Tuesday, January 08, 2008

MISSOURI NEWS: Hunters Can't Keep Up With Deer Population

I failed … again, as my wife would say.

I predicted the fall firearms deer season would set a new harvest record. The sun, moon and stars all seemed to line up as I thought about the upcoming deer season and penned my November column.

Lonnie Hansen, Missouri Department of Conservation’s deer expert also thought the season would produce a new record kill.

It wasn’t meant to happen. Missouri deer hunters killed 214,404 during the November firearms season, and for all seasons combined, we killed 260,162 deer, making 2007 the third-largest deer harvest, but not a new record.

Weather played a part, I’m sure. It was unusually warm the first weekend. I quit hunting early to process two antlerless deer I’d killed, and I’m sure many other hunters did, also.

There is another reality dawning on Missouri’s managers. The deer herd continues to grow despite increasing deer harvest, new seasons and increasing liberal harvest regulations. Heck, harvest is almost unlimited. You can kill as many antlerless deer as you have tags and can purchase more tags as the season progresses.

And each year we see different harvest regulations, seasons and expectations as managers continue to fine-tune the harvest and season.

Next year will be no different. MDC will propose new deer harvest regulations and different seasons, to increase, they hope, antlerless deer harvest. The experimental four-point regulation for 29 counties may be modified. It didn’t increase antlerless deer harvest, as managers hoped. Managers are now considering an antlerless season in October, rather than December, and changes in the four-point regulation.

The Missouri Department of Conservation’s Lonnie Hansen estimates Missouri’s current deer herd ranges between 1 million and 1.5 million deer. That’s a lot, and the population is still growing.

You have some control on how to manage that population. Beginning this month, MDC is holding a series of public meetings across the state to listen to your concerns and to discuss proposals for deer regulation changes. Once they hold the public meetings, the managers will propose regulation changes to the Conservation Commission for next year and the following year.

MDC managers are between a rock and a hard place. They must balance hunter expectations, maintain a healthy deer herd and consider social ramifications of an expanding deer herd. Crop depredation and deer automobile contacts continue to increase.

Let me stick my oar in the water on this topic.

In my opinion, Missouri’s deer herd is following the classic sigmoid population curve. The sigmoid curve is "S" shaped with slow growth on the left side, very rapid growth in the middle, followed by population maintenance as the population reaches carrying capacity for the habitat.

Missouri’ deer population is somewhere between full carrying capacity and the rapidly expanding segment, where the herd continues to increase. Current management slows the deer herd’s expansion. However, it isn’t able to stop the expansion.

There is another problem, however, nibbling at the edges of Missouri’s management approach.

What’s first prize: one deer? Second prize: two deer? Third prize: three deer? What do you do with all of the meat?

I suspect the amount of Missouri deer hunters is stagnant or decreasing, while deer numbers continue to increase. The only tool to manage the herd in our manager’s pocket is hunter harvest, and I fear we have reached saturation with regards to the number of deer that hunters are willing to harvest. I have an extended family that uses part of the meat I harvest each year. I process the meat myself. I don’t have to pay a processor $60 to $70 for each deer.

Hansen and MDC’s other managers continue to look for ways to increase deer harvest. Yet, the market is saturated. If you can’t kill a deer or two or four in Missouri, you’re not trying. How do you increase the harvest when fewer hunters participate? This is the conundrum MDC managers face.

Please don’t misunderstand. I believe MDC is doing a great job of managing our deer herd and meeting hunter expectations. Yes, I’d like to see more mature bucks with large racks, but for me, deer hunting is a food gathering exercise, all wrapped in a social event.

The nearest meetings to Columbia will be held Feb 4 at Marshall High School or February 7 at St. George Catholic Church in Linn. Both meetings will run from 7 to 9 p.m. If you can’t attend and would like to comment, write the Missouri Department of Conservation, Box 180, Jefferson City, 65102.

Source: http://www.columbiatribune.com/2008/Jan/20080106Spor001.asp

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