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Outdoors: Skip Hess
DNR tries to balance deer, fowl populations

November 21, 2004

Consider the current dichotomy among wildlife biologists at the Indiana Department of Natural Resources' fish and wildlife division.

There are biologists charged with drastically decreasing an overpopulation of deer, while others are assigned to drastically increase pheasant and quail populations.

Where the biologists meet is that all are trying to save the ecosystem and wildlife habitat.

The state, especially in protected parks and nature preserves, is overrun with whitetail deer.

Hunters annually kill more than 100,000 deer on private property and public fish and wildlife areas.

Until 1993, deer instinctively learned that they were safe from hunters on the state's thousands of acres of park and nature preserve property.

That's where they found vegetation, so they began eating all they could from the ground to as high as they could reach into trees. They destroyed food and habitat for other creatures and, ironically, left nothing for themselves. Many deer starved to death.

This is the 12th year that Indiana has closed various state parks and nature preserves for controlled hunts to thin deer herds. During that period, 15,000 to 20,000 deer have been culled.

Land once stripped of all or most of its life-sustaining vegetation is being restored.

But it's a different story outside the park and nature preserve perimeters and it's not deer creating the problems.

Pheasant and quail populations peaked in Indiana about 30 to 40 years ago, when about 4 million acres of farmland were enrolled in the U.S. Department of Agriculture's farmland retirement programs.

The federal Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) encouraged landowners though a variety of incentive financial payments to provide habitat for upland game by leaving some of their fields idle.

But as corporations gobbled up agricultural land, wildlife habitat disappeared along with family farms.

The DNR estimates that only 250,000 acres of state farmland is enrolled in the habitat program, meaning there is much less undisturbed nesting and brood-rearing habitat for bobwhite quail and ring-necked pheasant.

Indiana hunters harvest thousands of pheasants a year. That includes pheasants shot at some of the DNR's fish and wildlife areas that conduct "put-and-take" hunts each year. Thousands more are killed at private commercial hunting preserves.

Put-and-take is when the DNR puts pen-raised pheasants on its properties and hunters take them. The hunts began Saturday and will continue for eight more days.

Hoosiers with hunting licenses pay $15 and can bag a limit of two pheasants.

There is an ulterior motive to these hunts, of course. The DNR wants to keep pheasant hunters in Indiana instead of traveling to states such as South Dakota, where hunters harvest millions of the birds -- and spend hundreds of thousands of dollars.

You need only to look to the Southeast to see what happens when a state such as Georgia loses its official game bird, the bobwhite quail.

A loss of habitat from modern farming practices and commercial development in the past 20 years has resulted in a 70 percent decrease in the Southeast's quail population.

Georgia Department of Natural Resources wildlife biologist Reggie Thackston told The Associated Press in October, "We are losing $45 million a year associated with quail hunting."

Indiana chapters of Pheasants Forever and Quail Unlimited are working to save habitat, but they need the help of the state government.

In September, the state DNR launched what it called a "priority areas wildlife habitat program focusing on boosting quail and pheasant populations in prime areas."

There are eight priority areas for pheasants in the northern part of the state. Eight other priority areas for quail are in southern Indiana. DNR biologists are assigned to each area to work with property owners.

For a list of the 16 areas, log on to, scroll to Indiana DNR, division of fish and wildlife and click on to either the pheasant or quail habitat incentive program.

Fairbanks Landing

More than 600 deer hunters harvested 70 bucks during the first three days that the new 8,000-acre Fairbanks Landing Fish and Wildlife in western Indiana was open for hunting.

Fairbanks Landing officials said some hunters were turned away on Nov. 13, opening day, because the 300-hunter limit was reached earlier in the day. Fifty-four deer were taken that day.

During the next two days, 325 hunters, who were not allowed to kill does, harvested another 16 bucks. The largest buck taken the first three days was a 15-pointer.

Call Skip Hess at (317) 862-1994 or e-mail .

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