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.

97 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!

    • But that one buck can breed 4 does easily. That’s 4 to 8 fawns. No 1 doe is gonna have that many fawns. Also the state is not “earn a buck” the reduction zone is.

      • being new to the state he probably meant the state is a “one buck state” which is pretty much correct except for the urban areas where the earn a buck rule is the exception

  2. I agree deer numbers have definitely decreased in the past 10 years Steadily I personally believe we should do away with the late doe season if anything use that time for Folks who have not filled their buck tags to have one last opportunity with a gun to do so as far as antler restrictions I myself would like to get a big buck as much as anybody but you cannot eat antlers I think antler restrictions is something that most grown men do on their own anyhow but if a child wants to shoot a six pointer or the someone who only gets a few days to hunt or an old man who may not have many years or seasons left should have that opportunity. I’m glad they cut antlerless quota down to where it should be It wouldn’t have a mean if they re-introduced the one book in archery and one buck with a gun rule the way it used to be yes that may cut down on the number of boon and Crockett bucks running around but I know my family Counts on so many deer to eat each year

  3. THE ARTICLE SAYS IT ALL! THIS IS A GOD READ AND I HOPE ALL THE HUNTERS OUT THERE GET TO READ IT. I FEEL BLESSED TO TAKE ONE OR TWO A YEAR. THREE WOULD BE MY LIMIT ANYWAY IF I WERE THAT LUCKY. LEAVE SOME FOR THE UPCOMING HUNTER AND TO KEEP THE HERD TOO A HEALTHY NUMBER.

  4. Deer number will keep going down when they keep running almost 2 full months of some kind of fire arm season. They need to run like Illinois or even Iowa. And Indiana would be one of the great s5ates to hunt in.

  5. DNR is part of the problem. The turkey seasons are too late. Bobcats are reducing the the turkey population but are protected. Crows which once had a bounty on them are protected with seasons. It’s as if you do not really own your land and what the king says is what really matters like in medieval times.

  6. Illinois is dealing with the same issue. I wish we would get check stations back too. 1 tag = 6 deer just cut zip tie and keep hunting. Heard that too many times. And woods getting mined in to feilds. And farmers taking out all tree lines.

  7. Don’t know what part of Indiana most of u r from. But I’m my area one reason to my belief I don’t see as many deer is because to many farmers have taken out all the fence rows and ditch lines and little couple acre plots. If deer don’t have a couple safe stops between one woods to another than why would they leave an area if there not pushed out. 20 years ago it was nothing to drive my area in a 3 mile radius and see 100 deer. Now times lucky to see 10. I feel the firearm season should b shortened. I feel the antlerless numbers should b changed. And I feel u should have to take a doe before u can take a buck. And then one more doe and ur done. I also feel that takin out all these trees for a little more farm ground or so there irrigation can make a circle needs to stop. It’s hurting all the wildlife numbers. That’s my opinion and how it’s been working in my area. Agree or don’t agree I really don’t care. I know my area for 30 years and u will never convince me otherwise.

  8. Quit buying the late-season cool-aide and stop shooting does that have babies inside them!

    I have a philosophy I teach my 13-year-old son:

    Rule #1 and the most important:
    If it does not have antlers, you have to wait to shoot it until you kill a deer with antlers.(button bucks are not included)(if you shoot a button buck on my lease, you do not hunt here anymore)
    You can Shoot:
    All severely wounded bucks or does will be shot before a trophy. (Animal cruelty is horrible)
    Spikes/Cull bucks
    Racks past ears as long as they seem to be older than 4 years old
    Racks within the ears as long as they are 4 years old (going downhill)
    A doe that does not have fawns and you have 100% sure made sure you have not seen her with fawns. This can be tricky, but trail cameras help a lot.

    You Cant Shoot:
    Does after Bow Season due multiple factors.
    Bucks not within the above information.

    My Reasoning:
    1. Bucks know where does congregate
    2. Not shooting does will bring in more does during pre-rut and post-rut as they are “safe” in your area leading to more buck competition and a better hunt in your woods. (within reason and balance)
    3. Bedding in your woods/thicket(aligns with #2 above)
    4. If you do shoot the big buck/fighting buck out of your woods, another one will show up as competition just went down. These (what I like to call them) “replacement dominant bucks” instantly go on the shoot list if they are not of good herd management bucks. You have to keep your herd strong and away from bad genetics.

    All of this is almost impossible to do on public land, but just the shooting rules would help Indiana out immensely.

  9. Where I live is in southeast Indiana Ohio county for the last 4 or 5 years we’ve had a buck to doe ratio of 4 & sometime 5 to 1 which is not good at all, we have the first two weeks
    November & the bucks are gone because everything has been bread. No hot does no bucks!!
    Lower your bag limits would help, I know all about blue tongue but we also don’t need the Bobcats and the coyotes either we have enough of them to raise the limit on them that would help Also. & checking in deer on line, how many people are honest about doing that?? Just me venting!!

  10. This is a great artical, I hunt in north central Indiana, on my own property, and my son and I take just what we eat. What this artical doesnt address, is Deperdation tags. I know guys that shoot 8-10 deer, just because they can. And they are not required to consume them. I understand farmers, I have friends that farm, but allowing the slaughter doesnt help the numbers either. The other issue here, is out of state hunters on leased property, do they all hunt legal? Do they all report what they kill? Do they abide by the same rules as everyone who lives here? Not saying they dont, but is this all considered in the DNR numbers.

  11. This is such a good writing ! I have just finished talking with our deer project manager here in Vermont. Our deer herd is all but destroyed due to antlerless hunting ! We have a 16 day rifle season and it used to be that if you had time to hunt, you always knew that at some point you would probably get a chance to bag a buck. Now since instituting antlerless seasons and extending bow season,, youth weekend,, and increasing antlerless permits for muzzleloading season, you would be lucky to see a couple of deer during the entire season. I just do not understand the logic behind killing off our breeding does. It makes no sense to me or to the large majority of serious hunters in Vermont. My talks with the so called deer expert was useless. In spite of meetings held all around the state where hunters by a huge margin were against shooting doe, the department is instituting new laws allowing more antlerless deer to be killed. They wonder why deer hunting is dying here in Vermont!

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