Hoosier State 2007 Wildlife Update

Hoosier State 2007 Wildlife Update

Here's the latest on what you should expect for the coming big-game and small-game seasons in our state -- right from Indiana's top wildlife managers. (July 2007)

Photo by Ralph Hensley.

This article takes a detailed look at how well Indiana's wild game animals are doing. Wayne Bivans is the chief of wildlife for Indiana's Division of Fish and Wildlife (DFW). Bivans and his staff of professionals were asked about the wildlife species that they are responsible for managing from the perspective of outdoorsmen and women.

To begin with, Bivans was asked to comment on the overall health of the wildlife in Indiana. His response was one that should get our attention.

"We're losing more and more habitat to human development," Bivans said; he noted that the recruitment of new people into the sport of hunting isn't gaining much ground. Bivans summed it up very well when he said that habitat and hunter involvement is crucial for the overall well-being of wildlife in Indiana.

What follows is a question and answer session that will give you a front-row seat into a very informative wildlife update. The questions are categorized by species.

WHITE-TAILED DEER

Questions on deer management and harvest were directed to Dr. Jim Mitchell, a top deer biologist with the DFW.

Game & Fish: What a lot of deer hunters want to know is: Has the one-buck rule helped to grow trophy-class bucks in Indiana? Will it take more time? And if so, how long will the one-buck rule be kept in place?

Mitchell: The average age of antlered bucks in Indiana has been increasing for approximately 10 years, both before and after the start of the one-buck rule (OBR). As a result, the percent of antlered bucks in the harvest that are yearlings has been declining going from the mid-'60s percentile in the early 1990s to an all-time low of 46 percent during this past fall's deer season.

The OBR would appear to have slightly accelerated the increase in older bucks, but we will not know whether such is the case without a trial return to the two-buck rule. We do not plan to test the effect at this time and have recommended a continuance of the OBR for five more years. We expect that the commission will approve a five-year extension of the OBR rule that would run through the 2011 deer season.

G&F: Overall, how is the deer herd in Indiana doing? Is it growing, shrinking, or maintaining a healthy and stable size?

Mitchell: The herd is either stable or nearly stable. It has been slowly growing in recent years. We liberalized the bonus quotas in '05 and further in '06 to slightly reduce the herd.

G&F: What is the latest on chronic wasting disease (CWD)? Were there any cases reported in Indiana this last season? What kinds of protective measures has the Department of Natural Resources put in place to stop CWD or to at least minimize it?

Mitchell: This past fall, we had 1,287 samples from hunter-killed deer analyzed; none were positive, which brings our total since we started in 2002 to 8,999 non-positives.

We are cooperating with the Board of Animal Health to limit importation of live animals to those states that have never had CWD, and even there, the animal must come from a herd that has been tested for CWD for five years. For dead animals, we require that the spinal column not be brought into the state unless the animal is taken to a commercial processor for processing (2006 Hunting Guide, page 19).

G&F: Will the hunts conducted at state parks continue in the 2007-2008 season? Can you please elaborate on the biological need for the state park hunts? Are they necessary? How have they helped?

Mitchell: Yes, the park hunts are needed to prevent the park deer herds from growing to the point where they damage each park's native plants. Any deer herd in Indiana that is not hunted will increase in number until it is limited by a lack of food. A growing herd will eat all vegetation within reach and may be limited by deer being killed in deer/vehicle accidents (if they are not hunted).

The reduction in the number of deer on our parks has resulted in increases in vegetation health on the park, and then increases in the health of the deer herd that is living off the vegetation.

UPLAND GAME BIRDS

Wildlife biologist Mitch Marcus is a key person with the management of Hoosierland ring-necked pheasants and bobwhite quail. Here's what he has to say about our state's upland bird hunting.

G&F: How are the pheasant and quail populations doing in Indiana? Are they recovering any?

Marcus: Spring whistle counts have been conducted annually throughout Indiana since 1947 (except from 1958 through 1976) to assess changes in bobwhite abundance. The number of whistling quail was counted along 79 routes in 2006. Long-term trend data continues to show that the northern bobwhite population remains near historic lows in all four of Indiana's physiographic regions.

In recent years, Indiana's pheasant population could be deemed as "flat-lining." We have seen no significant increase or decrease in the population if one views this on a statewide basis.

However, individual or localized populations come and go quite frequently, due to the prolific nature of the species. This also has to do with specific land-management practices in a specific locale.

We have seen good pheasant population response in specific areas where land management has resulted in habitat. This may be a result of a farm bill practice or perhaps some other changes in land management. Conversely, where the habitat is destroyed due to a change in land management, whether it entails more intense agricultural practices or the encroachment through development, we have lost birds.

The poorest harvest of pheasants in Indiana occurred in the late 1970s and early 1980s. The horrible winters of that era, combined with "soil bank" plow up resulted in the statewide pheasant harvest struggling to obtain 10,000 in number.

G&F: Have the new incentives from the Pheasant Habitat Development Program and the Quail Habitat Development Program helped to add habitat for pheasants and quail? Moreover, are the new ethanol fuel plants that are popping up going to hurt the Conservation Reserve and land-management programs?

Marcus: In the last two years, over 3,000 acres of quail and pheasant habitat were created through the quail and p

heasant habitat priority areas. As a result of Priority Area incentives, the state has over 8,000 acres of cropland enrolled in CP33 -- Habitat Buffers for Upland Birds.

The Division of Fish and Wildlife is participating in a national CP33 monitoring program to assess the benefits that these cropland buffers are having on quail, pheasant and songbird populations. This year's monitoring data represents the first year of data collection and will form the baseline for determining population responses to CP33 establishment.

The intense efforts to expand corn ethanol production could, indeed, have a substantial impact on our small-game populations, including rabbits, pheasants and quail. The increased demand for corn for ethanol production has pushed the price of corn up to $3.50 per bushel, and it is expected that this increase will lead to additional acreage being devoted to corn production this summer.

Wildlife biologists are concerned that the increase in demand will lead to existing hay, pasture and whole-field CRP fields being converted to corn production. The Indiana Farm Service Agency is already seeing an increase in acres being removed from CRP this year. Whole-field CRP tracts are significant sources of nesting and brood-rearing habitat for Indiana small-game populations and contribute significantly to hunter access to private lands.

Biologists are also concerned that the high prices will reduce farmer participation in other CRP programs, like CP33 -- Habitat Buffers for Upland Birds and Division of Fish and Wildlife habitat development programs. Overall, we could see a significant loss of idle nesting and brood-rearing cover across the state in the next couple of years.

EASTERN WILD TURKEYS

Biologist Steve Backs shared his knowledge on Indiana's turkey population dynamics.

G&F: How is the state's turkey population faring these days?

Backs: The wild turkey population in Indiana is continuing to grow, as indicated by increasing spring harvests, although the rate of growth is slowing down as wild turkeys saturate suitable habitat and populations stabilize. In the long term, wild turkey populations will reflect changes in the extent and interconnection of suitable habitat across the landscape.

As human/urban sprawl increases across the landscape, we can expect changes in not only wild turkey populations, but also wildlife in general. Wild turkey populations are expected to continue their growth for several more years, but annual fluctuations in the statewide spring harvest and hunter success should be expected as turkey population growth levels off.

G&F: Has there been a great deal of interest in turkey hunting?

Backs: Wild turkey hunting, especially in the spring, is one of the fastest growing forms of outdoor recreation across the country.

The interest in turkey hunting is in response to increased turkey populations and increased hunting opportunities. Indiana is no different; as our turkey populations have increased, so has our number of turkey hunters. Today, with harvests over 10,000 for several years and hunter success rates around 25 percent, the number of spring turkey hunters afield is now over 50,000.

All in all, considering the variations in summer production from the high in 2004 to two low years in 2005 and 2006, we're expecting a 2007 spring harvest somewhere around 13,000 birds; however, hunter success may drop a little from around 26 percent to around 21 percent, considering the potential growth in hunter numbers in response to the high harvest in 2006.

G&F: How is the new fall turkey season being received? Has the fall hunting affected the spring hunting? Why or why not?

Backs: Fall turkey hunting has not caught on like spring turkey hunting, and the interest in fall turkey hunting has actually waned a little from the initial interest in many other Midwest states.

Fall hunting has a longer and richer tradition in the Appalachian states, but even in those areas of the country, the interest in spring hunting far exceeds that of fall hunting. Fall turkey hunting opportunities are a by-product of well-established wild turkey populations, and generally speaking, fall turkey-hunting opportunities in most Midwest states are fewer than spring hunting opportunities.

And the vast majority of turkey hunters want an emphasis on spring hunting opportunities. They do not want liberal fall hunting opportunities, which might negatively impact spring hunting opportunities. Biologically, the potential for over-harvest is far greater in the fall (either-sex bag) compared with "gobbler-only" spring hunting.

Currently, interest in fall turkey hunting in Indiana is very low. Besides the spring preference of most turkey hunters, the opportunities for fall hunting are very limited in Indiana.

We also had no data regarding fall hunting in Indiana under our license structures, our habitats, and other competing fall hunting opportunities. We finally were able to get a fall season going in 2005 with a very conservative season framework, which we indicated we would evaluate in three to five years after collecting fall harvest data in Indiana. . . .

Because of the conservative fall season structure, any potential impact on the spring harvests or hunter success has been minimized, next to none.

G&F: How are the sales of the Game Bird Habitat Stamp doing? Were there more stamps bought in 2006 than in previous years? How is the money (from the Game Bird Habitat Stamps) proportioned among pheasants, quail, turkey and grouse management?

Backs: The number (of stamps) sold dropped by about 3 percent last year and generated approximately $199,194 in 2006. Weather, time available to hunters, access, perceived game availability, etc., are all factors working to determine the demand. The money is not proportioned out into each game category.

As you can see, the amount generated is not substantial and dividing it up would dilute the capability to accomplish significant projects. Some portions of the money are used to purchase game bird lands for hunter access; some has been used to contribute to the Goose Pond acquisition recently. Some (of the money) has been used to participate in leasing land for access, as well as contributing to private land projects targeting creating upland game habitat. We are currently focusing on taking advantage of opportunities for land acquisition adjoining our major public fish and wildlife areas.

G&F: Is the money generated by the Game Bird Habitat Stamps keeping pace with the challenges facing the DNR for upland birds?

Backs: No, it is a catch 22. Private land development is moving forward at an unprecedented pace, continually reducing the opportunity for hunters and access. Habitat continues to decline and the number of hunters is declining or at best remaining stable at the present time.

One of our major concerns is our aging hunting population and the lack of youth who are coming into the sport. This all equates into potentially selling less habitat stamps in the future.

WATERFOWL

Biologist Adam Phelps provided his insight on the status of duck and goose populations in our state. Here's what he had to say.

G&F: How did the sale of Waterfowl Stamps do? Is the sale of these stamps keeping pace with the challenges facing the DNR for waterfowl management?

Phelps: I don't have this information yet for 2006; it won't be out until July of this year. Duck stamp sales estimates for '04 and '05 are preliminary and appear to be about 21,500 per year for those two years. The '01-05 average is 25,700, so sales are down. Keep in mind that sales do not strictly equate to hunter numbers, as collectors, birders, etc., often buy these stamps as well. The '04 and '05 estimates are well above the average number of sales from 1976-1995, so we've seen lower periods of sales in the past. However, it is important to note that the higher numbers now may be due to non-hunter purchases.

G&F: Are resident populations of Canada geese continuing to grow? If so, will the nuisance goose season be extended or modified?

Phelps: It appears that Indiana's breeding population of Canada geese is continuing to grow. It does appear that the population is still increasing. It is a misnomer to call them "residents"; however. Canada geese banded in Indiana have been shot in 30 states and provinces since 1996. These birds do migrate seasonally as well as moving at other times of the year. Even relocated nuisance birds have been shot in 10 states and provinces, including northern Canada, Tennessee and Pennsylvania.

It is unlikely that the special September season will be modified anytime soon. The United States Fish and Wildlife Service is unwilling to allow more flexibility than Sept. 1-15 (for instance, taking 15 days between Sept. 1-20). This appears to be because they prefer all states to have the same regulations, and some northern states have migrants appearing by Sept. 16-20.

The next few years are likely to see changes in how we manage Canada geese as a whole. This may include a special late season in late January to early February, but I don't know.

G&F: We'd like to thank Mr. Bivans and staff of professionals for their responses.

Find more about Indiana fishing and hunting at: IndianaGameandFish.com

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