In terms of opening and closing dates, few of Missouri’s hunting seasons have been tinkered with more than squirrel season.
As far as squirrel hunting is concerned, it’s true the state’s deer and turkey seasons have grabbed a larger share of media attention down through the years. This is due, in large part, to the successful comebacks these game animals have made from the lean numbers of the early 1900s and the trapping and relocation efforts that went with those comebacks. Waterfowl, quail and several of Missouri’s other game species also have their devoted hunting followers and, due to population shifts and changing attitudes, these animals have also experienced a certain amount of variation in their hunting periods over the years.
But when it comes to fluctuation in length, it’s hard to top the ebb and flow Missouri’s squirrel seasons have experienced in the past century. Since the state’s first squirrel season in 1905, there have been 22 versions of squirrel season in Missouri. In some years, squirrel season opened in July and ran through November. In other years, it opened in June and went through October. For a brief period in the early 1960s, Missouri had two squirrel seasons (May 15 through July 15 and Aug. 15 through Nov. 30).
The current version of Missouri’s squirrel season starts the fourth Saturday in May (which this year was May 26) and runs through Feb. 15. Both Eastern gray squirrels and fox squirrels are legal quarry during this season. The daily limit is 10 of either species in the aggregate. (In other words, you can’t have 10 grays and 10 fox squirrels — it’s 10 squirrels total.)
One reason for the changing dates of squirrel season over the decades has been an ongoing abundance of squirrels. Despite hunting pressure, significant changes in habitat and periodic dips in food availability due to occasional years of poor nut and wild fruit production, squirrels have continued to thrive. The changes that have occurred in squirrel season dates represent the ongoing discussion that has taken place here and in other states about exactly how much hunting pressure squirrel populations can tolerate.
Though it’s more challenging to hunt squirrels in the fully leafed tree canopies of summer, summer squirrel hunting has always had its proponents. For some, it provides an outdoors opportunity at a time when not many hunting seasons are taking place. For people with gardens and orchards, summer squirrel hunting can serve the dual purpose of adding diversity to the dinner table and ridding their premises of a rodent that has a strong appetite for ripening vegetables and fruits.
From the biological perspective, one of the core issues of the summer hunting discussion has been what kind of effect it has on squirrel numbers when one of the creature’s reproductive periods is included in a hunting season. In Missouri, gray and fox squirrels have two major breeding seasons: middle-to-late winter and again in May-July. Whether or not to overlap hunting opportunities with this second mating and brood-rearing season has been much of the reason for the back-and-forth swings of Missouri’s squirrel hunting dates.
Studies over the years in a number of states (coupled with anecdotal observations that there are still plenty of squirrels around) indicate hunting that takes place in summer isn’t detrimental to overall squirrel abundance. A bigger impact on regional squirrel populations is acorn and nut crop (known as “mast”). Studies have shown notable fluctuations that have occurred in an area’s squirrel numbers are directly tied to changes in that area’s mast production.
Information about squirrels and squirrel hunting can also be found at mdc.mo.gov.
Francis Skalicky is the media specialist for the Missouri Department of Conservation’s Southwest Region. For more information about conservation issues, call 895-6880.