By Brandon Butler
Fayette Advertiser Outdoors Columnist
What a difference 80 years can make. In the span of just one human lifetime, Missouri’s white-tailed deer herd has gone from almost nonexistent to thriving. With restoration complete, management is the challenge of the day.
In 1936, when the Conservation Commission took control of wildlife in our state, white-tailed deer numbers totaled an estimated 400. Fast-forward to today, and our deer herd is estimated at 1.5 million. The restoration of white-tailed deer is one of the greatest conservation success stories of all time. The work, however, never ends.
The Missouri Department of Conservation has a team of experts who are dedicated to the management of white-tailed deer. These highly trained scientists have the tough job of balancing sound science with social and economic desires. They operate with a plan, but also must deal with the unexpected. One such unexpected factor that significantly affected the deer management plan was the severe outbreak of Epizootic hemorrhagic disease (EHD) in 2012 and again in 2013.
EHD is primarily spread by a biting midge. These midges are found around water sources. They lay their eggs in muddy areas and spend their larva stage in water. The life cycle of these midges is approximately 4–5 weeks, so in years of intense hatches, the midge population becomes overly abundant.
Female deer typically have twins. So when populations are managed for growth, herd growth jumps significantly from year to year. In the 1990’s, the growth of the Missouri deer herd had reached a point where it needed to be stabilized. Therefore, liberal harvest regulations became the norm, and we eventually were able to have unlimited doe tags in certain parts of the state.
These unlimited doe tags were to help reduce deer populations in certain areas where restoration efforts had actually been too successful. The plan was working. Over the last decade, deer numbers were being adjusted, by hunters, to where the biologists believed they needed to be. Then we experienced 2012.
“2012 was the perfect storm,” said Jason Sumners, an MDC deer biologist.
Hunters were subtly seeing the results of the planned deer number reductions in certain areas, but when the most horrific outbreak of EHD in recorded history occurred, the reductions quickly went too far. Certain areas of the state lost a significant percentage of their herds. There was nothing that could be done to stop it.
The weather was to blame. The spring of 2012 was the warmest on record in the history of Missouri. This caused increased activity in the biting midges earlier in the year, and as we progressed through the extremely hot and dry summer, the disease became devastating. Over 10,000 suspected EHD cases were reported, and likely hundreds-of-thousands more were never discovered and reported.
Then you must consider the drought also caused a record-low acorn crop, which led to deer being much more susceptible to being killed by hunters as they had to venture further and out into the open for food.
In 2013, the outbreak was really bad again. So today, we are for the first time in a long time, facing a situation that calls for growth. In select areas of the state, the deer population needs to rebound Therefore, MDC has implemented regulation changes that should reduce the total harvest of deer in these areas. These regulation changes include the reduction of the number of antlerless deer permits each hunter may fill.
The good news is, with the cooler conditions we have experienced this year, EHD is for the most part nonexistent. We know how resilient white-tailed deer are, and Missouri has some of the best wildlife biologists in the world. With good weather and responsible management, it won’t be long until the areas with depressed populations are right back up to where they belong.
See you down the trail…