Hoosier State 2006 Wildlife Update

Hoosier State 2006 Wildlife Update

Here's the latest on what you should expect for deer, turkeys and more in our state, straight from the mouths of some of Indiana's top wildlife managers. (July 2006)

Wildlife Chief Wayne Bivans, along with biologists Dr. Jim Mitchell and Steve Backs, sat down for an interview with Indiana Game & Fish correspondent Bill Scifres recently. Here's what they each had to say about hunting in our state for the coming season.

Game & Fish: The latest (2003-2004) small-game harvest survey indicates that hunters bagged 260,000 rabbits. That was down 37 percent from the previous year. If we can presume the harvest was still down in the season just ended, do you anticipate that there could be changes in rabbit regulations this fall?

Bivans: We are looking at a proposal of our research biologist to extend the rabbit season some, but we won't know about that until later. The biologist is suggesting a small extension of the rabbit season on the closing end because of a lack of hunters at that time. It is felt that the extremely high reproductive potential of rabbits will likely compensate for any additional mortality incurred by extending the season into February, as long as we don't get into breeding season.

G&F: That latest harvest survey indicated bird hunters took some 56,000 quail, a decrease of 25 percent from the previous year. Do you see any possibility that regulations on quail hunting might change for the coming season?

Bivans: We are looking at giving quail some relief . . . quail populations have been down a number of years . . . a lot of people think the beginning of that was the 1978-79 winter, but in fact, it began before that because of changes in land use; it goes back to the thing we have talked about several times. There is much less habitat than we had in the good old days. The daily bag has been eight birds per day in the south. I think we will go to five per day and shorten the season by a couple of weeks, which will still provide a somewhat longer season than in the north.

We have had several requests from hunters to give some relief here. We want to reduce the bag limit to five in the south, which will standardize it throughout the state. However, we think the greater positive impact will come from lessening the season length. We believe that the bobwhite quail harvest becomes additive mortality as the season progresses into winter. One issue in managing bobwhites is that the females are taken throughout the season, which contributes significantly to this additive mortality in late season. This is in contrast to pheasants where only the males can be legally harvested.

G&F: How do you see the season on pheasants shaping up? The latest survey counted a harvest of about 18,000 birds, and that was down 42 percent from the previous year.

Bivans: Pheasant hunting regulations appear about the same as last year, but the harvest could improve if weather cooperated and contributed to a good spring/summer production. Of course, as we have discussed before, habitat is the main issue. There needs to be more quality habitat on private property. It has been shown on our small upland game properties in northern Indiana. If the habitat is there, then more years than not you will have pheasants.

G&F: Do you anticipate any changes in waterfowl regulations for the coming year?

Bivans: There could be some changes in waterfowl regulations . . . after five years of our present split and zoned seasons, we have to go back and look at the results and work with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in establishing season dates and bag limits.

G&F: Can you tell now what changes might be made?

Bivans: We have public meetings to get input from hunters, but there is some interest in making the first segment of the split season on ducks and geese a little longer and the second segment a little shorter. We won't know about that until later in the summer.

G&F: How many ducks and geese do Hoosier hunters harvest?

Bivans: Adam Phelps, our waterfowl biologist, says the total harvest average for the years from 2001 through 2004 was 119,687 ducks and 62,185 geese.

G&F: Do you believe woodland species have fared better than upland species in recent years?

Bivans: Woodland species (deer, and wild turkey) seem to be doing better than upland species. I think this has a lot to do with farming practices. I grew up in Illinois . . . just across the line from Indiana . . . and there weren't any fields larger than 160 acres in those days . . . they all had big fencerows of Osage orange . . . these fencerows could be 50 or 60 feet wide . . . and full of brush and weeds . . . we had quail, pheasants and a lot of squirrels in the wood lots. Today, if you go into this same area (just west of Crawfordsville), the fields are hundreds and thousands of acres . . . enormous fields with no habitat . . . you can almost see the curvature of the earth . . . no cover . . . no habitat . . . and that is where the upland game has gone . . . land use is so much different.

G&F: As you know, after many years of plentiful squirrel populations, this species was far down in the last season. What was the problem?

Bivans: Squirrels are dependent on the mast crop (nuts, acorns, and seeds produced by trees). We have just had a poor year for squirrels, and you go back then to the poor mast crop of 2004 . . . we really can't manage the mast.

G&F: For several years, we have had north and south squirrel seasons. The north season closed on Dec. 31, but the south season continued through Jan. 31. Many hunters questioned this when the season dates were established and some hunters believed the extended 2005-06 south season should have ended earlier because of low squirrel numbers. The idea being to keep more squirrels through the winter to take advantage of the great mast crop of 2005 and to help bring the species back to past levels. Do you think this deserves consideration in the future?

Bivans: Yes, it deserves consideration. It's a possibility and I think there always is a chance. I don't think we have any hard research that would tell us it would work, so we would be guessing. As a result, we would be unnecessarily restricting hunting opportunity. Usually, when a species goes down through natural means, it can naturally rebound in a year or two. However, we are coming off a very good mast-producing year. Research has shown that we can expect a major breeding season to occur with litters born in February and March. Then, another minor breeding season with litters in midsummer. We think this will go a long way in rebuilding the population.

G&F: Over the years, biologists have

tended to believe that in times of low numbers of a species, hunters tend to hunt that species less, thereby putting less pressure on the species. Is this true in practice?

Bivans: I guess that's tried and true. It comes out of Wildlife 101 in college . . . the concept is called the law of diminishing return. It generally states that hunting efforts decrease as available populations of game decrease, thereby reducing the pressure on the game species from hunting. It may not hold true in every region, every community, but largely I think it is true. I'm not going to hunt very long if I am not successful.


Questions on the upcoming deer seasons were posed to Dr. Jim Mitchell, a top deer biologist with the Division of Fish and Game.

G&F: What is the status of the deer herd?

Mitchell: We're really near the highest level we've ever been, whether it is exactly as high as it has ever been is debatable, but certainly it is high.

G&F: Do you have harvest figures for the seasons just ended?

Mitchell: Last year (the 2004-2005 seasons), we killed 123,000 deer. The total bag for the 2005-2006 seasons is not yet known, but it is going to be very similar. I'm sure the harvest will be a little over 125,000.

G&F: Do you think the 2005-2006 total bag will be a record?

Mitchell: Yes.

G&F: Have we had any new development on chronic wasting disease (CWD) in Indiana?

Mitchell: The only thing new in Indiana is the fact that we tested 1,200 deer last fall (2005) and they were all negative.

G&F: Will regulations and dates change for the coming seasons?

Mitchell: I don't know of any big changes for the coming seasons at this time (dates and other details will be available soon in the 2006-2007 Indiana Hunting Guide).

G&F: How about the one-buck rule? Was last season the last one for it to be in effect?

Mitchell: It (the one-buck rule) is slated to run through 2006.

G&F: When will the DFW start thinking of changing the one-buck rule?

Mitchell: I would say we will have to start thinking about that, but we would not have to make any changes until the 2007 seasons.

G&F: Since you have had a complaint or two about the possible weakness in the damage control permit system, do you think changes might be made in that program?

Mitchell: I would hope that it would be very similar to the past.


Biologist Steve Backs answered questions on the status of Indiana's wild turkey population. Here's what he had to say.

G&F: Hoosier wild turkey hunters are wondering about the success of last year's (fall) first season. How many birds did fall hunters take?

Backs: The only harvest data I have are manual figures. The total bag will not be known for a while, but right now, it is 651. Data on the fall turkey season and last fall/winter's deer season is combined, and the deer season ran into January. When the deer and turkey data is separated, we will have a more accurate count on the fall turkey harvest.

G&F: Is that harvest figure for the first fall turkey season about what you expected?

Backs: We had estimated the fall harvest might be anywhere between 500 and 1,500; but I think the kill probably was on the low side because of such a good mast crop. We had record-high temperatures for the month of October and I don't think turkey production last year (2005) was very good. We had turkey hunters during the fall gun season complaining about too many mosquitoes.

G&F: In view of the unfavorable conditions in that first fall season, do you consider that first fall turkey season a success?

Backs: Oh, yes! I think just getting there, having that first fall season was a success; it took us 11 years of proposals just to get a fall season in place. And to let people find out what fall turkey hunting is about was a worthwhile accomplishment.

G&F: What is in the works for fall turkey seasons in Indiana?

Backs: When we got this thing through, we told everybody we would keep the season structure the same for three years to see how things work out. We may change some counties in the fall seasons. There has been some opposition to the fall hunting by those who feared the spring hunting might be adversely impacted. We want to take three years to see how it is working out.

G&F: Do you have any figures on the numbers of fall turkey hunters in the first season?

Backs: We know we sold over 2,000 licenses just for the fall season, but there's no way to tell how many hunters there may have been or to account for all the lifetime license holders, youth hunters and landowners who didn't need a license.

G&F: Will season dates and other regulations be about the same in the coming fall season?

Backs: Yes, about the same; there will be a little bit of a calendar shift on dates, but everything else will be about the same. The bow season will open Oct. 1, and the gun season will open on the first Wednesday on or after Oct. 14 (that would be Oct. 18).

G&F: How did brood production look in the spring and summer of 2005?

Backs: I'm looking at that data now and it doesn't look real good, but the 2004 production was very good and all of the jakes from that year will be adult birds this year. The 2004 hens will be adult nesters this year, too, and that could mean more birds in the next year or two. We may be able to coast for a couple of years on that good 2004 production.

G&F: Have grouse shown any comeback in recent years?

Backs: No, they have continued to decline to what appears to be the lowest levels recorded in 50 years and at less than 5 percent of the levels recorded in 1979-81.

G&F: How many birds were taken in the latest season for which you have figures?

Backs: Based on the information from the 2003-2004 Small Game Harvest Survey, it appears the statewide ruffed grouse harvest was fewer than, or equal, to about 600 birds.

G&F: Will the Department of Forestry's new management plan be of some help for grouse?

Backs: The new management plan for state forests will be a positive step, but the amount and intensity of the timber management being proposed

will not be enough to bring ruffed grouse populations back to the levels of recent memory. Our state forests have traditionally had very conservative cutting regimes and it'll take several years of intense cutting to create enough meaningful grouse habitat.

We knew this right up front when this new plan was proposed, but we were delighted to see the positive direction toward active timber management of a renewable natural resource as a means of creating early- successional forest habitats needed by a wide array of forest wildlife. At the same time, we will need to see a resumption of active hardwood timber harvests on adjacent lands of Hoosier National Forest (HNF) and private ownerships. The HNF has not had a commercial hardwood timber sale since about 1984. It only takes 20 years of forest succession to move from grouse habitat to non-grouse habitat. In the case of both the state forest and HNF plans, the results will only be obtainable if the plans are fully implemented.

Even if implemented, both plans from strictly a ruffed grouse management perspective are still fairly conservative plans in terms of the amount and intensity of timber harvest. Both plans represent a step in the right direction and will help improve habitat conditions for ruffed grouse, but habitat conditions for ruffed grouse are so bad it will require a higher intensity of timber management on a continual basis for at least 10 years to get ruffed grouse populations back to where they were in 1979-81.

You cannot correct 25 years of advancing forest succession and downward trends in ruffed grouse populations in just a few years without disregarding other resource issues. The new forest initiatives are a step in the right direction, but it'll take time and a continual commitment to make a real difference for ruffed grouse populations range wide.

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