KANSAS CITY — Is there trouble in paradise?
Missouri deer hunters certainly think so.
They remember days when they could pick and choose the deer they wanted to shoot. Now, they're lucky just to see deer. Any deer, let alone a big buck.
A severe outbreak of hemorrhagic disease during the summer of 2012 hit hard — harder than even the Missouri Department of Conservation first thought. That, combined with the long-term effects of liberalized hunting regulations that allow hunters to take unlimited does in many counties, several years of drought and reduced habitat, has hunters worried.
Missouri, for years known nationally for its deer hunting, no longer is the land of plenty when it comes to whitetails. Or at least, that's what hunters are reporting.
"I've hunted deer in Missouri since 1984, and this is by far the worst season I have seen," said Joe Monteleone, an avid deer hunter from Liberty. "We're seeing far less deer when we're hunting. Our trail cameras tell the story: We just don't have the deer out there that we once did."
Monteleone isn't alone in his thoughts.
Many hunters have contacted the Department of Conservation, the Kansas City Star and other media outlets to voice concerns. They're worried.
After years of being spoiled, they got a slap of reality during the 2013-14 season.
"The Department of Conservation blamed the warm, windy weather for the low harvest on opening weekend," said Dan Galetti, a hunter and taxidermist from Kansas City. "But I've been a taxidermist for 25 years, and I can remember other openers under the same conditions where a lot of deer were brought in.
"I just don't think the deer are there. Even in my taxidermy business, I'm down 60 percent in the number of deer brought in this season."
The harvest totals back the hunters up:
- Hunters shot only 157,272 deer in the 11-day statewide firearms season in November, 47,396 fewer than were shot in the 2012 season. That was the lowest total for a regular firearms season since 1993.
- The kill in each of the segments of the deer season concluded so far — urban, early youth, statewide firearms, antlerless and alternative methods — is down from last year.
- In some parts of the state, particularly the northwest, west-central, central and northeast regions, the downward trend is part of an overall cycle that has seen deer numbers decline in recent years.
The drop in harvest totals was especially surprising because it came on the heels of the 2012-13 season, when they shot more than 300,000 deer in all seasons combined, one of the highest totals in history.
Jason Sumners, a wildlife biologist for the Department of Conservation, acknowledges deer numbers are down, especially in light of hunters' reports. But he sees no reason to panic.
"We knew that some parts of the state were hit hard by EHD (epizootic hemorrhagic disease)," Sumners said. "But it's always hard to gauge the overall impacts of disease until the hunting seasons start.
"I have to admit, the breadth of the losses exceeded what we were anticipating."
But Sumners pointed out that Missouri still has a sizable deer herd, even in its reduced state.
Some hunters are pointing fingers at the Department of Conservation, saying management practices have played a part in the deer's decline.
They are especially critical of liberal hunting regulations that have encouraged the harvest of does. Maybe that was OK when Missouri's population was robust and even too large in places, causing problems on the roads and in farm fields. But the Department of Conservation went too far, hunters such as Monteleone say.
"The big thing is that we didn't have the safety net when EHD hit two years in a row," Monteleone said. "We had been pounding these does so hard, we just didn't have the breeding stock that we once did.
"If we get hit by another drought and another bad outbreak of EHD this summer, I'd hate to see where we would be."
Mark Rutliff of Liberty was especially upset when the Missouri Conservation Commission recently set the 2014 deer season and included the antlerless portion as always. He and others have been calling for the Department of Conservation to eliminate the antlerless portion and the practice of issuing unlimited doe tags to give the deer a chance to recover.
But Sumners pointed out that the setting of the season dates does not indicate what type of regulation changes will be made.
"Once the deer season is over (the archery season continues through Jan. 15) we will sit down and analyze the data, hunter feedback and other factors," he said. "It's still premature to say, but I would anticipate there will be changes.
"For example, we could reduce the number of counties where unlimited doe tags are allowed. And there could be restrictions during the antlerless season.
So how long will it take for the population to bounce back to numbers hunters once saw?
"Twenty years ago, it might have taken three to five years for the deer to recover," Sumners said. "But that's when the deer were still in an overall growth trend.
"Now, it may take longer."