Hidden Corners of History - Deer Season In Kentucky



Jarrod E. Stephens

The Ashland Beacon

   It’s the most wonderful time of the year! OK, before you stop reading because you fear I’m breaking out into an early Christmas song, that is not where I’m going. As far as hunting seasons go in our state none bring the energy, revenue and history like fall deer seasons. Anyone who has lived in our state can readily agree that we have an amazing number of deer in our region and in some cases maybe too many. Farmlands and residential areas are blessed with an abundance of deer but believe it or not the bumper population came to be because of the hard work of the Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife. 

   When you think of early Kentucky explorers it is only natural for you to consider true pioneers like Daniel Boone. If you read accounts from Boone and other explorers, you will read about their encounters with what they felt was an inexhaustible amount of wildlife. Unfortunately, in the late 19th century the state’s deer population had nearly been wiped out due to overhunting and habitat destruction. Although there was no department of fish and wildlife, the dwindling population was apparent, and the state legislature passed a law in 1894 that made deer hunting illegal from March 1st to September 1st. This was the first step in recognizing the need for oversight when it came to managing the whitetail deer in Kentucky. 

   The limited deer season remained in effect until 1912 when The Kentucky Game Commission was formed. Kentucky’s wilderness continued to dwindle as towns grew and the need for agricultural land increased. Whitetail deer and other wild game suffered, and this led to deer hunting being closed as a season for more than 30 years. 

   While no “legal” seasons had been created, deer hunting remained an important way of providing food for families, but the lessened pressure led to increasing numbers. The Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife which was formed in 1944, created a limited deer season in 1946. At that time there was no clear estimate of deer population numbers but by 1960 the state’s deer herd had about 35,000 animals. Population density was varied from region to region, so KDFW partnered with other states and organizations to begin relocating and releasing deer. 

   In the early 1970’s the numbers of deer had begun to increase dramatically in some regions and led to the introduction of a short season. My dad told me that seeing a deer in the 1960’s and 70s in Greenup County was quite a treat. KDFW began closely regulating deer season and what became known as the “check in system” was created to help the department learn the number of deer harvested in the state. They began using the collected data to drive decisions on future seasons and regulations. The 1981 deer season was the first season where more than 10,000 deer were checked in. Tremendous growth of the overall population occurred in the 1980s and the state slowly became a haven for trophy hunters. 

   Sometime around 1986 I remember exactly where I was whenever I saw my first deer standing and seemingly unalarmed by my presence. My mom and I were driving up our road to my Grandparent’s home and standing in a clearing where a timber job had just been completed was what I perceived as a gigantic doe. She was a beautiful red/brown color, and I was amazed at her poise. 

   After that encounter there seemed to be an overnight population explosion, and deer were seen everywhere. I guess it is safe to say that the rest is history. KDFW estimates that Kentucky’s current deer population is nearly one million which is an amazing number considering that there were less than 2,000 in 1945. 

   In spite of challenges such as the current Chronic Wasting Disease (CWD) in western Kentucky, KDFW continues to lead the way to help regions correctly manage our deer population. Every region in Kentucky now has a self-sustaining deer herd and the future looks bright for trophy hunters. 

   Each fall as I begin to hunt the whitetail deer, I’m forever grateful for the men and women who had the foresight to see that the deer was indeed an integral part of our state’s ecosystems and heritage. Lord willing on November 13 I along with thousands of hunters across the state will wake up with a fever, “deer fever”, and don the hunter’s orange with the hopes of bagging a trophy buck. When I am fortunate enough to harvest a deer, it is an annual reminder of how my licenses and tags have helped to fund KDFW’s efforts to keep traditions alive for my generation and generations to come.