Deer hunting accounts for three-fourths of the $1.1 billion in economic value that hunting generates annually in Mississippi, and hunting leases and fees can be an added source of revenue for farmland and timberland owners, says William McKinley, deer program biologist with the Mississippi Department of Wildlife and Fisheries.

Deer also are a valued source of food, not only for hunters but also a wide range of charities that benefit from donated deer meat, he said at the Mississippi Farm Bureau Federation Commodity Conference. And they support a broad array of corollary businesses, such as taxidermists and hunting suppliers.

But, McKinley notes, there is another side of the coin for the popular game animals: they’ve become so numerous that they’re causing millions of dollars annually in damage to agricultural crops, home landscaping and gardens, and to vehicles involved in collisions with deer.

“We’ve done population reconstruction analyses that show there are now at least two million deer in the state — and the figure could be even higher than that,” he says. “The result is that we’re seeing an upward trend in crop depredation, vehicle collisions, destruction of gardens, and other deer-related problems.”

That’s quite a contrast to 80 or so years ago when wildlife biologist Aldo Leopold, considered the father of conservation in the U.S., made a tour of Mississippi and estimated that there were only 1,200 deer left in the entire state.

“Our agency was formed in 1932 and by 1933 deer refuges were created across the state,” McKinley says. “As their numbers increased, they were moved into other areas of the state and released. All those releases involved only a dozen or so deer, but in the years since they’ve multiplied to the point that in many areas it’s not safe to drive down the highway at night.”

All this necessitates management programs and annual harvest to insure that the population doesn’t explode further, he says.

“If we don’t keep this deer population under control, we could face big-time problems. The only way to limit their numbers is to take out females.  And while there are some who oppose this, imagine what would happen if we stopped harvesting 350,000 or so female deer each year.

“As bad as things are now, within one year those 350,000 could become 700,000, and in another year there could be another 1 million-plus deer out there.

“Good deer management can reduce these accident numbers and depredation of crops, gardens, etc.”

For the past three years, McKinley says, hunters have shot more does than bucks. “Mississippi hunters have been very cooperative in harvesting antlerless deer. One-third of the herd must be harvested or die each year to keep a level population, but even though the bag limit is eight, the average hunter takes only two deer each year.”

Because of a massive acorn crop this past fall and a very mild winter that has resulted in a lot of green native vegetation, the deer harvest has been below normal, he notes.

“There has been an ample amount of food, which has made the deer lazy, and lazy deer that don’t move around as much, and hunters don’t harvest as many. The observation rate of deer this winter has been the lowest in my 11 seasons with the agency. On the other hand, antler quality of deer harvested has been some of the best I’ve seen, and may be the best ever in the state.”

In 2009, when heavy rain and flooding resulted in large concentrations of deer in some areas, crop losses were extensive, McKinley says.