DNR considers deer hunting reform

DNR considers some comprehensive reforms to deer hunting, including statewide bag limits and changes to crossbow licenses. (Photo courtesy of the U.S. Department of Agriculture) +

By Whitney Downard | Indiana Capital Chronicle

For the Republic

INDIANAPOLIS — A hybrid public hearing on reforming the state’s deer hunting programs managed by the Indiana Department of Natural Resources got little feedback Wednesday, but roughly 90 Hoosiers submitted comments online beforehand.

Of the public comments reviewed by the Indiana Capital Chronicle, a few of the proposed changes were clear standouts, especially crossbow licensing and the elimination of a special season for antlerless deer, or does, at the end of the year.

The Indiana Natural Resources Commission meeting, scheduled at the Garrison at Fort Harrison State Park in Indianapolis, appeared to have no members of the public in attendance and less than a dozen who tuned in online.

A display from DNR cataloging the Indiana deer harvest over the last few seasons. (From DNR website) 

In a lengthy outline on the DNR website, the agency detailed the 17 proposed changes and said it would simplify the process for hunters and reduce confusion.

“The DNR recognizes the desire of hunters to keep seasons specific to a type of equipment and to place certain limitations on others who hunt that season. However, the deer program aims to simplify the rules that govern deer hunting so that hunters desiring to enter the sport are less confused by the regulations,” said DNR on its website.

“Much staff time and resources are taken up trying to explain the requirements of a license to an individual, and correcting an accidental mistake made when checking in a deer,” the agency continued.

Several of the changes appeared to be responses to legislation passed in 2023 curbing the power of agencies to enact emergency rules. Previous limitations on youth hunters and the establishment of deer reduction zones were done through such administrative rulemaking.

The deadline to submit public comment was March 20. The commission still has to approve the rules at an upcoming meeting.

Feedback from public comments

Currently, the state offers a standalone crossbow license in addition to the archery license — both of which run from Oct. 1 to Jan. 5 — the change would combine both into one license. DNR notes on its site that the use of crossbows to hunt was legalized in 2012 but less than 1% of hunters purchase both licenses.

One change would allow .40 caliber muzzleloaders during the season while another would remove bag limits for this license.

Christopher Lee, of the National Shooting Sports Foundation and an Indiana hunter, wrote about the user friendly muzzleloader in a public comment.

“As hunting technology evolves, it is important for hunting regulations to be updated. One example of this innovation is the encapsulated propellant charge for muzzleloaders,” Lee wrote. “… This encapsulated propellant charge is already legal for muzzleloading seasons in 28 states because it has multiple benefits. It makes hunting with muzzleloaders safer and more reliable by ensuring a consistent powder charge. It protects the powder from moisture and the elements.”

A 2022 Deer Management Survey of over 16,000 found that nearly three-quarters, or 73%, supported the rule change while 19% were opposed.

Several people wrote that crossbows were far more powerful than their counterparts and should instead be included in the firearms or muzzle loaders seasons, rather than archery. Many said exceptions should only be made for those with physical or mental impairments.

“While I agree that this reduces confusion since crossbows are allowed during archery, I do not agree with the principle overall. Crossbows should not be allowed during archery seasons with the exception of those with special permits,” said Nathan Flook, of Tippecanoe County. “Crossbows do not belong in the archery category. The only similarity they have with a traditional vertical bow is the presence of cam and strings.”

But the change regarding crossbows didn’t get nearly the same attention as the special antlerless firearms season from Dec. 26 to the first Sunday in the following January. A DNR 2021 survey found that 38% of hunters used that season in the last five years, dropping to 24% in the last year.

Citing the low usage and “ineffectiveness” in harvesting deer, DNR proposed striking the season.

But many hunters spoke out, saying it was one of the few times of year when children were out of school and adults had time off work.

“This is an opportunity for adult hunters to take youth into the field. It doesn’t really matter if significant numbers of deer are harvested during this season. The purpose is to give potential new hunters an opportunity in the field with someone they can learn from,” said Mike Foster, of Johnson County. “I think removing this season is short-sighted if one considers the shrinking number of hunters taking to the field as each year passes.”

Previously, the agency had an emergency rule prohibiting hunting antlerless deer with a firearm on certain Fish & Wildlife properties. Due to 2023 legislation, DNR needs to codify it.

The most complicated process, previously decided via rule-making, is the establishment of deer reduction zones. Such zones are created in areas where excess deer conflict with humans, such as car accidents and deer damage.

Managing the deer population

Other proposals included changes to muzzleloader licenses and a statewide bag limit of six antlerless deer, similar to the current state limit on antlered deer.

“This change is being proposed because the current county bonus antlerless quota (CBAQ) system allows individuals to shoot perceived excessive numbers of antlerless deer across multiple counties, if individuals in each county were to take the maximum number of bonus antlerless deer available in each county,” DNR said on its website.

“The proposed changes to the rules governing deer hunting will allow an individual to still take no more than one antlered deer during the regular deer seasons combined, as is allowed now, but it will also allow them to purchase up to six additional multiple season antlerless deer licenses to take antlerless deer in any of the regular deer seasons (e.g., archery, firearms and muzzleloader),” the agency continued.

DNR noted that fewer than 70 hunters took more than seven deer during a regular deer season and that nearly three-quarters of those surveyed in 2022, or 74%, supported the change while just 14% opposed.

Hunters weighing in appeared conflicted, with some reporting thinning herds in their counties and others concerned about deer damage to their properties.

The percentage of each county that is considered to be a deer habitat. (Map from DNR) 

“The number of antlerless deer is staggering on my farm. I sustain over $5,000 worth of deer damage every year on my 1,700-acre farm. It is hard enough to make a living growing corn and soybeans. I do not like feeding deer!” Dennis Simpson, of Gibson County, said.

But Marion County’s Allen Glover, who said he’d hunted for decades, reported the opposite experience.

“The low number of deer that I have seen in recent years have been very young and only two or three of them in the entire season. The Franklin County (herd), if you can call it that, has been decimated by over hunting antlerless deer or by (Epizootic Hemorrhagic Disease),” Glover wrote in. “With the disease continuing to decimate the (herd), I hope that they would continue to limit the doe harvest for the next 5 years. Hopefully this would increase the number of deer available to be harvested.”

The sometimes fatal EHD virus kills deer in Indiana, and in other parts of the country, annually and peaks in late summer to early fall. According to DNR, 67 deer were reported to have EHD last year, though the agency only tested 7 and confirmed one case.

But the department does allow hunters who kill such a diseased deer to not let it count against their limit, with reservations. Such a decision is made by evaluating the conditions of the deer meat and observations by biologists or conservation officers.

“… some individuals see this as another opportunity to take a second buck if the meat of the first buck is not edible and believe they will get two sets of antlers for the year,” DNR’s website read.

To combat that, DNR staff also collect the antlers as “the willingness of an individual to give up antlers often helps department staff to determine whether the individual is trying to get another opportunity to shoot a second buck, or whether the individual has an honest concern about the condition of the meat.”

The proposed change will allow DNR to offer to replace the meat with an antlerless deer, which allows the individual to keep the antlers from their first kill. However, if the department suspects a disease, they will confiscate the whole deer and allow the hunter to take another deer on the same license.

— The Indiana Capital Chronicle covers state government and the state legislature. For more, visit indianacapitalchronicle.com.