Indiana wild deer report
Statewide deer herd nearly stable, contributes to state economy “Indiana’s state-wide deer herd size has remained relatively stable since 1998,” said Department of Natural Resources deer biologist Jim Mitchell. “The DNR tries to maintain a deer population that provides satisfactory hunting and viewing, and minimizes deer/vehicle accidents and crop damage.”
Mitchell says Indiana’s wild deer resource annually contributes more than $168 million to the state’s economy. “But this contribution, mostly from hunting activity and wildlife viewing, has to be weighed against crop damage and deer/vehicle crashes.”
Mitchell bases his state deer population conclusions on several measurements that point to a fairly steady herd size. Since 1998, the adult buck harvest has ranged between 45,000 and 50,000 deer. During the same period, the total deer harvest ranged between 99,000 and 107,000 deer. Hunter success rates have also remained constant at 40 percent between 1997 and 2002.
The DNR’s economic impact value for Indiana wild deer is extracted from a 2001 National Survey of Fishing, Hunting, and Wildlife-Associated Recreation report produced by the U.S.
Census Bureau and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. The report shows Indiana deer hunters and people who watch deer churn $168 million into Indiana’s economy.
Mitchell says the report also shows Indiana wild deer provide millions of hunting and non-consumptive recreation days each year.
However, the deer herd also damages more than $20 million worth of crops and leads to more than 10,000 deer/vehicle accidents annually. “Since the white-tailed deer resource has such a large impact for the state, the size of the herd must be carefully controlled,” said Mitchell.
Deer management is a dynamic process of scientific data collection and repeated surveys of farmers, deer hunters and the general public.
Recent surveys of Hoosier farm operators and deer hunters illustrate the dilemma posed for deer managers when two constituencies have different ideal deer herds. About 55 percent of the farmers want a smaller deer herd while 54 percent of the deer hunters want a larger herd.
The surveys also indicate DNR efforts to address farmer’s crop damage and deer herd size concerns appear to be making progress, as 66 percent of farm operators surveyed thought their deer damage was either negligible or tolerable.
Farmers also reported a 10 percent decline in the value of crops lost due to deer depredation between 1998 and 2003. But, while the 2003 farm operator survey indicated a reduction in deer damage to crops, 43 percent of the farmers believed the deer herd had increased during the previous five years.
A similar survey of deer hunters found 23 percent of the hunters reported more deer sightings, while 38 percent believed they are seeing less deer. “Overall, deer hunters and farmers reported opposite deer population trend observations,” said Mitchell.
Less deer hunters
While the statewide deer herd has remained nearly stable during recent years, Mitchell says generic deer license sales have declined significantly and progressively. “Much of the decline represents changes in how many licenses each hunter buys rather than a decrease in the number of deer hunters,” said Mitchell.
Deer hunters can either buy multiple licenses each year or can buy a single more expensive lifetime license that covers all future license needs. Before the last hunting license fee increase in 2001, the DNR sold almost 22,000 lifetime licenses. “The huge increase in lifetime license sales contributed significantly to the reduction in generic deer hunting license sales,” said Mitchell.
Hunter surveys also indicate the increase in the cost of basic deer hunting licenses, a lagging economy and a change in deer hunting regulations all contributed to reduced license purchases.
While the sales of generic deer licenses declined by 45 percent between 1997 and 2002, independent estimates indicate that during the same time interval the number of deer hunters declined between 22 and 25 percent. A survey conducted by the DNR estimated that there were 169,000 deer hunters in Indiana in 2002. Mitchell says some change in hunter numbers is cyclical. “As the deer herd expanded during the 1980s, the number of deer hunters also expanded. Now that the deer herd is nearly stable, the number of deer hunters is beginning to decline. The DNR believes current levels of deer hunters are still sufficient to keep the statewide deer population stabilized.”
Local deer population problems
Mitchell notes that the decline in the number of deer hunters since the late 1990s has not prevented the state from being able to currently control the statewide deer herd, but there are localized areas where hunting is not permitted or is limited to such an extent that the local deer herd is expanding.
“As more rural land is developed for suburban housing, marginal deer habitat is converted into excellent habitat with abundant food and cover, while hunting which previously controlled the herd is reduced or eliminated,” said Mitchell.
“Even where some hunting continues, most subdivided farms have fewer total hunting efforts than prior to the change in ownership. If the hunting pressure on any of the local deer herds across the state significantly declines during the next decade, then unwanted deer population growth will occur.”
In the early 1990s, deer browsing was causing measurable ecological damage in many Indiana state parks. Four-day-long controlled hunts in 20 parks has reduced the deer numbers in these parks which has led to improved vegetative health and diversity in these natural areas.
Again, Mitchell says the dilemma of different constituencies with different deer management desires has been an issue. “People who like a healthy diverse park ecosystem have been pleased by the deer reduction efforts, while park visitors who like to watch overabundant deer at the parks preferred the significantly higher deer populations,” says Mitchell.
Some observers of deer management propose that deer contraception may be an effective alternative to deer hunting for population control. “There has been much hype, much misinformation and many exaggerated claims about contraception for control of free-ranging white-tailed deer,” said Mitchell.
“Most wild deer managers would love to have an effective contraceptive method for free-ranging deer in their tool belt. So far, all such efforts have been extremely expensive and either ineffective or extremely limited at reducing the deer populations.
“More importantly, all such efforts result in the release of animals into the wild that have been treated with drugs not approved for use where humans might consume the animal. Deer are highly mobile and deer hunting and the consumption of venison is an integral part of the only effective means of controlling deer populations.
“Use of contraception, as it exists today, would result in an effective deer management tool being undermined by an ineffective tool. Additionally, hundreds of deer killed in collisions with vehicles are consumed by residents of Indiana each year. This food source must not be threatened by the release of animals that are treated with drugs unapproved for humans by the FDA,” said Mitchell.
Mitchell also says the Wildlife Society, a scientific non-government organization of thousands of wildlife biologists from across the continent, has stated current contraceptive techniques have proved uneconomical or infeasible, even in small localized populations of game species such as deer.
“More research and development is needed to find more effective and less expensive contraceptive techniques that do not jeopardize human food,” said Mitchell.