Befuddled, an adjective, defined by Webster to mean a state of confusion, with synonyms, among others, like discombobulated, bewildered, dazed and stupefied.

In a sentence, it could be used thusly: “The total change in antlerless deer harvest philosophy this year by the Mississippi Department of Wildlife, Fisheries, and Parks left many hunters befuddled.”

In April, after over three decades of pushing the importance of killing antlerless deer (does) as a key tool in herd management, the state wildlife agency suddenly and surprisingly announced a change in direction.

Doe limits were cut from five per year to three on private lands in most of the state, and to two per year in the southeast corner. In addition, on open public land like National Forest lands (not included in a state Wildlife Management Area) and some U.S. Army Corps of Engineers lands, the harvest of does will only be allowed by youths (with guns) and by archers during the archery-only season.

Why the change? 

Larry Castle, MDWFP director of technical programs, told a Jackson newspaper it was the right time.

“We’ve been in the liberal mode deluxe for years,” Castle told The Clarion-Ledger. “We’re moving from a more liberal bag limit to a more moderate mode. At no time will everyone be happy, but we think, across the board, it’s about where it needs to be. We feel like, biologically, we’ve gotten some areas down to where they need to be.”

At the same time the agency cut doe limits, it also created more deer zones, opening the door to better geographical control in the future.

Absent in the doe discussion has been solid biological evidence to support the change, nor, to be fair, any to support staying with the status quo. There is survey evidence that harvest rates have declined in the last few seasons to the lowest in 25 years, but it is unclear what has caused it.

Fewer deer? Milder winters? Flooding that forced season closures in some of the highest-hunted areas? Decreased hunter pressure? 

Before he became the MDWFP’s new deer program leader, biologist William McKinley indicated that it was probably a combination of them all.

Over the past two years, the MDWFP conducted surveys of hunters that asked, among other questions, their thoughts on deer populations in the areas they hunted. Many responders showed a concern about numbers, including doe deer, on a decline. Sightings have been down.

So, the agency pulled the trigger and cut the limits.

“We just think it’s a good biological recommendation that is supported by the public’s desire, but we realize it’s not all of the public,” Castle said.

But if the reduction was not based on solid science, which many feel should be the determining factor, and was simply a biological recommendation supported by a segment of hunters, is that a good thing? 

A former MDWFP executive director, the late Vernon Bevill, once said “the key to managing wildlife, is managing the users, the people.” 

But, what message does it send? 

That can be oh-so important.


All about the message

Count Dan Smith of Ridgeland among the befuddled.

“I thought they were joking,” said Smith, an avid deer hunter, who co-owns a car body shop in Jackson. “I had to read it twice, and then find more sources just to be sure it wasn’t a joke.”

The body-shop side of Smith was elated with the change, similar to a weather forecast of icy conditions, hail storms and worsening pot holes in Mississippi streets. More deer means increased crashes, and repair business.

“If they did that because they think the deer population is down, they certainly didn’t check with anybody in my profession,” Smith said. “Deer/auto collisions are a big percentage of the body shop business. There’s a steady trickle of them all year, but when winter comes and we get the rut, and the food supply goes down in the woods, deer start moving. The collisions spike. That’s when we really see a lot of deer damage.

“If there’s a shortage of deer, you certainly can’t tell it by our business. The percentage of wrecks caused by deer certainly hasn’t gone down over the past few years; if anything it has risen. I’ll be watching the insurance lobby in the legislature; it should be interested to hear what they say.”

It’s Smith’s hunting side that is confused.

“What I don’t understand is how could things change overnight from 25 years of ‘guys you need to kill more does’ to ‘guys you need to quit killing so many does,’” he said. “What happened, did they just go away?”

In that respect Smith fits the model once explained to this outdoor writer by a former MDWFP biologist decades ago when the agency first started considering more liberal limits.

“Our limits are really nothing more than a message to hunters of what they should be killing, kind of like a recommendation,” Seth Mott said.

What Mott meant that day back in the mid 80s was that the MDWFP limits were indeed the law, yet, realistically, in a state with at best only two conservation officers per county, limits were nearly impossible to enforce.

So the best Mott and other wildlife managers could hope was that hunters would read the message between the lines, so to speak. At that time doe harvest opportunities were extremely limited. There were only a few “doe days” in the gun season without dogs — a.k.a. the still-hunting season — and the archery and primitive weapon seasons when antlerless deer could be legally taken. 

The message up to that point had been very clear: Don’t kill does.

At the same time, with buck limits as high as one per day with no annual limit and then five per season, the message interpreted about buck deer was just as clear: Kill any buck you want. 

That meant any buck that the average hunter might see was doomed, from a half-year-old button buck to a 1½-year-old fork horn, to a 2½-year-old 6-point, to a 3½-year old 8-point, to a … well, it kind of stopped there because few bucks ever made it to four years.

Something needed to change, and it was the agency’s plan to take pressure off the bucks and put it on the doe-heavy side of the state’s rapidly growing and expanding deer herd. 


Tough sale

Biologists began to stress the agency’s new philosophy on deer management that required increasing the doe harvest. They knew it would be a hard sale, starting with a reduction in the buck limit, and, eventually, creating a regional definition of legal bucks based on antler measurements. 

All hunters had ever known was that killing does was taboo, as they had been told, and convincing them otherwise was not going to be easy. The media was summoned to the MDWFP agency where they were given a thorough explanation of how important it would be to re-educate the public.

The older hunters then, who had started hunting in the early to mid 20th century, when deer numbers were drastically low, thought the change was the dumbest thing they’d ever heard and felt that allow doe harvest would destroy all the good done in herd rebuilding.

Slowly, sometimes excruciatingly so, more hunters bought into the idea, which was boosted over time by the “quality deer management” movement, combining rigid harvest management with increased habitat management to accentuate trophy buck production. Quality management meant killing does to reduce pressure on the habitat, and letting young bucks live long enough to reach their maximum potential.

The results have been amazing.

In the mid 80s, Mississippi had less than 20 typical and 20 non-typical qualifiers for the Boone & Crockett Record Book of North American Big Game. One might be added every three or four years.

Now, there are three or four added every year — 10 in one year — and the list of B&C qualifiers is long and getting longer, according to the Magnolia Records Program. Hundreds more have qualified for the Pope & Young archery record book, which has lower scoring thresholds for inclusion. The system of creating a more-balanced deer herd was working.


Liberal limits

To stress the importance of doe harvest, the MDWFP used the same read-between-the-lines messaging with increased antlerless limits and seasons. 

More opportunities for antlerless harvest were created, going from a few days in the still, archery and primitive weapon seasons to the full deer season in all but the last two weeks in the Southeast Zone. The limit was steadily increased, too, to as many as five per year per hunter in most areas, and more on clubs on the agency’s Deer Management Assistance Program (D-Map).

In 2010, the MDWFP created a special primitive weapon season to open in early November, during which only antlerless deer could be harvested. No bucks are allowed.

Most recently, before the 2014-15 deer season, the MDWFP changed the daily limit on does to be the state’s annual limit. That meant that if a hunter had the opportunity and the desire, he or she could kill all five of their annual doe allotment in one day. 

The message remained clear: Kill antlerless deer. 


Process continues 

The deer processing industry exploded. Decades ago, it wasn’t always easy to find a processor, and, when you did, it generally required an extremely long wait just to get one buck ground into burger or sausage and to have some tenderized steaks made. 

Now, dedicated deer processors and are a dime a dozen, and hunters can get custom orders. When you take a deer or two to the processor, you’re given a long menu of products.

Van Allen, owner of Van’s Deer Processing and Sporting Goods in Brandon, one of the largest processors in the state, said his numbers don’t show a decrease in business, which would perhaps be a sign of a declining deer herd.

“Money-wise, and numbers-wise, we have not seen a decrease in business in (our deer processing),” Allen said. “Whether it’s bucks or does, we can’t say because by the time it gets to us, it’s already been quartered or deboned. 

“But, I can tell you that there has been no decrease the last few years and if anything, our numbers have been up the last two years. I’ve heard of a few processors who say they are down, but I’ve heard of others who are so busy they’ve cut down on days to get some rest. We have just not seen any sign of decrease.”


Odd conditions

The last two winters have been unseasonably mild, and the soft browse (succulent plants) and hard mast crops (acorns) have been abundant. Deer don’t move much if they don’t have to in their search for food and cover. Not seeing as many deer can be interpreted by many to mean that there are fewer deer, or at least not as many as they were accustomed to seeing.

“Weather has so much impact on deer hunting,” Allen said. “We see it at our processing plant. After a hot weekend, we don’t get as many deer as we usually do on a cool or cold winter weekend. I think that not only do the deer not move as much, people don’t like hunting when it’s hot so they stay home or find something else to do.”

Reports from hunters vary by region.

“We haven’t been seeing as many deer the last few years,” said Joey Thomas of Natchez, who bow hunts both public and private lands in Southwest Mississippi. “That’s true both at the National Forest where I hunt and at my club in Jefferson County. I suspect the numbers are down for sure at the National Forest but I don’t think that’s the case at my camp.

“I say that because we have several food plots at camp, and we built some exclusion areas into the food plots (test spots where deer couldn’t feed due to fences). The wheat and Biologics inside the exclusions stayed knee to thigh deep, but the rest of the food plots look like they had been mowed. The deer are there; they were just nocturnal or very good at dodging us.”

Thomas feels the population is certainly down at the Homochitto National Forest areas he hunts.

“I bow hunt there during gun season at camp because there’s too much commotion at camp,” he said. “The last two years, I have not seen the number of young deer and does that I have in the past. I don’t know why I’m not seeing them, but I’m not. I don’t see the signs that I used to see. The browse line has not been as noticeable and tracks are down. Could be the weather, I guess, or it could be they just aren’t as dense as they used to be.”

Jimmy Thompson of Hattiesburg is adamant that the change is needed, at least in Southeast Mississippi, where doe limits are most strict, and where there is no early doe-only primitive weapon season.

“There is absolutely no doubt in my mind that we need to stop killing so many does in the Southeast Zone,” he said. “This is a good thing for us, but I can’t speak for any other region. I go up to other areas of the state to hunt with my brother and different friends and I’m amazed at the number of deer I can see in a day. It’s totally different from my home range.”

Tony Foster of Starkville is just as adamant that the change is unwarranted in his hunting area in the Black Belt Prairie region.

“I don’t understand this at all,” he said. “We have more deer now than we’ve ever had and I hate to think of what we’d have if we hadn’t been killing so many does the past decade or two. If they are so concerned, why did they leave the early doe-only November primitive weapon season and why did they say we can still kill our annual limit in one day if we want to? I’m confused; I don’t understand where this is coming from.”

Foster hopes the lower doe limits won’t have much impact.

“I doubt it will because I don’t know of very many people who are killing a limit of does anyway,” he said. “Eight deer (three bucks, five does) is a lot of deer for a person to kill, certainly more than a family can eat. But, I am scared that they are sending the wrong message to hunters.

“We’ve made a lot of progress in Mississippi towards quality deer management, and part of that is being aggressive in the harvesting of does. I’d hate to see us lose that progress. I’d hate to see the doe population shoot up again and see the habitat suffer. We may not want to shoot that many but I think we need to. Give the meat away if you have to.”

Harvey Bozeman of Flora simply wants to see proof that a change is needed.

“I’d like to see the research,” Bozeman told The Clarion-Ledger. “I don’t understand where the need for that is. There’s still a bunch of deer out there. It looks pretty healthy and pretty stable as far as I’m concerned.”

Gene Rogers of Oxford had a simple suggestion: “Mississippi has as good as hunting as anyone, the envy of most, so if it ain’t broke, don’t try to fix it.”

Thompson counters with: “There are areas like my Southeast where we have serious problems that need fixing.”