusual for many of them to take deer.
But those days are gone, at least for now. May and many other Missouri deer hunters are facing a new reality.
A deadly outbreak of hemorrhagic disease, combined with liberal hunting regulations that allowed hunters to take an unlimited number of does in many counties, devastated the whitetail population in some parts of the state. Look at last season’s harvest figures.
Missouri deer hunters took 251,924 whitetails, the lowest total in at least 10 years. Wildlife officials with the Missouri Department of Conservation aren’t in panic mode, but they know something has to be done.
That’s why they took a bold move in the spring, reducing the limit for antlerless deer during the firearms season from unlimited to one in many counties. Further restrictions are being considered, and the proposals were presented to hunters in public meetings this summer.
“We received a lot of feedback after the deer season that something had to be done,” said Jason Sumners, a deer biologist for the Department of Conservation. “We agreed.
“But that feedback wasn’t the only reason we made changes. From a biological standpoint, we feel that regulation changes will help rebuild our deer herd.
“It’s not going to happen overnight, though. Typically, it takes several years for a deer herd to recover.”
Missouri certainly isn’t alone in its woes.
On the heels of one of deer-hunting’s most glorious eras, wildlife biologists and hunters in many states are finding that deer aren’t an unlimited resource.
Kansas is dealing with problems of its own. The whitetail population is declining there, too, though not as rapidly as in Missouri. Harvest has declined and deer-vehicle accidents are down sharply — indications that the herd is no longer as robust as it once was.
“A combination of three years of drought, land coming out of CRP (the federal Conservation Reserve Program that compensates landowners for idling marginal crop land), and some outbreak of hemorrhagic disease has had an effect,” said Lloyd Fox, deer biologist for the Kansas Department of Wildlife, Parks and Tourism. “Our deer numbers are down, but not drastically.
“We still have good hunting — and the big bucks we’re known for — but our numbers aren’t as high as they were 10 years ago.”
Missouri, Kansas, Iowa, Nebraska, Illinois — they’re all dealing with similar problems. Deer populations are dropping.
In some of those states, that has translated to a change in management philosophy.
“Not too long ago, our deer population was growing at a tremendous rate, and we were scrambling for ways for hunters to take more deer,” Fox said. “Now, we’re looking for ways to reduce the harvest.
“We’ve started doing that by reducing the number of days in some units during our extended seasons. We’ve reduced the season by as much as eight days in some areas.”
Fox and other wildlife managers with the Department of Wildlife, Parks and Tourism chose that route rather than making sweeping changes.
“If you make too big of a step, you can have trouble,” Fox said. “We have to bring hunters and landowners along together. We have to find that balance where there are enough deer out there to please hunters, but not so many that they are causing problems for landowners. And that balance isn’t always easy to find.”
In Missouri, long known as one of the best deer-hunting states in the nation, wildlife biologists talk about “the perfect storm.”
In the early 2000s, some parts of the state, particularly northern Missouri, had an overabundance of deer — to the point where something had to be done.
So wildlife managers took the limits off antlerless deer during the firearms season in an attempt to reduce deer numbers.
“We didn’t know if hunters would be able to make a difference,” said Emily Flinn, a deer biologist for the Department of Conservation. “But they did.”
Ordinarily, that wouldn’t have been a major problem. But when a severe outbreak of hemorrhagic disease hit Missouri in 2012, the liberal regulations of the past became a compounding factor.
There’s no way of knowing how many deer were lost to the disease. And even then, the losses that were reported showed that it had a patchy effect.
“One farm at one end of the county could have lost a lot of deer, while a farm at the other end could have been fine,” Flinn said.
The outbreak seemed to miss parts of the Ozarks. There, the deer harvest continued to slowly increase, with counties such as Texas, Oregon and Howell reporting good hunting.
In fact, everyone from hunters to newspaper reporters in the Ozarks wondered what all the fuss was about?
But that’s a microcosm of the state’s overall deer situation. Yes, there are regions that escaped the ravages of hemorrhagic disease and didn’t have the liberal hunting regulations that some areas did. But there are other parts of the state where wildlife officials say deer populations are down 20 percent or more.
“It’s not like we had a total crash,” Flinn said. “Missouri still has good deer hunting.
“More than anything, it’s highly regionalized. The areas that were hit hard by EHD (epizoic hemorrhagic disease) have less deer, but regions such as the Ozarks still have slowly increasing populations.”
The Department of Conservation is proposing even more steps to bring the deer back.
In public meetings this summer, officials outlined several proposals.
▪ Moving the regular firearms season back a week to allow for more deer to finish the rut.
▪ Reducing the antlered buck limit to one per season, whether it be firearms and archery seasons combined or only one of the seasons.
▪ Reducing the length of or eliminating the firearms antlerless season.
The agency also is concerned about Chronic Wasting Disease, which was discovered in a captive deer operation and in 10 wild deer in northeast Missouri several years ago.
The fatal disease is highly contagious among deer and has the potential of causing problems. The Department of Conservation has proposed tightening regulations on private deer farms, and owners of those facilities objected and pushed for a legislative bill that would put captive deer facilities under the regulation of the state Department of Agriculture, not the Department of Conservation. That measured passed, but was vetoed by Gov. Jay Nixon. Nixon’s action barely survived the legislature’s veto session.
Translation: It hasn’t been a quiet offseason for those involved in Missouri deer hunting.
“Obviously, we have to adjust to the times,” Sumners said. “Deer numbers are down and it will take a few years for them to bounce back.
“Regulations changes aren’t going to bring the deer back overnight, but they can help.”
A final report on feedback from the public meetings is being drafted. From there, the wildlife staff will draft new regulations and submit them to the regulations committee. By next fall, the changes could be in place.
And this year? Well, hunters such as May could be in for another discouraging November. Flinn warns hunters not to expect much of a change in deer numbers from last year.
“I plan to make the trip back to Missouri to go hunting,” May said. “But it will be more to get together with family and friends more than anything else.
“We’re not expecting much.”
To reach outdoor editor Brent Frazee, call 816-234-4319 or send email to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Tracking the deer season
Harvest figures for the last decade in Missouri and Kansas.