Kokomo Tribune; Kokomo, Indiana

December 29, 2013

MARTINO: Indiana’s deer herd — a 'tail' of two sides

Kokomo Tribune

---- — “I am just not seeing the deer I used to,” Jeff Pearsall said as he pulled the cap off his muzzleloader before placing it back in the case after a recent morning hunt. “I think the state is going overboard with their reduction efforts,” he lamented.

He is not alone in his thoughts. It was a theme echoed over and over during this year’s deer hunting seasons.

But not everyone feels the same as Pearsall.

“I wish they would let hunters take even more deer,” said Pam Gibson, who recently spent thousands to repair her car after colliding with a deer on Kokomo’s new bypass around the old bypass.

Indiana’s white-tailed deer are a valuable resource. They lure thousands each year to our state parks and nature reserves. They also draw hordes of hunters to woodlots and forests throughout the state. The economic impact they provide is staggering. But controversy is brewing.

There was a period of time when deer were nearly nonexistent in the Hoosier State, meeting their demise through unregulated hunting and loss of habitat. Then, in 1934 they were reintroduced with animals taken from Michigan, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and North Carolina. In 1951, Indiana opened selected areas to regulated hunting. Although some believe our state’s white-tailed deer herd is proof positive of a wildlife management success story, others feel it has gone somewhat awry.

The species, once gone from Indiana’s landscape, has grown to such abundance that state officials began a program to help reduce the growing population and they are using the most reliable form of game management to do it — hunters.

Some state officials believe it’s a balancing act. Each year hunters collected record numbers of deer, to the tune of more than 130,000. Yet they flourished as did the reports of crop damage, conflicts with humans and the increase of car-deer accidents. In areas throughout Indiana, biologists believe they exceed what experts call their “social carrying capacity.” Basically that means there are too many deer for what the land can support.

This was especially evident several years back in many of our state parks. Visitors could easily see the damage. Ravenous deer were creating visible browse lines by eating understory vegetation, which not only provides necessary habitat for them, but other wildlife as well. Experts remedied the problem by hosting controlled hunts to thin the population and it worked. But now they also have taken this statewide.

This year the urban deer hunting season saw a noticeable extension, running from Sept. 15 to Jan. 31. Hunters also had the “earn a buck” rule which required hunters to collect a doe before legally harvesting any deer sporting antlers.

Sportsmen and women also can now use crossbows during every season. And who can blame them? These horizontal bows do not require the large amount of practice and sacrifice associated with their vertical counterparts. The state also instituted a special late antlerless season open to firearms. Compound this with localized outbreaks of epizootic hemorrhagic disease (EHD) and many are convinced our herd is substantially down.

Frank Simpson, owner of Simpson’s Deer Processing, has noticed a drop in the number of deer taken to his business for packaging.

“I think the answer is simple,” he explained. “We just don’t have the number of deer we’ve had in previous years.”

But hunters and stewards of Indiana’s outdoor resources likely will recall the IDNR and Indiana’s Natural Resources Commission’s move last year when they took our most liberal deer hunting seasons in the Midwest and made them even more liberal.

The IDNR calls this a “strategic approach” that balances the ecological, recreational and economic needs of the state.

“We try to manage our wildlife species for the benefit of the species,” said DNR spokesman Phil Bloom. “But there are social aspects to wildlife management as well. There is human tolerance for the species that’s important to consider, too.”

But the philosophy in curtailing our state’s deer herd shouldn’t come as a surprise. Wildlife officials began explaining back in 2011 that they were going to move from a deer “maintenance” program to “reduction” efforts, hoping to drop the herd by 25 percent. They even provided numerous opportunities for the public to express their concerns, either through open style meetings or online.

Interestingly enough, no one, not even our state’s experts, knows how many white-tailed deer are in Indiana. Reducing the herd may not rest solely with our wildlife biologists. You can bet it is being fueled by insurance companies, agricultural groups and INDOT, to name a few.

I personally believe deer may be a problem in some localized areas, but not statewide. In the past several years, while some counties have seen an increase in deer destruction, others reported a drop in harvest numbers and a decrease in deer-vehicle collisions.

There is no doubt the deer debate will continue. If you happen to be one of the many concerned about the future of our state’s deer herd, regardless of which side of the fence you’re on, the answer is simple: Stay informed and make your opinion known when given the opportunity.

John Martino is the Tribune’s outdoors columnist. He may be reached by email at jmartinooutdoors@att.net.