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Missouri Deer Populations Recovering After Disease Outbreaks

According to the Missouri Department of Conservation, deer populations will offer plenty of hunting opportunities this year, as numbers are recovering from disease outbreaks across the state.
Noppadol Paothong, Missouri Department of Conservation

It's good news for hunters, but maybe bad news for drivers: the Missouri Department of Conservation says the state will see a pretty good deer population this year.

Many parts of the state should see a "large and healthy deer herd" this season, after years of declining populations, according to the department's Jim Low. He estimates the state has more than a million deer, offering "plenty of deer hunting opportunity out there."

Recovery from disease

But Low warns that populations are still "patchy" in places where deer populations are recovering from previous outbreaks of blue tongue and epizootic hemorrhagic diseases. 

"You can be in one place in a county and have just perfectly normal deer numbers and 10, 15 miles away be in a place where the hemorrhagic disease hit really hard, and deer numbers are noticeably reduced," he said.

Part of what's helped numbers recover is this past summer's moderate temperatures. The summers of 2012 and 2013 were hot and dry, which strained the deer's food and water resources. As deer congregated to the few spots of shallow, stagnant water available, they were susceptible to the bites of the flies that spread the hemorrhagic diseases.

But this year's temperate weather has put less stress on deer as they seek out food sources like acorns, putting deer in good shape for this fall, Low said.

Changing regulations

Another factor that's impacted deer numbers over the last decade is certain regulatory decisions the department has made. Prior to the outbreaks, Low said Missouri was seeing large deer populations, causing "unacceptable levels of crop damage" and deer-vehicle accidents. The department loosened hunting regulations to help control populations.

But Low notes the impact of the deregulation began to take effect right as the outbreaks occurred, resulting in lower deer numbers particularly in central, northern and western Missouri. Low said the department has already reduced the number of antler-less tags available to hunters this season, and the regulations committee will consider future changes to help in the recovery.

"There's always a danger of overreacting, too," he said. "If you get into panic mode, 'We've got to put huge restrictions on the harvest,' you chance having a swing back and forth. That's not desirable, either, between too many and too few deer."

Hunter involvement

The Missouri Department of Conservation said in a release that hunter involvement in managing deer populations is "more important than ever."
Credit David Stonner, MO Department of Conservation
The Missouri Department of Conservation said in a release that hunter involvement in managing deer populations is "more important than ever."

But hunters can have an impact on deer numbers right now, Low said. The department said in a recent release that, given the impact of disease on deer populations, hunter involvement is "more important than ever." 

"Although we certainly take responsibility for managing deer, the harvest decisions that determine how many deer are in a particular area are under hunters' control," Low said. "If hunters see that they're not seeing as many deer as they would like to in their area, they don't have to fill an antler-less tag and shoot a doe, which is going to further add to that decline."

"If they want more deer in their area...ease up on the does, and if there appear to be many, by all means, fulfill those antler-less tags."

In addition to patchy populations, hunters may also be challenged by this season's bumper corn crop. The U.S. Department of Agriculture estimates Missouri's crop this year could be the highest on record. Low said farmers with not enough storage might just leave extra corn in the field, giving deer more places to hide.

"Now that's a positive and a negative for hunters. It makes it harder for hunters to see the deer, but it also makes it harder for deer to see the hunters," he said, noting hunters can use the cover to their advantage to get closer to deer travel corridors.