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story.lead_photo.caption Deer peer out from a small plot of forest near Fulton High School. The Missouri Department of Conservation currently offers free hunting permits to people who own at least 5acres of land, but they're contemplating changing the minimum land requirement. Photo by Helen Wilbers / Fulton Sun.

The Missouri Department of Conservation is considering changes to which landowners qualify for free hunting permits.

Issues with abuse and changes to Missourians' land usage patterns mean the MDC is thinking about raising the acreage threshold to qualify for the permits. Missourians can voice their thoughts about the proposed changes via an online survey at mdc.mo.gov/landownerinput.

Since 1944, Missouri landowners who hold at least 5 acres of land have qualified for free deer and turkey hunting permits. The rationale at the time was to incentivize landowners to invest in creating good wildlife habitats. In 2018, more than 180,000 landowners were issued free permits under those rules.

But times have changed since 1944, the MDC said. Smaller holdings have become the norm as farms and larger holdings are subdivided and resold, often as recreational lands and residential sites. Experts' understanding about wildlife needs have changed too. A healthy deer density in Missouri is about one deer per 20-25 acres — in other words, the 5-acre threshold doesn't reflect actual wildlife habitat needs.

Perhaps the greatest problem is the fraud.

In 2018, the MDC conducted a qualification check by contacting a random subset of people who received no-cost landowner permits that year.

"During our 2018 check, 34 percent of individuals directly contacted were found to not qualify for no-cost landowner deer permits," an MDC factsheet stated.

Most had simply lied about possessing 5 or more acres of land, or were former members of a qualifying landowner's household but no longer qualified themselves.

In response to all of the above issues, the MDC is contemplating increasing the acreage threshold.

"An increase of the acreage threshold to a more meaningful size provides a more realistic impact on small-game populations as well as on the habitat needs of deer and turkey, and gives emphasis and special privileges to production farmers who are most likely to experience crop loss due to wildlife," the MDC stated. "In addition, most fraudulent and use of no-cost landowner permits occurs at the lower-end of the qualifying acreage."

Different states have vastly differing requirements for free permits. In Illinois, the minimum is 40 acres, and the landowners must be recertified every five years. Kansas' minimum is 80 acres, and landowners must still buy deer and turkey tags. There's no minimum land requirement in Kentucky or Tennessee, and Iowans only need 2 acres. Arkansas and Nebraska don't offer any exemptions to landowners.

The MDC did not specify what the new threshold could be.

Missourians have until March 18 to voice their opinions on the survey. The survey is brief, and being a landowner or hunter is not a prerequisite to participate.

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