Here's the latest on what to expect this season for deer, waterfowl, turkeys and more, straight from one of our state's top wildlife officials.
By Tom Berg
What's in store for Hoosier hunters this season? Here, Indiana Game & Fish interviews Wildlife Resources Chief Glenn Lange on the present status of our wildlife resources, from deer to turkeys to upland game hunting and more. Read on for the latest about hunting in our state this year.
Game & Fish: What kind of feedback is the department hearing back from hunters on the one-buck rule, now that it's been in effect for a few years?
Lange: We'll have to see what happens. We're going to leave it in place for five years (three more). Is it really creating some older bucks in the population? We don't think it will. But we're certainly willing to try it. Most of our deer hunters are not in favor of any severe restrictions - slightly over half. Now that we've implemented it, we're only hearing from the other half. We'll need to evaluate. It's not an issue that we feel real strongly about one way or the other, but it cuts down on opportunity. Hunters want their choice of deer.
We'll see what the harvest looks like over the five-year period. We'll look at the harvest numbers at check-in stations and see if we see any greater percentage of older bucks in the harvest.
G&F: Some hunters are reporting that the buck-to-doe ratio is overwhelmingly does. Is it true and what can be done to get the ratio so it isn't so heavily skewed toward does?
Lange: We know what that ratio is. We don't see any particular problem with it. We harvest over 100,000 deer every year. Currently, we have two adult does per adult buck. That's been consistent over the last 25 to 30 years. It really hasn't changed much. I think what deer hunters see is there is a difference in what you see. But observation is a poor way to determine what the doe-buck ratio is.
If that were true (a low buck-to-doe ratio), we wouldn't take nearly as many antlered bucks. The harvest wouldn't be anywhere close to what we have now.
Photo by Jerry Amos
G&F: With the range of chronic wasting disease in deer expanding in Illinois and Wisconsin, has the department conceded that the disease will eventually be found here? What is being done to keep it out?
Lange: We're not more nervous than we were. We were already nervous about the positive group in Illinois. They think there's a direct link with the (diseased) deer in Wisconsin. We'll keep our fingers crossed that it won't get into Indiana. We increased our sampling in an eight-county area in northwest Indiana last fall in hopes that we'd detect it.
G&F: What kind of dialogue has been coming out of the cervids council meetings?
Lange: We're obviously talking a lot about chronic wasting disease and what steps need to be taken. All aspects of the use and possession of deer behind wire will be addressed. We're looking at people who keep cervids as pets, those who sell them for meat or hunting. We'll be addressing all those situations. All the wildlife belongs to everyone. We'll address the ethics of hunting behind wire. We'll then make recommendations to the legislature, the Department of Natural Resources and the Board of Animal Health.
G&F: Other states do surveys and put an estimate on the overall deer herd. Why doesn't Indiana do the same?
Lange: We've experimented with deer population models in the past, but we've found that they're 50 percent off. We don't think it's worth spending time and money on. Having said that, we're working on developing one that would work for Indiana. We last tried 15 years ago. At that time, we didn't think it was acceptable info.
What we have now would show trending, which is about as close as you can get. Models are only as good as the information you've got going into them. You have to set all that up. We may find out that we still don't have an acceptable population model. It's probably worth doing if we can get one that works. We'll be working on it for the next four or five years. A lot of people can't understand that it's not easy to count deer.
EASTERN WILD TURKEYS
G&F: In light of the proposed fall turkey season, what condition is the turkey population in? With the extra seasons, how do we know we're not going to hit the population too hard?
Lange: The turkey population is certainly in good shape. We're also going to be selective in the counties where we hunt fall turkeys. The firearms part of the season is only going to be a few days. We purposely will be very conservative in our approach. We'll set those counties every year kind of like antlerless deer quotas. We will look at production every year before we publish a list of counties.
Our harvest has reached 10,000 in the couple of last seasons. But we won't allow the fall season to interfere with the spring season.
G&F: Have turkeys adapted to areas previous science said they wouldn't? We're finding that they are adapting to less and less forested tracts. We used to think you needed several square miles of forested habitat before you even could think about turkey areas. As the populations have expanded, they have shown where they adapt to and where they won't. We're on the edge of having turkeys in nearly every habitat that's possible.
They're in virtually all of the counties. Those south-central counties still have the prime habitat. It's just we're finding the turkeys are adapting. Our thoughts are evolving. This is a woodland bird. The more woodland you have, the better off you're going to be for turkeys. Does this still ring true? Has the DNR been actively trying to expand the turkey population?
Lange: Indeed! We've been trapping turkeys and relocating them. We're concentrating right now on the Big Blue River Drainage in east-central Indiana and northern Shelby, Rush, Henry and Hancock counties. Also, we're moving more turkeys into Mississinewa in Grant County and Blackford, Jay and Randolph counties.
We're releasing them there to see if we can expand the turkey populations in those areas. We're also looking at some places in Adams, Whitley, Wells and southern Allen counties.
G&F: The proposed season currently includes a hunter orange requirement. Why is this necessary and what effect will it have on hunter success?
Lange: We're going to get a lot of input on this question. We want to err on the side of safety when adding another set of hunter
s into other established fall seasons. You have archers, squirrel hunters; you have other hunting activities going on in October. Looking at statistics on hunting accidents, it's certainly possible that if these folks had been wearing hunter orange, it might have prevented some accidents. We realize some hunting success may go down because of the requirement, but we've tried to dampen the affect of hunter orange.
G&F: Waterfowlers continue to moan about the number of birds flying overhead during the hunting season. What do surveys say about the number of ducks and geese flying over Indiana?
Lange: In Indiana, having birds seen and actually stop here depends on two things: wetlands and water areas. Then it depends really heavily on what the weather is and what it is north of Indiana. If it's real mild, birds are not going to come by. When they migrate, it means the weather has changed drastically farther north. We're trying to maximize the number of days the United States Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) provides. As long as the populations stay the way they are, we'll continue to have as many days as we already have.
G&F: How does the state plan to address the ever-growing resident geese population? Is there any possibility for another late season for resident geese?
Lange: We're doing all we can under federal regulations to control resident geese. The USFWS has issued a draft of some new regulations. If they're passed, we'll have some additional options like longer seasons, which would allow us to take additional birds. It could even allow us to take birds any time of the year, as long as it didn't interfere with migrating Canada geese. We could ultimately round birds up and reduce the flock that way. It's going to be very controversial. We'll be trying to develop something based on what the feds come up with.
G&F: With wetlands, especially isolated ones, what kind of danger are they in and what does it mean to waterfowl in the state?
Lange: There are about 800,000 acres of wetlands remaining in the state. Some 30 to 40 percent of those are isolated.
Wetlands are very important to waterfowl at times. They're probably very important to other types of wildlife and have a number of other benefits in terms of providing water to rivers and streams. They do a lot of filtering of agricultural run-off. They protect clean water and help reduce flooding. Most wetlands have already been destroyed in Indiana. A large portion of what's left will either be protected or left unprotected depending on what happens in legislature.
I encourage sportsmen to look at the general assembly Web site. If they're interested, they can get involved if they think more of the remaining wetlands. It appears a large number of the remaining wetlands may not be protected.
G&F: What condition is the pheasant population in?
Lange: Pheasants are probably at historic lows, going all the way back to when they were introduced into the United States. During the '60s and '70s, we had lots of good habitat because there were four million acres of farmlands left idle, most of which are under production again. The populations responded to that and that's when we had the peak number of birds.
G&F: Is anything being done to change habitat for the benefit of pheasants?
Lange: There are some federal projects that could help redevelop some of the habitat. But even the current programs probably don't provide enough incentive and won't replace those corn-soybean acres. Landowners have to participate in those for that to work. Our district biologists are working very diligently to try to entice landowners to set aside some habitat for pheasants and quail. That's the only way the populations are going to come back.
G&F: How have put-and-take pheasant opportunities been received in recent years?
Lange: Put-and-take pheasant hunts are popular. We're thinking about using parts of that program as a recruitment tool to get more and more youngsters started in hunting. We think because these hunts can have high success rates, they can really be a good way for kids to start hunting.
G&F: How important is it that the proposed limit reduction on grouse be adopted as a rule?
Lange: Grouse thrive best in areas that have been recently timbered. They survive in early succession forest. But a lot of Indiana's forestland is growing into mature trees, so grouse populations are low.
The season reductions take away from the end of the current season because the later you hunt them, the higher the chance you're going to be taking birds that have a better chance of survival during the winter - birds that are needed for the breeding population. We'll still have a number of days, but we wanted to curtail the late-season harvest.
G&F: Can anything be done to change the make-up of Indiana's forests?
Lange: We don't control most of the forests in Indiana. There are two big owners of forests: Hoosier National and private landowners. State forests make up a small percentage. We can only make recommendations to Hoosier National. We work with landowners, but it's their choice.
The remaining land is managed by the state. People have talked about different strategies. A number of organizations are going to sponsor a forest habitat conference to look at those plans. All the forest owners would be invited to get together and have a major conference to forge a long-range plan for wildlife forest management. It's pretty clear that most of the forestland in Indiana is maturing. Depending on your point of view, that's either a good thing or a bad thing. We want a habitat that's diverse. Some species need mature habitat. So it's a matter of deciding what that landscape is going to look like.
G&F: What about rabbits? Aren't they in the same condition as quail are?
Lange: Just like quail, if you don't have the right habitat, you're not going to see rabbits. People want to hear that there's something else you can do, but the first thing you need is a place to produce rabbits. They use the same habitat as quail. You cannot maintain rabbits in a corn field. There's no food and cover during the winter. You need brush, tall grass and you even need wood lots. There are fewer and fewer of those places left. If you want to grow corn and soybeans and not have quail and rabbit habitat, then that's your choice.
G&F: What effect are coyotes, feral dogs and cats having on small- game populations?
Lange: In areas of good habitat, they're not much of a problem at all. Food studies on coyotes indicate that the majority of the food source is small mammals, not rabbits and quail. Hunters, like coyotes, take that surplus of animals that are not going to
make it though the winter. If coyotes had the drastic effect that some people feel they do, then we wouldn't be able to allow hunting either. But there's no question they take some of the animals, too. Coyote numbers are higher than they have been in 30 years.
G&F: What are the chances the state will develop new hunting areas?
Lange: We just purchased land to add to Morgan State Forest, southwest of Indianapolis. It's mostly wooded land. What was private ground is going to be public land open for hunting. The folks who bought the other half are interested in managing the timber they bought. They might even allow public use in some of those areas. That was a good outcome for the department. It could have been completely in private hands.
Also, people have been talking about Goose Pond (south of Linton in Greene County) for years. There's a possibly that it could become public. The owner has sold an easement to the federal government as a wetland reserve credit. He is allowed to have some of the wetland areas be redeveloped. That's about 7,000 acres returned to its original wetland state. There have been discussions to try to buy the remaining value of that property and turn it into a public area.
We're looking at some other possible public areas as far as utility properties go. There are lots of reclaimed coalmine areas that will be up for sale. We might be able to pick up a new fish and wildlife area or additions to current properties. In the near future, I think we'll have some more of those things to talk about - wins for wildlife habitat and public hunting and fishing use.
Some of those discussions have been pretty encouraging. The factor is money. We have limited funds, but we'll try to match those with other folks who might be able to help. I wish legislators would put more money into the Heritage Trust funds. They're probably not going to give the fund any money this time around.
G&F: When is the electronic license system going to be running and why was it needed?
Lange: Our point-of-sale licensing system is still on track to be up and running this fall. The system has a tremendous ability to make it easier for the license buyer and seller. We'll also have a better system for keeping track, which will allow us to deposit money into the Fish and Wildlife fund much quicker. We do a number of surveys from those licenses. The only way we've been able to do that in the past is to make a mailing list off those sheets from the Wal-Marts and the bait shops. We'll be able to do them much easier, cheaper and faster.
Editor's Note: Reporter Javier Serna covers the outdoors and the environment for The Truth newspaper in Elkhart.
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