‘Good Ol’ Days’ of Indiana wildlife weren’t so good

Posted on Apr 21 2022 in Outdoors
Whitetail deer

By Jack Spaulding

For those of us today and for the earliest Hoosier 200 years ago, it’s hard to imagine an Indiana without deer. But the once expansive herds of whitetail deer of Indiana’s earliest pioneer days were killed out by habitat loss and unregulated hunting by the time my grandfather came along. Records show the last “wild” whitetail deer was killed in Knox County in 1893, and whitetail deer were considered extinct within the borders of Indiana for almost 50 years.

The dramatic return of the whitetail deer in Indiana can be largely attributed to one group of people: the sportsmen of Indiana. The first deer reintroduction efforts were funded from the modest hunting and fishing license fees. Later research and introductions were funded by the federally enacted Pittman-Robertson Act.

The project first began in the area now encompassing much of the Hoosier National Forest. In the early 1930s, the Indiana Division of Fish and Game recognized much of the eroded and abandoned farmland in south and central Indiana had recovered enough to support a population of whitetail deer. From 1934 until 1942, 296 deer were purchased from other states for release. An additional 111 deer were released between 1953 and 1955.

Monitoring the growing herd, the Fish and Game investigators estimated there were 900 animals in 1943 and 1,200 in 1944. By 1950, the herd was estimated to number at least 5,000 — and becoming problematic to farmers because of crop depredation. A hunt was deemed necessary, and the first deer hunting season in the 20th century was held for a period of three days covering an area of 17 counties. An unlimited number of licenses were issued for $5 for the any sex deer hunt. Legal hunt weapons were archery and slug shotguns. 

Fast forward to 2020, the herd in the state of Indiana was estimated at 680,000 deer. The total number of licenses sold for deer hunting in 2020 came to 132,966.

In comparison to the days of yesteryear, the deer harvest in Indiana has increased dramatically with a total take in the 2020-21 season of 124,180. During the season, 70% of participants were reported as having taken at least one deer.

With great wildlife wealth and numbers come great responsibility. Indiana’s DNR tries to maintain the herd numbers to minimize the amount of crop depredation and deer/vehicle accidents. By increasing antlerless harvest in select counties and keying on special areas of high deer density for special depredation hunts, the DNR hopes to reduce the herd annually by more than 20%.

JACK SPAULDING is a syndicated state outdoors writer and a member of RushShelby Energy. Readers can contact the author by writing to this publication, or by email to jackspaulding@hughes.net. Spaulding’s books, “The Best Of Spaulding Outdoors” and “The Coon Hunter And The Kid,” are available from Amazon.com as paperbacks or Kindle downloads.