For hunters, the arrival of the firearms season for white-tailed deer in early November has been as certain as autumn leaves falling from the tree.
That could change if the Missouri Department of Conservation alters regulations and shuffles the timing of the annual deer season.
The department is weighing whether to move the antlerless portion of the firearms season to October, open the traditional November portion the weekend before Thanksgiving and move the muzzleloader portion to late December.
It is also looking at expanding application of a restriction that prevents hunters from shooting antlered deer who don’t have at least four points on at least one side of their racks.
By shuffling the seasons, the hope is that hunters will have more time to hunt over the Thanksgiving holiday and be able to take advantage of hunting the rut, the mating period for deer, according to a Conservation Department pamphlet.
The changes would also allow for better muzzleloader hunting because the animals have more time to settle after the November period of the season, biologists argue.
Aside from trying to offer hunters more opportunities to shoot deer, the department’s ultimate concern is properly managing the state’s deer population.
Lonnie Hansen, a deer biologist for the Conservation Department, said the antler restriction has been very popular in most of northern Missouri, and he looked positively at the possible expansion of the four-point regulation.
The proposed changes to the season timing are intended to balance the buck-to-doe ratio and produce more adult bucks and would not take effect until 2009, the pamphlet said. The changes would allow more bucks to reach older age classes, improve the ability to manage deer numbers, as well as provide more opportunities for dominant bucks to breed before large numbers of them are harvested.
The new deer management strategy follows a 2004 pilot antler-point restriction program in 29 counties that ends this year. The program required a buck to have a minimum of four points on at least one side for it to be legally hunted and was intended to shift harvest pressure from bucks to does.
Hansen said the doe harvest is a key factor in how the population is controlled. But over the course of the pilot program, the doe harvest did not increase in 22 of Missouri’s northern counties, the pamphlet said. Hansen said the number simply reflects the fact that hunters were already shooting as many does as they wanted.
Whether to expand the antler restriction to other counties or scrap it for the 2008 deer seasons will be decided based upon biological results from the pilot survey and hunters’ responses.
Trip Moynihan, an avid hunter and promotions manager at Bass Pro Shop’s Sportman’s Center, said moving up the antlerless season to mid-October could have undesired consequences: It could cause venison to spoil.
“You don’t want to be out there dragging a deer when it’s 70 degrees,” he said. “Ideally, you want it at 40 degrees”.
Aside from worries over storing meat, there has been a mixed reaction to the possible expansion of the four-point restriction.
Moynihan said he wasn’t concerned that expanding the four-point regulation would reduce the number of available deer for hunting.
“I think it’s a good regulation,” he said. “I mean they had wanted to develop the trophy bucks. I think it was something they tried, and I think it was pretty successful.”
Ryan Filbert, another hunter, was enthusiastic about expanding the four-point restriction.
“I definitely want (the four-point regulation) to be kept,” Filbert said. “It’s been great for the hunting. Most hunters want to go for the larger mature males. ... I think it’s been a great thing.”
Jason Brush, a hunter from Callaway County, said he was against expanding the four-point antler restriction into his county.
“Hell no, I don’t want that,” Brush said. When asked why, he said, “Because I can shoot whatever I want to. I (hunt) more for food than anything.”
The proposals are the result of research on deer and surveys of hunters. The department will hold 16 meetings across the state to gather public opinion on changes it wants to make to the 2009 deer hunting season.
The meetings will be held between Jan. 8 and Feb. 11. Further details and a copy of the proposal can be found at mdc.mo.gov/events/forums/deer.