A 75th anniversary arrived this fall for a treasured Missouri tradition — hunting white-tailed deer. The herbivores are a keystone species that help shape the state's natural areas. But it took conservation awareness and support by Missourians to restore a creature and its supporting habitats from pioneer-era excesses.
Deer populations had dwindled to small herds in the Ozarks until the voter-approved and newly-formed Missouri Conservation Commission closed deer hunting in 1937. The policy-setting commission gave the Missouri Department of Conservation (MDC) the job of restoring deer in the state with science-based research and management. Today, almost a half-million deer hunters go afield in various hunting seasons and pump a billion dollars through the state's economy. They harvest almost 300,000 deer annually.
Deer hunters also help the MDC maintain an ecological balance for a wildlife species highly valued by Missourians, said Joe DeBold, MDC urban wildlife biologist. Deer can over-browse food sources and face heightened disease threats if they over populate a local area.
"Deer hunting plays a vital role of managing the state's deer herd population," DeBold said. "That also helps protect native habitat on the landscape."
But it took citizen support for conservation to restore an ancient hunting tradition to modern times.
In places such as western Missouri, the mixture of forests, open woodlands, prairies and river corridors provided ideal white-tail deer habitat. Native Americans considered venison a staple providing meat, leather and tools. Members of the Lewis and Clark Expedition noted numerous deer and shot them for food as they paddled and pulled a keelboat and pirogues up the Missouri River through what is now urban Kansas City.
Habitat loss and over hunting had decimated the state's deer herd by the 1930s. Many Missourians had never seen a deer, let alone hunted one. But MDC's conservation efforts in a partnership with landowners and hunters brought the nimble whitetails back. In 1944, the first modern deer season was held. Amid the uncertainty and food rationing of World War II, 7,757 hunters harvested 519 bucks during a two-day, bucks-only season in 20 counties.
Today, rare is the Missourian who has not seen a deer. They frequent forests, farms and the natural areas within the boundaries of cities. Venison is served on many household tables.
A common question posed to MDC staff is: "When is the deer season?" What the questioners are often referencing is the November firearms deer season, which this fall is open Nov. 16-26. That's the most popular deer season. Hunters harvested more than 200,000 deer during last November's firearms season.
But deer hunting has also expanded in methods and opportunities during the past 75 years.
Today, Missouri offers a lengthy archery deer season throughout the state. Early and late youth-only firearms deer seasons introduce youngsters to the sport and the outdoors. A three-day antlerless season in December allows harvest in some counties with healthy deer populations. A 10-day season is allowed in late December and early January for alternative methods that includes muzzle-loading rifles, archery, pistols and throwing the atlatl dart. Some cities allow special archery hunts in parks or large acreages to control deer populations in urban settings. MDC conducts classes, clinics, and special hunts to help newcomers enter the outdoor sport.