A time existed in Mississippi when a statement like "Don't you think we have too many deer?" was met with gut-busting laughs among groups of hunters.

Only 20 years ago - maybe even 10 in some areas of the state - few hunters thought we had too many deer. However, slowly but surely the situation was turned around to the point where our white-tailed deer are literally eating us out of house and home in certain sections of the state.

"There are areas across the state that have a deer population greater than the available habitat can support," said Chad Dacus, deer program coordinator for the Department of Wildlife, Fisheries, and Parks. "In most cases, they are isolated areas, but they are bad. In one section of Montgomery County, biologists have reported over-browsing of all deer browse, and deer are eating and browsing on plants that are very low on the preference scale, including cedar trees."

So are there too many deer in Mississippi? Well, just witness all the carcasses lying along major state highways during the hunting season. This is just one indicator among others that we're overpopulated with deer. Then look at habitat depletion in some areas, visible browse lines and increasing depredation around the state.

Evidence certainly suggests we may have a deer overpopulation issue. Our deer herd may well be exceeding the carrying capacity in some areas. If so, what are the issues, and what can be done to get the numbers back in balance with our natural resources?


Finger pointing

This says at least two things about the evolution of deer management in the Magnolia State. Clearly, the Mississippi Department of Wildlife, Fisheries, and Parks has done a terrific job of bringing our deer herd back from the brink of a minimal existence to a highly prolific population. Perhaps it could be argued that the MDWFP has done too good a job, but that would not really be fair.

Secondly, one might ask if the state wildlife agency and Legislature have done enough to promote a balanced deer herd by providing ample hunting opportunities. But we deer hunt four months out of the year with very liberal bag limits on bucks and does. We have extra youth hunts, too. And the state has redefined primitive-arms hunting in the name of increasing opportunities for everybody.

However, some hunters think the state should consider abolishing all seasons except archery. Others think crossbows should be universally approved for use during all archery seasons. Even some have suggested that all deer hunting seasons be wide open to the use of any legal weapon of choice all season long.

Now that's opportunity, but it's uncertain if all this would be necessary.

However, if the problem isn't too little opportunity or too few licensed hunters going afield year after year, then what is the issue? Indeed, what other factors could be contributing to this deer overpopulation problem?

Well, duh? Maybe it's us. Hunters have to do their part too, you know. Maybe too many hunters put their heads in the sand when it comes to realizing that balancing the deer herd means taking out enough deer - especially does - to even things out. This continues to be a problem in Mississippi, and needs more examination as a root cause as to why we are making little progress in controlling our statewide deer population. Hunters are going to have to understand their role in the whole process.


A case of imbalance

Depending on the source you read, Mississippi's statewide herd totals somewhere between 1.5 million and 2.2 million deer. Of course, there is no way to know for sure, but a figure in the neighborhood of 2 million deer is probably a reasonable number.

Taken literally that the state encompasses some 47,716 square miles, then a total state acreage might be somewhere around 30,538,240 acres. Naturally, the total available whitetail habitat in the state isn't nearly that high. Even if the available habitat for deer were half that number, would it be enough to adequately handle 2 million deer? That is the $64,000 question.

Other factors impact the carrying capacity of our habitat for deer as well. Primary on that list is soil quality. This varies greatly across the state from excellent soils able to grow top-notch browse for deer to very poor soils barely able to sustain deer at reasonable numbers. It takes good dirt to grow good browse.

According to commentary provided in the 2007 Mississippi Deer Program Report, "Condition data and field habitat evaluations conducted by biologists continued to document the effects of current and long-term overpopulation in some areas of the state. Many locations in the state have experienced on-going damage of native browse by overpopulation of the deer herd since the early 1970s. Deer habitat on poorer soils has been damaged at a greater level than habitat on more fertile soils. Reduction of deer populations to levels where habitat can recover is unacceptable to many hunters. The result has been continued over-use of quality browse species by deer."

This would seem to indicate we have two major issues that are certainly interrelated - too many deer and not enough quality habitat. Thus it appears that the state's deer population continues to expand in overall number, and its negative impact is being felt in numerous places across the state in terms of declining habitat quality.

The ironic part is that deer hunters aren't doing the best job of helping the situation either. In fact, total deer harvest numbers have been on the downslide since 1994 for both does and bucks - at least according to DMAP harvest data.

Here are some interesting data to digest: From 1991 through 2006, the average annual buck harvest declined 47 percent from 19,562 to 10,230 on DMAP lands. During this same period of time, average annual doe harvests went down 26 percent from 19,576 to 14,488. A very slight increase was shown in 2006, and we still await data from the 2007-08 season, but the one year rise was statistically inconsequential. Overall deer harvests continue to be down. One has to assume also that this DMAP data sampling would generally reflect ongoing trends across the state for all hunting lands public and private.

Of course, hunting is fully recognized as one of the key tools available to control deer populations, especially herds that are expanding too quickly beyond carrying capacities. But as hunters, we are currently not getting the job done.

The question becomes just why is that the case?


More deer or more bucks?

Either by neglect, poor planning or ignoring rational deer harvest goals, a number of deer hunters and land managers are facing the inevitable problem of having too many deer and sometimes the resultant too little viable habitat to support them. Sometimes appropriate deer hunting goals are just not ironed out among hunting members or otherwise are just not accomplished by hunters, clubs and leases. These are contributing factors.

In big part, the problem is due to a lack of a plan or hunter consensus to balance the buck-to-doe ratio by harvesting a respectable share of the antlerless deer on the property. Also in play is the whole issue of the requirement to maintain an adequate natural habitat or to provide supplemental plots to help sustain the ever-expanding deer population.

Most clubs seem to face the same dilemmas season after season. Is the goal to have more deer on the property so hunters can be happy with lots of deer observations? Or is the mission to produce a limited number of top-quality bucks? If they don't take enough deer to balance the herd to their habitat, they probably won't end up with either.


A simplistic harvest tactic

"The old adage about taking deer early and often really isn't such a bad idea when it comes to reducing the population," said Natchez hunter Sean Perry. "I have yet to hear a biologist who hasn't advocated taking a majority of the targeted annual deer harvest on the opening day, weekend or week. Certainly as soon as possible."

This means selling the concept early to all hunters by reminding them of the reason it is important to meet harvest goals. Then make it plausible for the harvests to occur.

Opening-weekend stands should be set up on every food plot. The element of surprise will present opportunity for taking out many management deer, but the window closes pretty quickly. Post hunters everywhere safe shooting angles are feasible, and go to work.

Does Mississippi have too many deer? Yes, but not everywhere. That final assessment is yours. Evaluate your deer and habitat well. Seek professional guidance if in doubt. Set appropriate management goals, and stick to them.