What can sportsmen expect this year when it comes to deer, ducks, turkeys and more? Read on for the latest, right from the mouths of our state's top wildlife managers. (July 2008)
Photo by Ralph Hensly.
Fortunately, for Hoosierland hunters, plenty of wildlife can be found within Indiana's 36,418 square miles of land. However, as the human population continues to grow, the boundaries separating wildlife and humanity continue to shrink.
There are now about 6.3 million people in Indiana, which pushes the Hoosier State into 15th place in terms of most populated states. And probably more importantly when it comes to population levels of wildlife, Indiana is ranked 17th in population density.
Population density is a measure of the (human) population per unit area. In simple terms, an increase in population density generally means fewer habitats for wildlife. Fewer habitats for wildlife, as we all know, generally means less potential for wildlife to thrive.
To keep Indiana's wildlife in good shape, the Indiana Department of Natural Resources (DNR) Division of Fish and Wildlife (DFW) employs wildlife biologists to help manage each major species (deer, turkeys, waterfowl, pheasants/quail and small game).
This article provides a preview of the major species using a question and answer format with some of the best wildlife biologists in the business. However, let's first see what DFW Chief Wayne Bivans has to say about this subject matter.
Game & Fish: In general, and overall, how is the wildlife doing in Indiana? Are we continuing to lose more habitats to human development?
Bivans: Deer and turkeys continue to be our most sought-after game animals and populations continue to be strong statewide. However, small-game populations are generally not good due to habitat loss and degradation. Areas with good habitat and optimum weather conditions will produce small game. Human development continues at a slower pace due to the recent economic down turn, but nevertheless it continues.
Our energy situation relative to petroleum may drive the loss of Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) land to the production of more corn for ethanol. Urban sprawl continues at an unprecedented pace around our population centers of the state. Everyone wants their private means of transportation, which requires more energy as well as space, leaving less for wildlife.
G&F: What can the average sportsman in Indiana do to help improve habitat conditions that are so vital to each respective wildlife species?
Bivans: Buy a hunting and fishing license; these funds, as well as federal matches, support the programs of the DFW. They should know that general tax dollars do not contribute to wildlife habitat development and management. Join wildlife oriented non-government organizations (NGO) of choice and support their fund-raising efforts.
Be knowledgeable of your local officials and assist them in their understanding of the importance of wildlife and its need for habitat.
If you know a landowner who is interested in improving wildlife habitat on his/her property, have them contact their district wildlife biologist and set up an appointment to have the biologist come out to the property and discuss habitat development opportunities and cost-share assistance programs available through the DFW and the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
It is our district wildlife biologists' job to know what programs are available, who qualifies, and how and when to enroll or apply for assistance.
Many farmers have very little time during the crop-planting season to help develop wildlife habitat. Volunteering your time and other hunters' time to get habitat development work done may make the difference as to whether habitat work gets implemented or not.
Contact a local Fish and Wildlife property to ask about volunteering for projects or establishing a group that would/could assist in property projects.
Deer and wildlife research biologist Chad Stewart answers questions on deer.
G&F: How is Indiana's deer herd doing? Is it growing, shrinking, or maintaining a healthy and stable size?
Stewart: Over the past couple of years, the statewide trends have shown that the deer herd has been slowly reduced, about 4 to 5 percent annually. Of course, there are places where local herds are growing or declining significantly different from the statewide average.
G&F: How successful was the 2007 deer-hunting season?
Stewart: We are still compiling data, so we're not sure if the harvest will reach the levels from the past three years, but it looks like the 2007 season will be a top 5 year, as far as total harvest goes.
G&F: Everyone is worried the epizootic hemorrhagic disease (EHD) was causing deer mortality concerns in the southern part of the state. With the information you presently have, what is the situation with EHD in Indiana?
Stewart: The 2007 season yielded more reports of dead or dying deer, presumably from EHD, than any other year in history. We confirmed EHD in 17 counties and suspected it occurred in 59 counties in total. Some counties were hit much harder than others, though we don't yet know to what extent that will be.
G&F: Chronic wasting disease (CWD) is also of great concern to sportsmen. Were there any cases of CWD reported in 2007? And would you please elaborate on the protective measures that are in place to stop or minimize CWD?
Stewart: All of the samples we have submitted as part of our ongoing surveillance program have been returned to us, and no CWD prions were detected in any sample. Our CWD surveillance occurs year 'round, with biologists acting on any reports of sick deer, along with testing of hunter harvested deer and road-killed deer.
G&F: Does the one-buck rule seem to be growing bigger bucks?
Stewart: It seems that there are fewer yearling bucks harvested and more 2.5-year-old bucks harvested since the one-buck rule began. Whether the one-buck rule is responsible for increasing the age of our deer herd or just changing the selectivity of our hunters is probably a question that can't be answered with the information available to us.
EASTERN WILD TURKEYS
Wildlife research biologist Steve B
acks talks about turkeys.
G&F: How is the turkey population doing in Indiana?
Backs: Wild turkey populations in Indiana continue to increase in numbers and distribution, although the rate of growth has slowed down as turkey population levels begin stabilizing in some regions of the state. Generally, wild turkey populations continue to increase for 12 to 15 years post-restoration — depending upon the amount of suitable habitat.
As the suitable habitat reaches saturation, turkey production decreases from a colonizing mode to more of a population maintenance level. We have already observed these population growth shifts in the longer established populations in the southern half of the state, while younger populations in the northern half are still increasing. In response to these population growth shifts, we can expect more ups and downs in the statewide and individual county harvests.
In recent years, summer production (brood success, generally expressed as the poult/hen ratios) has gone through some extreme highs and lows. The long-term trend is progressively dropping toward population maintenance levels.
Production in 2004, during the "17-year cicada hatch" was the highest recorded followed by the lowest production recorded in 2005. Production in 2006 and 2007 was below normal or the average of the previous 10 years.
The wide variation in production has influenced our harvest, especially in the proportion of 2-year-old adult gobblers in the spring harvest. Two-year-old gobblers are generally the most active birds, and thus most vulnerable to a hunter's gun. Again, the long-term production trend is going from colonizing growth rates toward stabilized or population maintenance levels defined by suitable habitat levels. The amount of suitable habitat for wild turkeys may be at its peak or subtly declining due to human development across the landscape.
G&F: How many birds were harvested during 2007?
Backs: Hunters harvested 11,163 wild turkeys in 86 of the 91 counties open to hunting. The 2007 harvest was the second highest harvest in 38 years, slightly exceeding the 2005 harvest. It was, however, a 15 percent decrease compared to the record of 13,193 birds harvested in 2006. Estimated hunter success was around 21 percent.
G&F: With the information you have, does 2008 look like it will be a good year for turkey hunters?
Backs: I think if you consider long-term growth rates, recent production success (which have been below normal), and its influence on the age structure of the population (along with general turkey population dynamics), I'm cautiously optimistic that we will harvest 12,000-plus birds.
Basically, I throw out the 2006 record harvest of 13,193 birds as a 17-year "cicada" anomaly resulting from the record-high production in 2004, and then look at the other recent harvests (2004, 2005, 2007). I hope the continued growth in more recently established populations around the state will help compensate for the below normal production in 2005-2007.
I wouldn't expect a lot of gobbling activity this season due to the general lack of 2-year-olds. I believe we are entering into a period of reality where population growth is slowing down, so we can't expect to have record harvests every year like we did through the 1980s and 1990s.
On the plus side, Indiana's conservative season bag of one bird per hunter, per season, has helped buffer the impact of the three years of below normal production. We have maintained a hunter success rate between 22 to 24 percent and a harvest-age structure around 65 percent adult gobblers through the last two decades with increasing hunter numbers.
PHEASANTS AND QUAIL
Research biologist Budd Veverka discusses pheasants and quail.
G&F: In general, how are the pheasant and quail populations doing in Indiana? Have we gained any ground?
Veverka: For both northern bobwhites and ring-necked pheasants, spring surveys are used to assess the annual changes in Indiana's populations. Spring whistle counts, conducted since 1947, were used to determine if there was a change in northern bobwhite abundance in 2007.
Our data show the overall bobwhite population is relatively unchanged from 2006, but remains very low compared with Indiana's historical data. One bright spot is that the overall bobwhite population has stabilized in the past decade.
In 2007, ring-necked pheasant populations were assessed using spring crowing counts. Some 71 roosters were heard crowing at 80 stops along our annual survey routes, showing that pheasant abundance was unchanged from 2006. Like the northern bobwhite, the ring-necked pheasant population remains near record lows, but has stabilized over the past decade on a statewide basis.
Localized populations of game birds can come and go quite frequently, but we have seen some populations, particularly ring-necked pheasants, respond well in areas where specific land-management practices have yielded quality habitat. Your best chance of bagging northern bobwhites is to hunt in southwestern and south-central Indiana.
Your best chance of bagging a ring-necked pheasant would be to hunt in northern Indiana, with the best opportunities coming in Benton, Newton, DeKalb and Steuben counties.
Data from the most recent small- game survey conducted after the 2005-2006 season showed that an estimated 28,399 northern bobwhites and an estimated 11,874 wild ring-necked pheasants were harvested statewide in 2005.
G&F: With the energy crunch, farmers are now putting more of their properties that were enrolled in CRP into corn production. How bad is this hurting the pheasant and quail habitat? In other words (if you have any statistics), how many acres of CRP have we lost to making ethanol?
Veverka: Between Sept. 1, 2006 and Oct. 31, 2007, we have had 3,002 acres of land withdrawn from the CRP program; however, this still leaves us with 295,000 acres of CRP land, so we have been very fortunate thus far. We suspect that more acreage will be withdrawn as farmers start looking more closely at market prices and begin planning for the 2008 planting season.
As far as its impact on Indiana's game birds, most of the withdrawn acreage has not been coming from our traditional pheasant range and good bobwhite counties, and the majority (1,648 acres) of the acres being withdrawn are tracts of land that were enrolled in existing established grasses (CP10). This means that most of these tracts were probably rank stands of grasses (fescue/brome) with poor wildlife value.
G&F: By all accounts, the reserved pheasant hunts are one of the best programs the DFW provides. Will the number of hunts increase in 2008 or stay the same as in 2007?
Veverka: The number of reserved pheasan
t hunts will remain about the same for the 2008-2009 season.
Biologist Adam Phelps discusses ducks and geese in Hoosierland.
G&F: How was the 2007 waterfowl-hunting season in terms of harvests?
Phelps: The responses I've received from the fish and wildlife areas so far indicate that it was a very good year. Despite the drought, it seemed that most properties had enough water to hold good numbers of ducks. Of course, a water shortage can also function to concentrate birds on whatever water they can find.
G&F: How is the overall health of the waterfowl populations (both ducks and geese) that fly through Indiana on their yearly migration routes? Is any one species declining or increasing when compared with typical trends from recent years?
Phelps: Overall, waterfowl in the Mississippi Flyway are doing very well. Canvasbacks, redheads and northern shovelers were at record numbers on the breeding grounds this past year.
American widgeons, which have been declining for some time, had a good year. Northern pintails were about the same as last year. While this is not great news, at least we didn't see an additional decline.
Scaup were also about the same numbers wise last year as in 2006. I would be surprised if we do not see additional bag restrictions on scaup in the next few years. American black ducks also remain at very low numbers. Overall, apart from those few species, ducks in North America are doing quite well right now.
Indiana's breeding Canada goose population was at 125,000 last spring, 45,000 over our goal. We have begun a three-year experimental February season to try to reduce the population. It remains to be seen how effective this late season will be, but after the first week, I feel confident that we can use this season to bring down the population at least somewhat, if not all the way to the goal. The SJBP and MVP populations of Canada geese that migrate through Indiana are also at very healthy levels.
G&F: Were the sales of waterfowl stamps about normal for 2007?
Phelps: "Normal" is hard to define. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service did not have the 2006 numbers available yet, but 2005 was a bad year for duck stamp sales in Indiana, down nearly 9,000 from 2004.
However, the good news is that the 2001-2005 average was higher than any other five-year average, all the way back to 1961-65. This may be due to collectors and other conservation-minded individuals other than hunters stepping up and buying stamps. I hope to see this upward trend return when the 2006 and 2007 numbers are published.
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There you have it, a look at what hunters can expect this year in the Hoosier State. You may be fishing right now, but there's little doubt that the first hunting seasons will soon be just around the corner.