The Dirty Secret of Indiana’s Declining Deer Herd

declining deer herd

Wonder why you aren’t seeing deer?  Take a look in the mirror.

Visit any coffee shop, café or local watering hole where deer hunters gather and you’ll likely hear the same story. For the last couple years hunters have been complaining about declining deer herd. And for the most part they are right.

For me, the months of October and November are spent in treestands or still hunting though thickets and woodlots and my own personal observations back this up. It wasn’t that long ago when returning from the field the question asked was “How many deer did you see this time?” Now the question is “Did you see any deer?”  I look forward to collecting a mature buck during the early archery season but the past couple years have been different. Now the pendulum swings the other direction.

Indiana contains roughly 36,418 square miles. With this much land there are still a few “pockets of plenty” where deer populations are high, hunting pressure is low and habitat is perfect. If you are one of the fortunate to have access to these few special areas, consider yourself lucky. But for the majority of the state, deer numbers are down and numbers prove it.

Hunters are no different and sometimes it’s easy to complain and even easier to pass blame. Some believe it’s due to outbreaks of Epizootic Hemorrhagic Disease and bluetongue which have decimated deer in certain, isolated areas. A few say it’s due to previous hard winters and predation. But almost everyone agrees the large increase in antlerless permits made available by our state’s fish and wildlife agency is to blame. Although all of them impact deer populations I think it’s time for hunters to take a good long look at themselves. Let me explain.

Our Division of Fish and Wildlife have been fairly open when discussing their philosophy regarding our state’s deer herd. In previous years they operated under a maintenance policy which kept our deer herd stable. But several years back they moved to a reduction philosophy in an attempt to lower deer numbers.

Today, everyone is an arm-chair quarterback. I have talked to hunters and other writers who think they are deer biologists, when in reality they know very little. These folks have the answer for everything, and interestingly enough, it never involves them.

Indiana’s deer managers have to walk a very tight-rope. They are constantly under pressure from insurance companies and the Department of Transportation to reduce the number of car-deer accidents. They get pressure from farm lobbyists to curtail crop damage caused by our state’s wild ungulates. The money trail is loud and clear.

So what do they do? They up antlerless quotas and even create a special doe only season at the very end, at which time most does have been bred, I might add. Many hunters, including myself, would like to see antlerless deer tags reduced and the late doe season eliminated.

Now the rub. Some hunters who complain about not seeing enough deer go right along with it and are the biggest part of the problem. Does the state make you pull the trigger or finger the release?

The Quality Deer Management Association and wildlife biologists have put tons of money and time researching this very issue, not that they needed to because to me its common sense. Shooting too many does reduces deer herds. Pretty simple.

I know of several who have each taken a handful of does and continue to hunt. It was just last week a guy was telling me how he collected seven antlerless deer but wanted to get a couple more to donate. “You’re hammering the herd in your area aren’t you?” I had to ask. “Hey, it’s legal and I will take everyone I can,” he replied. I call this the “bluegill bag limit.”  Even though there is no restriction on the number of fish, is it ok for one person to keep 200? Is it legal? Yes. Is it ethical? You be the judge.

In four counties where I have permission to hunt a total of 18 antlerless deer can be harvested and that’s not counting a buck and additional doe legal to take during the early archery season. It was only a few years back when Howard County was listed as an eight, which meant eight additional antlerless deer could be collected from this one marginal county alone. Why would anyone need to harvest that many deer? Yet some will take all they can, then they are the same ones complaining the following season when not seeing as many deer. Think about all the buck and doe yearlings you have just removed from the following year’s deer herd and the year after that.

It’s great to take a buck. If you still need more venison to make it through the year by all means take a tasty doe, maybe two. But filling every tag just because you can is destroying the herd around us. Don’t take me wrong. We should share venison with friends and of course local food pantries because we need to help the less fortunate. However using that as an excuse to wack every deer you can is wrong.

High deer numbers to me are important. They keep hunters interested, more importantly, children. Youngsters are the future of traditional hunting and we need to keep them involved. Keeping people, young and old, interested in hunting is one of the most important issues we have for generations to come.

The state manages our entire deer herd from state-line to state-line but we should manage the deer where we hunt. So the next time you don’t see as many deer, don’t look at the DNR, don’t criticize big money lobbyists for doing what they get paid to do and don’t blame it on disease and predation. Maybe it’s time to take a good, long look in the mirror.

John Martino
Martino is a well-known outdoor writer throughout Indiana and has served as longtime outdoor columnist for the Kokomo Tribune newspaper. Martino has won numerous awards for both his writing and his service to youth, conservation and the community. He recently retired as Superintendent of Parks and Recreation for the City of Kokomo and now works as Ivy Tech Executive Director for Facilities for the Kokomo region.

84 COMMENTS

  1. I realize this is an older post but things have obviously not changed here since. My wife and i just moved here from Texas and it is a beautiful state that we are enjoying. We moved here in May and were both originally very excited at the opportunity to hunt a new state…that excitement is gone.

    I have been on several scouting trips this summer to survey public land and mark some areas to focus. Most of them have ended in disappointment. I have seen some deer and even some nice bucks but the deer population here is hurting. There is habitat loss…but that is EVERYWHERE. The problem I notice here is over harvesting and especially does. 90% of the deer I’ve seen here are bucks. This is NOT a healthy population. Even more so, the state is “earn a buck” it seems. We need the does to have babies to keep the population up. 10 does and one buck can produce 10 fawns at the least….1 doe and 10 bucks is one fawn by the same estimation.

    It’s a simple concept Indiana. We need to get onboard to correct it. It’s no wonder why liscence sales are down…there’s no deer out there!

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