Over the past couple of years, hunters have been reporting major changes in northwest Missouri’s deer population, specifically that there just aren’t as many does and bucks roaming the hills and river bottoms as there used to be.
Game management specialists with the Missouri Department of Conservation have been taking note of those shifts as well and recently launched the first major deer study for this area in the past 25 years.
The five-year study, funded in part with federal wildlife restoration funds, is being conducted in conjunction with the University of Missouri.
MDC deer biologist Emily Flinn said the study, which began about two weeks ago, embraces Nodaway, Gentry, Andrew and DeKalb counties. A similar survey is being conducted in the Ozark counties of Wright, Texas, Douglas and Howe.
The two areas vary widely in terms of habitat and geography, and Flinn said those differences will allow scientists to compare and contrast their findings in ways that can be used to extrapolate data with regard to deer population and behavior statewide.
Flinn said the last major northwest Missouri deer study took place in the 1980s and early 1990s, but that a lot has changed since then, including environmental and habitat factors that have affected survival rates, reproduction and movement.
The precise nature of those changes is unknown — that’s what the study is for. But MDC officials say some of the factors involved include habitat conditions, hunter goals, deer densities, predator populations, and harvest vulnerability during deer season.
Flinn said data compiled during the study period will be factored into the department’s population models and used to determine future strategies with regard to herd distribution and disease control.
While Flinn and her colleagues are hoping the study will provide insight into chronic wasting disease, which is believed to be having a significant impact on Missouri’s deer numbers, she said the project’s scope extends well beyond CWD.
The bottom line, she said, is more effective deer management on a variety of fronts in an attempt to reverse imbalances in the distribution of Missouri’s herd, which is believed to total about 1.4 million animals.
During the 2014-’15 firearms and archery seasons, hunter’s harvested 260,000 deer statewide.
“Deer population has changed radically since (the last study), Flinn said. “Fifteen or 20 years ago we probably had too many deer. Now, in some areas, the population has gone below desired levels.”
Flinn said she is excited about the new study because an array of technology — including GPS collars — is available to scientists that simply didn’t exist in the 1990s.
The study calls for placing GPS collars on a total of 120 deer to be captured and released in the eight target counties. Capture goals include 30 yearling bucks, 30 adult bucks, 30 females (yearling and adults combined) and 30 fawns.
Field scientists will replenish the sample of collared deer annually to account for natural mortality and hunting deaths. Adult deer are being captured between now and March by using traps and nets. Pregnant females are to sedated and given transmitters that will alert researchers when births occur, allowing fawns to be captured and collared this spring.
If everything works as planned, the GPS units will record the precise location of subject deer five times a day, a vast improvement over the VHF radio collars used during the previous study. Radio collars required researchers to take to the field with receivers that picked up signals used to triangulate an animal’s approximate location.
The department said that hunters, hikers, campers and others will probably soon start noticing deer with collars or metal ear tags. Since GPS technology allows the deer to be monitored remotely, MDC officials say there is no need for people to report such sightings.
However, hunters who harvest a collared or tagged deer should call the phone number stamped on the device.
Hunters are also being asked not to let the presence of a collar affect their decision to shoot, or not shoot, a deer, since studying the pattern of hunter choices in the field is one of the project’s goals.