It's Getting Serious at the Land Between the Lakes.
For regular hunters of the sprawling, 170,000 acre Land Between the Lakes National Recreation Area, located in western Kentucky and Tennessee, it is no secret that deer numbers are way down. In response, wildlife managers have announced changes designed to reduce hunter numbers, particularly on the more pressured Kentucky portion of the area. But the question remains, is reduced hunting pressure the answer to LBL’s dwindling herd? For the answer, let’s look at some figures.
Last year, deer hunters at LBL checked in a total of 811 deer from the 400 square mile area. That works out to one deer per 210 acres, a lower harvest rate than the rest of the state at one deer harvested per 163 acres. So, if hunter harvest isn’t the cause for declining herd, what is?
The answer is a combination of things. According to LBL Wildlife Program Manager, Steve Bloemer, the area was hard hit by an outbreak of Epizootic Hemorrhagic Disease (EHD) in 2007, but, while the deer herd on surrounding private land was hit just as hard and has since rebounded, herd numbers at LBL have remained lower.
One of the chief reasons for this overall decline is habitat. The vast majority, about 92 percent, of the area is heavily forested, up from around 80 percent in the late 1960s and early 70s. While mature hardwoods produce mast at times during the fall, they provide very little browse over the rest of the year.
Even as the mature forest canopy spreads, other food sources have dropped. Portions of LBL, usually a bit over 2000 acres total, have traditionally been row cropped by local farmers. Under TVA management, 20 to 30 percent of those crops were left standing as food for wildlife. Along with those standing crops, the farmers would also bid out the planting of food plots, normally clover, in smaller fields and openings throughout LBL. Ricky Cunningham, a third generation farmer in the LBL area, reports that there would often be up to 1000 acres of food plot area under contract to local farmers each year. “We had the equipment on location for our normal farming practices, so we could manage those food plots cheaper and more efficiently than they could do it themselves,” said Cunningham.
As the USFS took over the day to day management of LBL from TVA, their policy of less intensive, more hands-off, management practices led to the demise of the food plot program. While the USFS still maintains a few plots, the total acreage has been greatly reduced.
Another casualty of the new management plan was the percentage of standing crops left unharvested. “We still harvest roughly the same amount of cropland as before, but under our new contracts, that percentage of crop that we used to plant and leave is now left unplanted,” says Cunningham. The only time the areas are manipulated in any way is when an invasive plant species is discovered and the area needs to be mowed or tilled to control the spread.
Interestingly enough, even though total deer numbers are down overall, Cunningham reports increased depredation on their crops as deer are forced to concentrate on any available food source. “I can take you to fields in late spring or summer and show you 100 or more deer in a field,” Ricky says. He goes on to add, “There is nothing else for them to eat. There will come a point when the deer hit the crops so hard that it no longer becomes profitable to raise them in the area.”
Another probable factor in decreased deer numbers is the increased number of predators in the area. Lifetime area resident and outdoorsman Adam Jones has noticed a marked increase in the coyote population. “I have been actively using LBL for 25 years or more. Coyotes have become blatantly overpopulated in recent years. I see either coyotes or their tracks every time I am in LBL now. And they are becoming increasingly less afraid of humans, often coming to within feet of my [vehicle],” says Jones. And he isn’t alone. Other long time visitors to the area are reporting vastly higher numbers of coyotes in the area.
Besides their lack of food production, those same stands of mature hardwoods offer very little cover for newborn fawns to hide them from this increased predator population. According to Bloemer, “Research done on other areas suggests predators can have a significant impact on fawns. On LBL, we currently have a very limited trapping season, but allow hunters to harvest coyotes during any open hunting season with weapons specified for that season, including the month of February with centerfire rifles and handguns. This has been in place for many years. An increase in ground cover would provide more forage and hiding/escape cover and would likely contribute to increased fawn survival.”
I asked Bloemer what management practices would improve deer habitat across LBL. “LBL is 92 percent forested, so deer would benefit from increased forest management (including selective timber cutting), increased burning, and increased open lands management,” was his reply.
So, even though the increasing forest coverage is detrimental to whitetails and other wildlife, why isn’t there more open lands management taking place? Simple answer, opposition from small, but very vocal, groups like KY Heartwood who fight tooth and nail to prevent any timber harvest on the federally owned lands of LBL. In July of 2015, KY Heartwood successfully pressured the management of LBL to stop the planned selective timbering of 3596 acres in the area. The moratorium on logging is slated to last through the end of this year.
How can sportsmen and women make a difference when it comes to management practices at LBL? By banding together and letting our voices be heard. “Those who oppose management on LBL are very vocal, but those who support management have been fairly quiet. Their voices need to be heard by responding to the comments email address in the news release,” says Bloemer.