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Wildlife officials encourage hunters to harvest more deer amid overpopulation concerns

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Deer forage at a wildlife habitat area created and maintained by employees of Georgia-Pacific's containerboard mill in Monticello, Mississippi.
(Photo: Business Wire)

Mississippi is currently experiencing a record-high white-tailed deer population across several regions of the state, leading wildlife officials at the Department of Wildlife, Fisheries and Parks to formally request that hunters harvest one more deer on average.

The number of deer each individual is allowed to harvest per season, known as a bag limit, remains the same. MDWFP Deer Program Coordinator William McKinley says the idea is to encourage hunters to fulfill more of that limit and help control numbers.  

Hunters in Mississippi have typically harvested 2 to 2 1/2 deer per season. But in recent years that figure has dropped to below 1 1/2 deer, and the statewide herd has risen significantly. 

McKinley says the exact reason for that is unknown. But MDWFP data show that while the actual amount of deer being harvested has dropped far too low, hunting license applications have remained around the same levels as previous years. 

“When we look at big picture numbers and we've got a population estimate, it seems that around 21 to 22% is around the target goal that keeps a deer herd level, meaning we need to harvest around 21 to 22% of the total population estimate annually,” he said. 

“And deer will replace that and there will be just the same number of deer next year. Well, the past few years that's fell all the way down to 14% of the herd. Our harvest estimates compared to our population estimates now are showing that we're harvesting around 14 to 15% of the population – well below what it would take to keep the population level.”

At hand in those regions where overpopulation exists are possibly profound ecological effects. A majority of Mississippi’s white-tailed herd lives in the southwest, central and Delta regions of the state, but are also growing in number in the southeast. 

Much of the Delta and southwest Mississippi makes up the Mississippi Flyway, a migration route that serves the seasonal migration of more than 325 bird species from the northernmost point in the Western Hemisphere to the southernmost. 

As keystone herbivores, deer, when overpopulated, are known to virtually eliminate plants from a given landscape through grazing. In Mississippi, white-tailed are particularly fond of strawberry bush and red mulberry, both of which McKinley says have taken fairly big hits since the herd began to grow. 

“Let's look at small mammals and ground nesting birds. Low nesters like a lot of the migrants that come through, the warblers, the tanagers, a lot of those birds nest chest-to-shoulder high and down, and deer, once overpopulated, are eliminating all of the vegetation in those areas,” said McKinley. So small mammals, ground nesting birds depend on cover and an overpopulation of deer can remove that cover. They can actually remove the seed base of that if left overpopulated for a long period of time.

Filer image
White-tailed buck feeds in thicket.
Ryan Hagerty, USFWS.

Much of the time since biologists became aware of deer overpopulation has been defined by an effort to better understand just how large that population is. 

Earlier this year, in cooperation with the National Park Service and the Natchez Trace Parkway, MDWFP employees conducted a thermal survey of deer along the entire 444 mile-long route. The effort involved attaching a thermal scanner to the side of a pickup truck and traversing the Parkway, end-to-end, three times. 

“What we saw was that the southwest portion of the state appeared to have by far the highest density. We were seeing about a deer per 150 yards on average for about 50 miles down there. It was one of the highest deer densities we've ever seen. That stretch of 100 miles we were seeing an average of over 800 deer,he said. 

But overpopulation is not just an issue for low-nesting birds or backyard gardeners in residential areas – it’s an issue for deer, too. 

The current estimate of Mississippi’s white-tailed herd – more than 1.5 million – means increased competition between deer for resources like food and water. When more deer are on the land, the odds of some spreading out and traversing heavily trafficked roads increases too. 

Much of the state has also been under a prolonged drought since August 1, increasing fire risk in most regions and driving the perils of that competition even further. 

“Especially the health of the deer herd in a drought like what most of the state is in now, we need to take a few more deer. We need those resources left out there to be distributed amongst fewer deer this year instead of more,” said McKinley. “We need to bring that total percentage of the population above 21%. We need to harvest more than 21 or 22% of that population this year and bring it down a bit.

For Mississippians who rely on deer for their livelihoods or to feed their families, a healthy deer population is crucial. It’s estimated deer hunters generate over $1 billion annually toward the state’s outdoor economy and related industries, as well as state-led conservation efforts benefitting other species. 

93% of the hunters who purchased a hunting license in Mississippi last year hunted white-tailed deer, according to McKinley.

“If we take the pounds of red meat that would come from the number of deer in our estimated harvest a year ago, that would equal over 13 million pounds of venison being harvested on an annual basis in our state,” he said. “

“How important is that to Mississippi families? I mean, this is the meat on mine and a lot of people’s tables. Then there's the industry and the food plot and the taxidermy aspect, plus the processors out there. There's so much money involved in white-tailed deer in our state.”