Sometimes, lower is still pretty high.
That's the case with Indiana's most recent deer harvest figures. While the just-announced tally of 129,018 deer for the 2011-12 hunting season is down 3.7 percent from the previous season's record total of 134,004, it's still the fourth-highest ever recorded in the Hoosier State.
Of course, in wildlife management, broad trends matter more than actual numbers do. And the trend in Indiana, as in most other places, is for the whitetail harvest to be fairly stable, if not down a bit from a recent peak. Gone are the days of it being reasonable to expect a record harvest every year.
Why is that the case? Most whitetail habitat is saturated€¦and not by rain. We've now restocked nearly every area that has decent potential. After a few generations of rapid population growth, we're starting to go the other way a bit. In some places, a recent decline in timber cutting has reduced the carrying capacity. In others, a good bit of CRP acreage has been converted back to farmland. And for sure, in some regions we're seeing the recent impact of higher number of deer predators, including wolves, coyotes, black bears, cougars and bobcats. Put it all together, and it's no shock we're starting to see a drop in the hunter harvest.
This isn't true everywhere, mind you, and it doesn't mean we'll never see another record whitetail harvest anywhere. But joyful DNR announcements of "biggest kill ever" will come less and less often, regardless of the acorn crop, corn harvest timing, weather during gun season or any other variables that tend to cause big yearly swings in the kill.
If you ask a number of experts in various parts of North America -- as I do every year -- you'll find few of them calling 2011-12 a good overall whitetail season. The reasons for this viewpoint are many, and as always, no single factor likely explains it. We just didn't have a great year for daytime deer movement in general.
My own thought is that warm weather -- in Indiana, 21 of the 30 days in November were above average in temperature -- caused most of the problem. A full moon around the gun opener didn't help anything either. Delayed corn harvest certainly wasn't an issue, as it was back in the disastrously soggy fall of 2009. Nor did Indiana "suffer" from a huge mast crop last fall, as it did in 2010. A lot of acorns on the ground can translate to tough hunting, especially in early bow season.
Whatever the reason(s) for Indiana's lower harvest last fall, the big picture is what hunters there and everywhere else should keep squarely in mind. As my good friend Dr. James Kroll often reminds me, these are "the good old days" of whitetail hunting. It's just that deer numbers aren't likely to keep getting higher in many places. Then again, do they need to?