The Herald Bulletin
May 2, 2010
Major reduction of deer population proposed
Indiana wildlife officials to hold hearing on plan May 18
By Maureen Hayden
CNHI Statehouse Bureau
INDIANAPOLIS, Ind. - Indiana's white-tail deer are one of the attractions that lure visitors to state parks and nature reserves every spring, but their prolific breeding habits are cause for consternation.
The species, once vanished from Indiana, has grown in such abundance that state officials are now considering a plan to strategically reduce the deer population by 25 percent within the next five years.
The proposed plan is dependent on hunters increasing the number of deer they take and includes targeting female deer whose fecundity - the ability to produce offspring easily - is linked to a record number of deer-related complaints from farm operators, motorists and landowners.
The plan, up for final approval on May 18 by the Indiana Natural Resources Commission, is the result of a wildlife success story gone somewhat awry. Indiana's white-tail deer vanished a century ago after years of unregulated hunting and the loss of forestland habitat. But the deer have come back with a vengeance since they were re-introduced by state wildlife managers in the 1930s.
In areas throughout Indiana, they now exceed what wildlife experts call their "social carrying capacity." That is, the number of deer that is less likely to cause excessive property damage while still providing plentiful recreational opportunities for hunting and viewing.
"They are beautiful animals," said Chad Stewart, Indiana's deer wildlife biologist who helped develop the plan. "But their ability to influence their landscape is probably greater than any other animal in North America. Essentially, they're lawnmowers with hooves."
In the past, visitors to Indiana state parks have seen the damage done. Ravenous deer were creating visible browse lines by eating under-story vegetation which provides essential habitat for other species.
A series of controlled hunts, in which state officials closed down the parks temporarily and invited hunters in to reduce the herds, sparked some public outcry. But they had a beneficial impact. Park naturalists say the browse lines are disappearing and the biodiversity of the parks - an indicator of ecological health - is improving.
But the controlled hunts have done little to reduce the deer population outside the parks.
There is no accurate count of how many white-tail deer are in Indiana. But there are indicators that the numbers continue to rise. Phil Bloom, a spokesman for the Indiana Department of Natural Resources, said hunters took a record number of deer last year: more than 130,000, the highest since Indiana legalized deer hunting 60 years ago.
On the rise, too, are reports of deer-related car accidents. According to the Indiana Department of Transportation, deer-vehicle collisions increased from 14,390 in 2003 to 16,180 in 2009. Complaints from farm operators, reporting damage done to crops by foraging deer, are also on the increase.
As Bloom notes, the deer aren't a nuisance everywhere. Some counties have reported both a drop in deer harvested by hunters and a decrease in deer-vehicle collisions. Among the reasons cited: An outbreak of a fatal insect-borne virus known as epizootic hemorrhagic disease that reduced some deer herds in past years. But there were no reports of the virus last year, another sign, Bloom said, that the deer numbers are likely robust.
Later this month, the state's Natural Resource Commission will consider the proposed plan, described as a "strategic approach" that balances the ecological, recreational and economic needs of the state. "We manage our wildlife species for the benefit of the species," Bloom said. "But there are social aspects to wildlife management as well. There is human tolerance for the species that's important to consider, too. It's a balancing act."
Maureen Hayden is statehouse bureau chief for CNHI's Indiana newspapers. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.