Decline in rabbit hunting quiets the hounds' music.

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Decline in rabbit hunting quiets the hounds' music.

By Tim Renken Of The St. Louis Post-Dispatch.

10/25/2001

When is the last time you heard beagle music?

The baying and whooping of rabbit hounds used to be a common background noise on winter weekends over the Missouri countryside. Today you seldom hear it.

The reason: Fewer people hunt rabbits today than 20 and even 10 years ago. Fewer still raise and run rabbit hounds.

In the 1970s, more than 200,000 people - mostly men and boys - regularly hunted rabbits in the state. Last year, that number was 83,000, according to a survey conducted by the Missouri Department of Conservation.

In the 1960s and 1970s, Missouri hunters bagged some 2 million bunnies a year. Last year, the estimated kill was 575,452.

The sport is shrinking but not dying. Surveys show that rabbit hunters spent almost a half-million days afield last winter.

Quail hunting has seen a more precipitous decline. The estimated number of bobwhite hunters last year was just 47,380. That's just one good day at the ballpark.

The average number of bird hunters in Missouri between 1967 and 1999 was some 120,000. In the 1960s and 1970s, a quarter-million people ran bird dogs in the state.

Pheasant hunting also is in decline here. Ringneck hunting has never been more than a minor sport here because the birds thrive only in extreme northern and southeastern Missouri.

Last year, 15,164 hunters bagged 42,364 pheasants. Both estimates were down about 10 percent from the previous year and more than 30 percent from the five-year average.

Will that trend be reversed starting this fall? Probably not. Prospects are not good for upland hunters this season, according to survey results released by MDC.

The rabbit survey conducted in July found bunnies 13 percent below last year and 23 percent below the average since 1983.

Clearly, the cold winter last year took a toll on rabbits and reproduction in the spring, and summer wasn't very good.

The best populations were found in the north-central part of the state. The northwestern prairie and northeast were fair. Other areas were fair to poor.

Quail fared worse. Surveys last summer found the population at a record low 31 percent below the previous year and 61 percent below the long-term average.

Quail hunting was so bad last year that it's hard to imagine this season being worse. Quail are declining nation-wide, but the situation is more severe in Missouri, where farming practices impede the little birds at every turn.

Pheasant numbers are up 30 percent in the state's northern counties but still well below long-term averages.
 

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