Art Lander’s Outdoors: A look back at a half century of wildlife management milestones in Kentucky

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The Baby Boomer Generation grew up hunting small game close to home — squirrels in groves of hickory trees in August and doves in September over harvested tobacco field sown in winter wheat.

Around Thanksgiving, rabbits, and maybe a covey or two of quail, were jumped up from thick weeds and brush along the borders of farm fields.

Hunters who grew up in the far western counties of the state, eagerly awaited the return of migrating Canada geese, that they hunted during the year-end holidays, and into January.

At that time, opportunities for hunting for big game species and Canada geese in Kentucky were limited, or simply not available to most hunters.

For that very reason, what has happened in the last 50 years, is beyond remarkable.

The return of deer, bear, wild turkey, elk and temperate-nesting (resident) Canada geese, links generations of hunters together, continues the state’s proud hunting heritage, creates a huge economic impact, provides families with organic free-range meat, and teaches the safe, responsible use of firearms.

The restoration of Kentucky’s native big game species was financed by hunters buying licenses and permits, federal matching funds, and grants, volunteer work and in kind services from conservation partners such as the National Wild Turkey Federation, Ducks Unlimited, Quality Deer Management Association, Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation, League of Kentucky Sportsmen, and local sportsmen’s clubs across the state.

The Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife Resources, the Kentucky Fish and Wildlife Commission, biologists, administrators and law enforcement personnel, worked for decades to bring these species back. They conducted research, implemented habitat improvement and other management programs, established hunting seasons, and enforced game laws.

Their efforts garnered national attention for the agency, as a model of modern wildlife management.

The comeback of native species included both game and non-game species. Here’s some background on five of the most important wildlife species to hunters in Kentucky today:

White-tailed Deer

In pre-settlement Kentucky, early explorers found white-tailed deer in almost every forest opening.
Old-growth forests covered 90 percent of the 40,395 square miles, and in the rolling land of the interior, park-like savannas stretched for miles.

But more than a century of subsistence hunting took its toll. By 1915 deer are absent from most of the state. It would be 84 years before deer restoration efforts would be complete in all 120 Kentucky counties.

The Kentucky General Assembly prohibited deer hunting in 1916. Deer hunting in Kentucky would not resume until 1946.

Wildlife managers initiated a three-pronged restoration plan to restore white-tailed deer in Kentucky. First, a series of refuges would be established, then deer would be live trapped from existing populations and transported to WMAs for stocking, and thirdly, habitat improvement work would be done on lands where deer were to be stocked.

By the mid-1950s, deer restoration efforts shifted to establishing herds on a statewide basis, including privately-owned lands wherever suitable habitat was present. One by one all 120 of Kentucky’s counties are stocked with deer live trapped in-state.

In 1999, deer restoration ended in March with the release of the final load of animals in Perry County.
That fall, for the first time, all 120 counties were open to deer hunting. Before that, from 1956 to 1998, one or more counties had been closed, during Kentucky’s deer restoration era.

After 52 years, 10,096 white-tailed deer had been trapped and re-located around the state, with the lineage of most of the deer stocked, tracing back to early 20th century remnant deer populations in Caldwell, Christian, Lyon, and Trigg Counties.

Wild Turkey

From 1978 through 1997, 6,760 wild turkeys were release on 430 sites across the state. Restoration was completed in 1997, when Kentucky’s wild turkey population had increased to around 130,000 birds.

An estimated 10 million wild turkeys were present on the North American continent in the early 1800s, but by the early 20th century they had all but disappeared from Kentucky.

In 1946, Kentucky’s only known population of native wild turkeys was on the Kentucky Woodlands National Wildlife Refuge, in what is now Land Between the Lakes.

Between 1949 and 1965, 395 wild turkeys were live-trapped off the Hillman property, and stocked in more than 15 counties in eastern Kentucky. Those early attempts at restoration in eastern Kentucky were commendable through none of the releases were successful at establishing viable populations.

The year of 1978 is considered to be the beginning of Kentucky’s wild turkey restoration effort. At that time the statewide flock was estimated to number about 2,380.

The goal was getting birds established in all counties with suitable habitat. Preference for releases was given to the best areas available, where several counties adjoined.

Wildlife trades were an important component of wild turkey restoration efforts in Kentucky, eventually providing several thousand birds.

The Missouri Department of Conservation started providing turkeys in 1982 to Kentucky in exchange for river otters, which were purchased from a private source in Louisiana.

In 1985, the Iowa Department of Natural Resources started providing turkeys in exchange for otters. Small numbers of birds were also obtained from several other states.

Kentucky started live-trapping turkeys in 1981 and gradually increased the number of birds caught in-state. From 1978 through 1997, 6,760 birds were release on 430 sites across the state.

Wild turkey restoration was completed in 1997, when Kentucky’s wild turkey population had increased to around 130,000 birds.

Elk

From 1997 through 2002, 1,547 elk were live-trapped from wild herds in Utah, Arizona, Oregon, North Dakota, and Kansas, and transported by truck to eight stocking sites in a 16-county, 3.5 million-acre “elk zone,” that extends from Martin to McCreary counties.

Tracy Cerise went to one knee and looked through the leaves for the right moment to shoot as a big bull elk materialized in the timber, its antlers swaying from side to side as it walked.

He made hunting history in Kentucky when he downed a 700-pound, 6-by-6 (12-point) bull on Saturday, October 6, 2001, on a reclaimed mine site, near where the Breathitt, Perry and Knott county lines converge.

It was the first elk taken in Kentucky in 150 years.

Elk disappeared from the state in the 19th century, but were restored to huntable numbers by an aggressive stocking program.

Kentucky’s native elk was the eastern elk, a subspecies that was declared extinct by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in 1880.

The elk stocked in Kentucky were Rocky Mountain elk. From 1997 through 2002, 1,547 elk were live-trapped from wild herds in Utah, Arizona, Oregon, North Dakota, and Kansas, and transported by truck to eight stocking sites in a 16-county, 3.5 million-acre “elk zone,” that extends from Martin to McCreary counties.

Today, Kentucky’s elk herd is the largest east of the Mississippi River, a showcase herd of about 10,000 bulls, cows and calves.

Hunters apply for quota hunt permits in January for the upcoming season. Hunters whose names are drawn, buy permits and participate in fall/winter hunts for bulls or cows. There’s also a special youth hunt for elk of either sex.

Black Bear

The American black bear was once abundant throughout much of Kentucky.

Place names such as Bear Tree Gap, Beargrass Creek, Bear Branch and Bear Wallow attest to the fact that bears were found wherever there were forests and suitable den sites.

But, by 1900, black bears were all but eliminated from the state. Extensive logging of forests in the mountain counties between 1870 and 1930, 150 years of unregulated hunting, and a lack of protected sanctuaries, almost spelled the end to a once abundant native species.

Region wide, black bears hung on in the remote forests of southern Appalachia. Black bears began to make a comeback in Kentucky as forests matured.

In the 1990s the Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife Resources (KDFWR) began receiving reports of black bear sightings in eastern Kentucky.

For more outdoors news and information, see Art Lander’s Outdoors on KyForward.

In the first decade of the 2000s reports of black bear sightings swelled from about 20 to 30 reports a year, to hundreds a year. KDFWR has received bear sightings from 54 Kentucky counties.

By 2009, black bears were well established in Kentucky, not by a planned restoration effort, but by natural range expansion – first by male bears, then sows, that eventually produced cubs. Bears re-colonized eastern Kentucky’s mountain region from the neighboring states of West Virginia, Virginia and Tennessee, where bear populations were never extirpated.

By 2011 Kentucky’s bear population was estimated to number about 500.

Kentucky has two distinct populations of bears – the Pine Mountain population, and a population spreading out from the Big South Fork National River and Recreation Area into southern Daniel Boone National Forest.

The bears in Harlan, Letcher and Pike counties are genetically similar to bears in West Virginia and Virginia, and the southern population, centered in McCreary County, is genetically similar to the 14 female bears transplanted from the Great Smoky Mountains into Tennessee in 1996-97.

Black bears have been hunted in Kentucky since 2009. Last season hunters took 31 bears. The season record was established during the 2015 season, when hunters bagged 46 bears.

Major changes were made to this year’s black bear hunting season to reflect expanding bear populations throughout Eastern Kentucky.

In 2017, for the first time, the state’s two distinct bear populations will be managed in three zones. There will be a new muzzleloader season in the 22 counties of Zone 3, and nonresidents may now buy permits to hunt bears.

Bear populations have been expanding for the past 10 to 15 years in Kentucky and will continue to expand.

In all there will be five bear seasons: Chase-Only, Quota Hunt with Dogs, Archery/Crossbow, Modern Gun and Muzzleloader. Each season will have different dates, and bear harvest quotas. All, or parts for 47 Kentucky counties, will be open to hunting in 2017.

In 2016, 16 Kentucky counties were open to firearms hunting with a harvest quota of 35. This season hunters may take 15 more bears, for a total of 50 for the season, with firearms hunting (muzzleloader only in Zone 3) in all 47 counties.

Resident Canada Geese

Kentucky’s resident Canada geese are a subspecies, the Giant Canada Goose (Branta canadensis maxima). Thought to be extinct, a small flock of these birds were discovered wintering in Rochester, MN in 1962. Kentucky’s geese are descendants of that flock.

A generation ago hunters had to travel to the Lower Ohio and Mississippi rivers in far Western Kentucky to get a chance at migrating Canada geese.

Now the big birds are found across the state, with a large concentration in Central Kentucky, in the area roughly from Winchester westward to Leitchfield.

The temperate nesting geese, the so-called resident geese, stay close to where they were raised. Leg band recovery data has shown that locally-raised geese taken by hunters are usually within 25 miles of where they were banded.

But, each spring, some locally-raised geese join up with flocks of migrants, and fly with them to sub-arctic Canada for the summer. Biologists refer to these birds as moult migrants.

The statewide spring population of Canada geese doubled from about 15,000 in the mid-1990s, when surveys first began, to about 31,000 by 2013.

This annual population survey, conducted before nesting each spring, does not include the birds that live in urban areas. The birds there aren’t hunted unless they fly out into the country to feed. Urban geese spend most of their time on lakes in golf courses and city parks. They live in creeks and other waterways that flow through subdivisions, close to homes, businesses and along highway right-of-ways.

These local geese are actually a subspecies. The Giant Canada Goose (Branta canadensis maxima) was thought to be extinct in North America. In 1962 a small flock of these birds were discovered wintering in Rochester, MN, by Harold Hanson of the Illinois Natural History Survey.

A restoration program, which included the captive rearing and stocking of descendants from the discovered flock, created populations in Kentucky, and other states throughout the Mississippi Flyway states.

Since the late 1960s, the number of temperate nesting geese throughout the flyway has increased exponentially to more than 1.5 million birds by 2013. Michigan has the highest population in the region.

Today, temperate nesting geese have become a major component of Kentucky’s waterfowl harvest. In recent years more than 80 percent of the Canada geese bagged by Kentucky waterfowlers were raised here.

Local geese may be hunted during a special early season in September, and during the general waterfowl season in the late fall and winter.

Kentucky is one of the top hunting states in the region, and the comeback of our native big game species is the reason why. In the past 50 years we have witnessed an unprecedented renewal of our state’s hunting heritage that dates back to the first 18th century long hunters who crossed the Appalachians. In Kentucky, they found a “Happy Hunting Ground.”

1Art Lander Jr.

Art Lander Jr. is outdoors editor for KyForward. He is a native Kentuckian, a graduate of Western Kentucky University and a life-long hunter, angler, gardener and nature enthusiast. He has worked as a newspaper columnist, magazine journalist and author and is a former staff writer for Kentucky Afield Magazine, editor of the annual Kentucky Hunting & Trapping Guide and Kentucky Spring Hunting Guide, and co-writer of the Kentucky Afield Outdoors newspaper column.

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