Wildlife biologist not worried about downward trend of area deer numbers

Jason Wade, district wildlife biologist with the  Division of Fish and Wildlife, says a decline in the number of deer taken by hunters in 2013 shows that the local deer population is nearing an acceptable level.
Jason Wade, district wildlife biologist with the Division of Fish and Wildlife, says a decline in the number of deer taken by hunters in 2013 shows that the local deer population is nearing an acceptable level. Photo by Cindy Klepper.

Originally published March 13, 2014.

The deer harvest in Huntington County is continuing its downward trend, but that doesn't worry the man in charge of keeping an eye on the deer population.

"We're probably close to where we want to be," says Jason Wade, District 3 wildlife biologist for the Division of Fish and Wildlife of the Indiana Department of Natural Resources.

A state report shows 885 deer harvested in Huntington County during the 2013 season, down from the 1,089 deer taken the previous year. The county numbers have been on a decline since 2009, when 1,232 deer were taken.

State totals also declined from 2012 to 2013, says Chad Stewart, state deer management biologist with the Division of Fish and Wildlife.

Statewide, the reported harvest of 125,635 deer was about 10,600 fewer than the record harvest of 136,248 in 2012, a decline of 7.8 percent. The 2013 season still ranks eighth best since regulated deer hunting began in Indiana in 1951, according to the state report.

"Down about 8 percent is very similar to what we're seeing in a lot of other Midwest states, so we're par for the course," Stewart says. "We're still harvesting a lot of deer. The 125,635 shows we're down but not collapsing."

The numbers, Wade says, point to a declining deer population - and, he says, the decline is a good thing.

"It's certainly nothing to be alarmed about," Wade says. "It's starting to come back to where we'd like to see it."

Along with fewer deer taken by hunters, Wade says, fewer deer are colliding with vehicles. Only 190 deer-vehicle collisions were reported to police in Huntington County during 2013, down from 233 in 2011 and a high of 275 in 2008.

The deer population in Huntington County was a problem in 2008, 2009 and 2010, he says.

"There were too many deer on the landscape," Wade says.

"Too many" means different things to different people, he says - an acceptable number of deer may be different for the hunter, the farmer and the city resident.

"We've got to kind of juggle all those balls and come up with something acceptable to everyone," he says.

Wade tracks trends in the deer population by tracking the number of kills reported by hunters, the number of deer-related accidents and the perceptions of area hunters, landowners and residents.

"It's more of a sense you get talking to hunters, to landowners," Wade says.

He also tracks the damage reports he receives from residents of his six-county district, including damage to crops, gardens and landscaping caused by deer.

For homeowners having problems with deer, Wade recommends fencing - "the only sure-fire way to keep deer out."

They may also try commercially available sprays, or folk remedies such as banging cans or scarecrows.

Damage to Huntington County farm fields is not nearly as bad as damage reported in counties north of Huntington, where deer eat corn and beans with abandon, Wade says.
Those counties north of Huntington also reported more deer taken by hunters in 2013 - 2,085 in DeKalb County, 2,277 in Kosciusko County, and 2,634 in Noble County. Those numbers indicate an overall larger deer herd in those areas, Wade says.

There's no real count of the deer herd - that undertaking that would be prohibitively expensive.

"It's almost impossible to determine the actual number of deer running around out there," Wade says. "We don't have the resources to go out and count.

"We don't track population; we track trends."

The number of hunters, Wade says, is relatively constant and so wouldn't have much of an effect on the deer harvest, Wade says.

Weather, on the other hand, likely played a role in a fluctuating deer harvest during firearm season, which lasted from Nov. 16 through Dec. 1, 2013, Wade says.

Opening day on Nov. 16, a Saturday, saw a reported harvest of 20,690 deer. The following day, when tornadoes roared through Indiana, the harvest dropped to 3,361.

"This past season was a pretty normal season," Wade says. "But that opening Sunday was a pretty bad day."
Huntington County is right on the edge of "good hunting" territory, Wade says, with the northern part of the county providing an entirely different situation for deer than the southern part.

"The north is more rolling; southern Huntington County is flat," he says. "The deer will use the ag fields for feeding, but they live the cover of more woodlots, thickets.

"Once the fields are picked, it's a biological desert out there."