Indiana'™s State Park Reduction Hunts

Culling growing numbers of deer on state park lands has become a great way for hunters to help the resource while providing venison for the table as well. Here's how to get in on one of these fine hunts. (August 2008)

Keeping deer numbers in check, especially does, goes a long way to saving valuable flora in our state parks.
Photo by Lisa Metheny.

In the fall of 2007, over a dozen successful deer reduction hunts were held at various state park properties throughout Indiana. While many hunters were content with their pre-set quota for deer harvests, others were taking advantage of bonus opportunities to harvest additional deer through these reduction hunts.

Educating hunters on the need to reduce deer populations on park properties is vital to the success of the program. First, let's begin by taking a look at state park history and why and how individual parks are chosen.

One of the oldest such programs in the United States, Indiana's state park system dates back to 1916. Created to mark Indiana's centennial celebration of statehood, an elaborate state park system was outlined and began to unfold with the help of a group of conservationists led by German immigrant and businessman Colonel Richard Lieber. Colonel Lieber became a nationally recognized leader of the state park movement and went on to become Indiana's first director of state parks.

Today, over 100,000 acres across the state help to create a total of 24 state parks. The original goal of the early park leaders was to provide all Hoosiers an opportunity to visit and enjoy wetlands, forests and prairies within a one-hour drive of their homes. With the opening of the newest state park, Prophetstown State Park near Battle Ground, that goal has been met.

The historical opening of the state's first park, McCormicks Creek in Spencer, saw long lines of eager city-slickers crowded into Model T Fords flowing steadily through the park's entrance gates, all anxious to explore the caves, canyons and dense forest that was once roamed and hunted by the Miami Indians.

Our state's park system ranges from the windswept shoreline of Lake Michigan, where sand dunes create Indiana Dunes SP, to the southernmost part of the state, home to Lincoln SP (named after the former president who spent his childhood roaming through the woods of southern Indiana exploring the hills and rivers of the area). These parks provide plenty of outdoor recreation opportunities to millions of visitors each year.

Hoosiers can take pride in the quality of the parks themselves. Indiana is one of the leading state park systems in terms of self-sufficiency in America today. The key to the success of the state parks has been to develop large parks, instead of tiny little partials of land, which often are more difficult to manage and maintain. While Indiana may have fewer parks, the high level of quality and sprawling acres of land may be worth the tradeoff.

The majority of our parks host old-growth forests that are unique from the regular woodland lots typically seen across Indiana today. Virgin timber, impressive hardwood forests, healthy wetlands and clean water help make the state parks a near-perfect habitat for wildlife, especially white-tailed deer. In many cases, it's almost too perfect, as the deer population continues to thrive; hence, the Indiana Department of Natural Resources must regularly conduct controlled state park hunts to keep the deer numbers in balance.

Besides offering the traditional forms of park use -- family outings, picnicking, camping, fishing, hiking and sightseeing -- many state parks also provide an added opportunity for Hoosier hunters to harvest additional deer while adding meat to the freezers through special organized hunts called State Park Deer Reduction Hunts.

In order to understand fully the need for state park hunts, we must look at the problems that they're intended to address. State biologists and the DNR hosted the first state park hunt in 1993 at Brown County SP with a one-day reduction hunt.

That very first hunt was met by substantial outcry from certain elements of a public largely unaware of hunting's role in controlling the destructively flourishing deer herds within Brown County SP, Indiana's most visited park. But the DNR has made great strides regarding maintaining the number of deer on state properties, as well as the health of those herds in balance, and Brown County SP now holds a yearly reduction hunt that sparks little, if any, protest. Since that first effort at hosting one state park hunt, the DNR regularly hosts anywhere from 16 to 20 organized hunts at various parks across the state every fall.

Another important factor that adds to the increasing deer population within state parks is the encroaching sprawl of suburbia, as more and more subdivisions pop up across the landscape and their developers snatch up every possible inch of available land. With the decrease of undeveloped land, the deer populations in many areas have only a few options. One option is to retreat to nearby parks that offer protection, and habitat. Because of the increasing demand for building sites, it's easy to understand how this can quickly create severe problems of deer overpopulation and destruction within the parks.

The researchers at the DNR have hard-hitting data to confirm the success of state park hunts over the last 15 years.

"We are doing wonderfully. We have had tremendous success, and a lot of our data indicates that we have had a significant recovery to an extent that the state botanists now have to reformulate how they monitor the damage class for each property. We used three particular indicator species, which we could evaluate each spring. Now the forest composition and structure has changed, for the good, to an extent that those particular species are no longer valuable as indicators," said Mike Mycroft, resource management coordinator for Division of State Parks and Reservoirs.

According to Mycroft, the only negative side effect of the reduction hunts is that they tax the staff and officials. Setting up check areas, hosting orientation meetings, analyzing data and staffing the properties during the hunts can wear on employees. However, he adds that it is ecologically beneficial.

Without major predators to control deer numbers, it's a very high probability that deer reduction hunts in Indiana are here to stay. One of the biggest challenges for the DNR is getting hunters to see the importance of these types of hunts.

"The reduction hunts are not meant to provide recreation, as much as they are there to help us (the DNR) achieve a management goal. We are not interested in having folks come in to trophy hunt, or come in and take th

eir one deer and leave; we need cooperation and help with management."

Despite the fact that many parks have produced trophy bucks throughout the last few years; hunters need to be aware that harvesting a deer, any deer, on a state-owned property is vital to the overall success of this program.

"We simply need to reduce the number of deer within the parks during a hunt. We are looking for volunteers (hunters) to come in, understand the goal of these types of hunts, and volunteer their time and their hunting skills to help us keep the deer population in balance," Mycroft added.

"Overcrowding of deer within a state park is detrimental to the environment, regardless of whether it is a doe, fawn or mature buck. Hunters who are interested in participating in reduction hunts need to understand that when they offer their services of hunting to help remove excess deer from an area, regardless of size or trophy importance, this helps the overall health of the environment. Too many times, hunters register for a state park hunt, and then do not participate when the time actually comes for the hunt. We have a big problem with no shows with this system," Mycroft said.

Determining the harvest numbers per property is simple. Officials take the number of deer harvested at each location, and then divide it by the actual number of huntable acreage, in terms of square miles, to come up with the final figure of deer harvested per state park.

"Research indicates that adequate vegetative recovery occurs once you have achieved a density of 15 deer per square mile and maintain that. Though maintaining a density of 15 deer/square mile is good for the floral component of the parks, it presents more of a challenge for the participants, particularly if you compare the success ratios of today to that of when we first started in 1993. If hunters are harvesting fewer deer, it indicates we are getting closer to our goal of vegetative recovery," Mycroft said.

During the 2007 hunting season, 16 parks offered reduction hunts. Despite bad weather that occurred during these hunts and the staggering number of no-show hunters, plenty of deer were harvested from those selected properties nonetheless. Here is a review of the top deer-producing state parks in 2007.

HARMONIE STATE PARK
Harmonie SP is located 30 miles north of Evansville in Posey County. This state park skirts the banks of the Wabash River. Deer hunters will find a mix of rolling hills of thick hardwoods, along with flat flood plains consisting of heavy dense cover. This flora and terrain provides excellent habitat for whitetails within the 3,456 acres that make up the park.

During the 2007 hunt, a total of 179 whitetails were harvested within the 33 square miles of the park's boundaries. The park also offers 200 campsites with modern hook-ups, family cabins and hiking and fishing opportunities. The town of New Harmony is located approximately four miles to the north.

VERSAILLES STATE PARK
Versailles SP is situated in the southeastern part of the state, in Ripley County. The park contains nearly 6,000 acres of hardwood timber filled with deep creek ravines and cliffy areas that give way to thick cover ideal for whitetails. This state park came in second with 125 deer being harvested last year. Additionally, the park offers a saddle barn, canoe and paddleboat rentals, 226 campsites and fishing on the 230-acre lake.

CHARLESTOWN STATE PARK
Remaining in southern Indiana, and rounding out the top three producing reduction hunts for 2007 is Charlestown SP. Located eight miles east of state Road 62 are nearly 5,100 acres of rugged mixed terrain that meanders along one of Indiana's oldest stream valleys called Fourteenmile Creek Valley. This area is consists of rocky outcroppings and dense floodplain forests. The 2007 hunt helped reduced the deer population in this area by 125 deer over a 25-square-mile radius.

TIPPECANOE RIVER STATE PARK
Tippecanoe River SP, near Winamac, is another successful park reduction hunt. Encompassing nearly 2,800 acres, the habitat here is varied with level, fairly flat oak forests, pine plantations, abandoned fields and marshes that run along the Tippecanoe River. A total of 122 deer were harvested over a 28-square-mile area during the 2007 hunt.

POTATO CREEK STATE PARK
Potato Creek SP proves that not all successful reduction hunts were held in the southern part of the state. The park is located 12 miles south of South Bend. Named for the potato-like roots that grow along the creek, this park has 3,840 acres that surround the 327-acre Worster Lake. Swamps, shallow marshes, abandoned fields and hardwood forests make up this property. The reduction hunt in 2007 produced 109 deer harvested within the 19-square-mile area of huntable acreage.

Other state parks, such as Ouabache and Whitewater Memorial, also ranked high for deer harvest during this past hunting season. These parks, and many others, had good harvest numbers, despite the poor weather experienced during the majority of the hunts, along with a very high number of no-show hunters, yet still produced a grand total of 1,300 deer harvested at state parks in 2007. That means 1,300 families benefited from the added bonus of freezers filled with a fresh supply of venison.

Once a hunting season is finished, officials start to look at success ratios, how well did the hunters do as far as harvesting deer, and vegetative surveys. If that number does not give them the information they need, they look at harvest ratio, how many deer per square mile were shot. Finally, if those two factors still do not indicate the need or removal of the property for a reduction hunt, analysts look at browse lines and vegetation reports for each individual property. The DNR is constantly analyzing data and monitoring the property to make wise decisions on which areas need to be hunted.

Special hunt applications are required in advance in order to participate in any of these state park hunts. Normal hunting regulations apply, although special rules do take effect in some areas. However, any deer harvested through a state park reduction hunt, does not count toward the normal harvest quota for a regular deer season. This means additional opportunities to harvest more whitetails. The DNR's Web site offers online registration, plus the hunter's guidebook provides detailed information on how to apply.

Sportsmen and women across Indiana are reaping the benefits from additional hunting opportunities, the DNR benefits from the help of hunters (volunteers) in helping control the growing deer population on state park properties, and park visitors, as well as vegetation, benefit from reduction hunts.

Thanks to conservation-minded hunters, visitors can stroll along the roadsides, hike the nature trails, and enjoy a healthy ecosystem that is now thriving. For example, 15 years ago in Brown County State Park, it was tough to spot two or three types of wildflowers growing along the roadside and trails, but today, thanks to the efforts of these types of hunts, park visitors often can find multiple wildflower species, such as the yellow lady slipper orchids and others. State park

hunts are a win-win situation for all Hoosiers.

The dates for this year's state park hunts will be Nov. 17 and 18 and Dec. 1 and 2, 2008. Applications are available early summer in the 2008-2009 Indiana Hunting and Trapping Guide or at indianaoutdoor.in.gov . Applicants are urged to read all the details pertaining to each park hunt very carefully.

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