November 16 is the opening day of the pinnacle event in Missouri deer hunting – the November portion of firearms deer season. This year’s season has a historical note to it – this year marks the 75th anniversary of Missouri’s modern deer hunting seasons.
Pursuing white-tailed deer is an activity that has a long history in Missouri.
November 16 is the opening day of the pinnacle event in Missouri deer hunting – the November portion of firearms deer season. This year’s season has a historical note to it – this year marks the 75th anniversary of Missouri’s modern deer hunting seasons. While the deer season we enjoy today in Missouri has a direct lineage back to 1944, deer hunting in the state has a much longer history.
Bison and elk made relatively early exits from the state, but deer continued to be found here as Missouri’s landscape became settled. Consider this newspaper excerpt from the January 21, 1881 Doniphan Prospect-News.
“The Webb boys killed over two hundred deer during the fall and winter… have sold 4,000 pounds of venison hams… Three of the boys, in the last weeks of hunting, killed 46 deer, one killing 13, another 15 and another 18.”
On a localized front, this indicates whitetail hunting in Ripley County was good 130 years ago. On a broader scale, though, it sheds light on the impact a hunting system that had few restrictions and minimal enforcement was undoubtedly having on Missouri deer. A clear sign that those heavy harvests were taking their toll is the 1889 legislative action that limited deer hunting in Missouri to a bucks-only activity. Does were to be protected until 1894.
However, over-harvest and habitat destruction was a double-blow that continued to shrink deer numbers. In 1925, a survey showed Missouri’s whitetail population had dwindled to 395 deer in 23 counties. That same year, the legislature closed deer hunting in the state.
One step the Missouri Game and Fish Commission took to remedy this situation made little improvement, but it provided an interesting asterisk to the state’s deer story. From 1925-1930, 253 deer were live-trapped in Michigan and brought to Missouri. This meant little to casual wildlife observers but from a biological perspective, it introduced a new deer sub-species to the state for a time. This deer, frequently called the northern whitetail (Odocoileus virginianus borealis), is larger than the sub-species native to Missouri (Odocoileus virginianus macrourus) and is the largest of the multitude of white-tailed deer sub-species found in North America.
A limited deer season was resumed in 1931 and with it came the introduction to Missouri of a harvest strategy that has been in the news in recent years – the four-point rule. The state’s 1931 deer season consisted of hunting on the last Thursday, Friday and Saturday of October. Bucks with four or more visible points on one antler were the only legal harvest. This three-day season lasted seven years (1931-37), but the harvests were hardly encouraging. The total number of deer taken in the seven seasons was 703. The harvest total for three of those had been under 100. These were hardly signs that Missouri’s whitetail numbers were rebounding. As a result, deer hunting was closed by the Missouri Conservation Commission after the 1937 season.
The newly formed Missouri Department of Conservation took up the task of replenishing the state’s deer numbers. The first part of this effort was to find existing deer populations. Deer from these areas could be live-trapped and re-located. One such area was a Taney County property owned by businessman M.B. Skaggs, a site that became the Drury Cooperative Wildlife Refuge. Deer from sites such as these were trapped and taken elsewhere in the state.
This deer re-location effort produced another interesting asterisk. In the late 1930s or early 1940s (no year is mentioned), Springfield’s Dickerson Park Zoo provided 13 deer that were re-located to Carman Spring Refuge in Howell County.
Sound biology coupled with much-appreciated cooperation from landowners began to bear fruit, as evidenced by a 1944 survey that placed the state’s deer numbers at 15,000. Missouri deer hunting resumed that same year with a two-day bucks-only season held in 20 counties, and thus began the modern era of the state’s deer hunting. From this small beginning, things only got better for deer hunters. A special archery season was first tried in 1946. Does became legal to harvest in 1951. In 1959, the first state-wide firearms season was held. Opportunities and deer numbers continued to expand and the end results are the multiple hunting opportunities the state’s hunters enjoy today in their pursuit of a Missouri whitetail population that numbers more than a million deer.
Information about Missouri’s current deer hunting opportunities can be found in the “2019 Fall Deer and Turkey” regulations booklet, a free booklet available at all Missouri Department of Conservation offices and most places that sell hunting permits. Deer information is also available at www.missouriconservation.org
Francis Skalicky is the media specialist for the Missouri Department of Conservation’s Southwest Region. For more information about conservation issues, call 417-895-6880.