Missouri’s small-game hunting forecast

JEFFERSON CITY– Hunters wondering about prospects for quail, rabbits, squirrels, and other small game in Missouri will find many answers in the past two years’ weather.

The fortunes of wild animals always depend heavily on weather. But what’s good for one game animal doesn’t always favor others. Squirrels and quail offer a good example of the contrasting effects of weather.

Bobwhite quail build their nests on the ground. Immediately after hatching, bobwhite chicks are barely larger than bumblebees, and their downy plumage is not waterproof. This makes them extremely vulnerable to death by hypothermia. Consequently, quail nesting success falters when cool, wet weather lingers into summer. Drought doesn’t exactly help quail, but they are much better adapted to hot, dry conditions than to wet and cold.

In contrast, gray and fox squirrels generally rear their young in hollow trees, where they are protected from the elements. By the time they emerge from den trees six or seven weeks after birth, they are half grown and well equipped with insulating fur. Damp summers don’t bother them much. However, they depend heavily on acorns and other nuts for food. In years when acorns are scarce – as they were across much of southern Missouri in 2012 because of drought – squirrels go hungry. That means fewer squirrels survive the following winter. And because squirrels go into the next breeding season in poor physical condition, they tend to raise only one litter of young instead of two. So the effects of a bad nut crop are felt for at least two years.

That scenario is exactly what is unfolding this year.

“The effects always are more severe in southern Missouri,” says Lonnie Hansen, a resource scientist for the Missouri Department of Conservation. “That is because acorns and other nuts make up so much of the food base for squirrels and other wildlife in heavily forested areas. A poor nut crop is less detrimental in northern Missouri, where row crops like corn and soybeans help create a more diverse and stable diet.”

Nevertheless, Hansen says his and others’ observations indicate that squirrel numbers are down in northern Missouri, too.

“I think there has been somewhat of a crash, especially in the Ozarks,” he says, “but they will come back.”

Resource Scientist Beth Emmerich says the news for quail is better. In spite of a couple of major snow events, the winter of 2012-2013 was fairly mild, allowing good carry-over of bobwhites for the 2013 nesting season. A late spring meant quail got a late start, with the peak hatch occurring in July. However, the warm, dry conditions that prevailed after that were ideal for bobwhite nesting.

“The record rainfall of 2008 made things extremely hard for nesting quail,” says Emmerich. “2009 and 2010 also were cooler and wetter than normal, continuing the trend of bad news for quail and quail hunters. But the summers of 2011 and 2012 were dry and warm, and quail made some gains.”

Reports from the field lead Emmerich to believe another warm, dry summer allowed quail to build on recent years’ success.

“People report seeing more quail and pheasants compared to last year,” says Emmerich. “Areas that likely had a noticeable increase in quail were northwest Missouri, the Ozarks, and southeast Missouri. I’ve heard good reports on pheasant production in the northern part of the state, where pockets of pheasant populations still exist.”

Rabbit population changes tend to mirror those of quail because their habitat needs are similar. Larger size and fur make cottontails slightly less vulnerable to weather, so their population swings are less dramatic. But warm, dry weather favors rabbit reproduction, so rabbit hunters get good news this year, too.

Emmerich says lack of suitable habitat continues to be the biggest obstacle to increasing quail and rabbit populations.

“Good brood-rearing habitat is most limiting statewide,” she says. “Quail chicks need bare ground to be able to forage effectively, with weedy plant species providing food as well as overhead protective cover."

Trappers and furbearer hunters have a bright outlook this fall. Resource Scientist Jeff Beringer says populations of all commercial fur-bearing species in Missouri are stable or slightly increasing.

According to Beringer, favorable weather and strong fur prices resulted in high participation by hunters and trappers during the 2012-2013 season. The Conservation Department sold more than 9,000 trapping permits, which was a 25-year high. Last year’s bobcat harvest was an all-time record, with 5,059 harvested. The otter harvest was the second-largest on record, and the coyote harvest was the largest in 25 years.

Raccoons bucked the trend, with a 12-percent decrease in the combined trapping and hunting harvest from 2011-2012 to the 2012-2013 season. The decline was in line with archery hunter observations, which showed a 35-percent decline in raccoon sightings. Beringer attributes the decrease to deaths of young raccoons during last year’s drought.

Meanwhile, last year’s red and gray fox harvests increased by 18 and 41 percent, respectively. Beringer said this probably occurred because the value of bobcat pelts was high last year.

“A lot of foxes are taken incidentally by trappers targeting bobcats and coyotes,” says Beringer. “We have seen a long-term decline in both red and gray fox numbers, probably due to competition with coyotes and bobcats. Distemper might have played a part in this decline, too. However, archer observations and sign-station surveys suggested increases for both fox species from 2011 to 2012.

Recent survey data indicate that more than 13,000 hunters pursued raccoons in Missouri last year and more than 25,000 hunted coyotes last year. Beringer says he expects the trend toward greater participation in furbearer trapping and hunting to continue.

“I look for a big furbearer harvest this year and large numbers of trappers and predator hunters,” says Beringer. He said he expects more than 10,000 trappers and 20,000 furbearer hunters to take to Missouri’s fields, woods, and waters this year.

Permit requirements, season dates, bag limits, and other details of trapping and small-game hunting seasons are found in the 2013 Summary of Missouri Hunting & Trapping Regulations. This booklet is available wherever hunting permits are sold, at Conservation Department offices and nature centers, or online at mdc.mo.gov/node/11416.

-Jim Low-

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