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Weather, selective hunters cause dip in deer harvest

Friday, November 28, 2003

A significant drop in the number of deer taken during the opening weekend of Missouri's 11-day November firearms deer season probably resulted from warm weather and confident hunters, according to officials with the Missouri Department of Conservation. They say the dip probably is temporary and will even out during the remainder of the season.

Hunters brought 110,995 deer to check stations Nov. 15 and 16. That is 16,256 fewer than last year's record opening-weekend harvest of 127,251. The last time Missouri's opening weekend harvest was smaller than this was 1999, when hunters checked 94,481 deer.

Hunting mishaps were few. The Conservation Department recorded two firearms-related deer hunting accidents, both non-fatal, on opening weekend. This is the same number as in 2001 and 2002.

The weather on opening morning was not quite as favorable for hunters as it was last year. The temperature on opening morning was fairly normal, but the rest of the weekend was unseasonably warm, and damp, foggy conditions prevailed in many areas. Conservation Department Resource Scientist Lonnie Hansen said this likely had two effects.

"Warm weather doesn't affect deer's breeding behavior much," said Hansen, "but it does affect their feeding behavior. They have their winter coats, and when it's warm they don't need to eat much to maintain body temperature. They may visit a nearby oak tree to get acorns and not move much otherwise."

Hansen said an ample acorn crop this year further complicates things for hunters. When this staple food is scarce, deer tend to concentrate around food sources. In times of plenty, deer are scattered and harder to find.

Weather affects hunter behavior, too. In cold weather, hunters can shoot a deer and hang it outdoors while continuing to hunt. In warm weather, hunters must refrigerate deer immediately to avoid spoilage. They hesitate to shoot a deer early in the season, knowing they will have to stop hunting.

Hansen said changes in hunting seasons and the price and availability of deer hunting permits probably changed hunter behavior, too. The Conservation Department increased the length of the December muzzleloader and antlerless-only hunting seasons by a total of six days. It also lowered the price of bonus permits for shooting antlerless deer and allowed hunters to buy as many as they want in 39 of the state's 59 management units.

"Hunters look at all those days of hunting and all those doe permits," said Hansen, "and they decide to concentrate on bucks. They aren't in a hurry to take a deer on opening weekend."

Hansen admitted he was surprised at the size of the drop in opening-weekend harvest, but said he thinks hunters will get down to the business of putting venison in the freezer later in the season.

"It wouldn't surprise me if we caught up with last year's harvest by the end of the season," said Hansen. "It has happened before. If the weather got so bad that it kept hunters out of the woods the second weekend we might see a significant decrease in harvest. Otherwise I will be surprised if we don't come close to last year's harvest."

As of opening day, the Conservation Department had sold 508,647 deer hunting permits. That is 4,477 more than at the same time last year. Hunters bought 21,458 fewer any-deer permits, but this was offset by bonus permit sales, which topped last year's figure by 25,935.

The Conservation Department also gave landowners 123,206 deer permits. That is 20,164 more than last year.

Regional harvest totals were: Northwest, 19,745; Northeast, 19,353; Central, 18,399; Kansas City, 13,239; Southwest, 12,450; Ozark, 12,444; Southeast, 7,669, and St. Louis, 6,976. The top three harvest counties statewide were Benton with 2,118, Macon with 1,980 and Howell with 1,927. Hunters checked 720 deer by phone under a trial "telecheck" program.

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