The History of the Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife Resources from Settlement Through 1944
The history of the Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife Resources (KDFWR) actually dates back to around 1750, when adventurous spirits exploring our state's uncharted territory found lush forests filled with game and clean streams teeming with mussels and fish. Deer, bison, bear, cougar, bobcat, turkey, pheasant, partridge, and waterfowl - the land's rich bounty was there for the taking. But it wouldn't last. With the passage of a mere 100 years, Kentucky's natural world would be drastically different.
As early as 1738, and again in 1775, deer protection laws applied to the territory that would become the Commonwealth of Kentucky in 1792. Not until the last half of the next century, however, do sparse, sporadic attempts to protect fish, game and the rights of landowners appear in Kentucky records.
By the 1890s, the nation was acutely aware of its diminishing natural resources. The land itself had changed and unregulated taking of fish and game, whether for commercial interests, sport or the table, had taken a tremendous toll. Across the nation and in Kentucky, sportsmen and other conservationists began pressuring political bodies to enact wildlife protection-conservation laws.
Perhaps more than any other early 20th century individual, avid hunter and U. S. President Theodore Roosevelt raised the conservation conscience of Americans. He blazed the trail in protecting wild lands and the national park system was born. At the same time, Kentucky sportsmen repeatedly sought a positive political nod from Frankfort.
In 1910, J. Quincy Ward, Cynthiana, appeared before the Kentucky Legislature with the sportsmen’s request for a game and fish commission supported by license fees. The request was rejected. Two years later, with amended proposal in hand, he tried again. After much wrangling, the legislature passed laws permitting the formation of the agency but neglected to provide operational funds. The division couldn't function until Governor James McCreary authorized a $5,000 loan.
The money was to be repaid to the state if the commission was successful. Only $320.71 was used and the entire loan promptly repaid. In its first five months, the new division took in almost $31,000 from license sales. (Five years later, license income jumped to around $41,000 and 1923 produced almost $70,000.) The division could only spend money from license sales, but the commission didn't have exclusive control of all license revenue. The division operated on a budget set within the Department of Agriculture. All license revenue exceeding the budgetary allotment went into the state's general fund.
With Ward as director, the new game and fish division had four governor-appointed commissioners with quasi-regulatory power. Their only compensation was expenses.
The division’s duty was to “propagate the game and fish of Kentucky.” (Without biological data to support decisions, most actions were experimental.) Major responsibilities were securing free fish from the federal government for distribution in Kentucky streams and enforcing game laws. Therefore, the division was divided into two sections: fisheries and law enforcement.
Game wardens were appointed and paid a salary of $25 a month, plus a percentage of fines in all arrests resulting in convictions. No one knows exactly how many game wardens were hired by the division in the first year because politics largely influenced appointments. One record reports 190 game wardens in 1913.
The division also tried to replenish the depleted game supply, beginning with quail in 1916. Kentucky ordered 10,000 quail from Mexico, but all of the birds died in quarantine in New York, the only legal port of entry. In 1917, the division decided to try again since Texas had been declared a legal port of entry. Biologists figured the birds would have a better chance of surviving if they had less distance to travel. A much smaller order of eight dozen quail arrived in Frankfort alive, but before the birds could be released, all except three died. Since quail restoration seemed futile, the division tried pheasants. In 1917, the agency stocked 2,500 English ringnecks. This, too, failed.
The division fared better with natural restoration of Kentucky’s diminished deer herd. After a division survey revealed deer were almost extinct in 1915, the commission recommended legislation to protect deer until 1921. Future legislatures continued to prohibit deer hunting until 1946.
The division also began acquiring land to help conserve Kentucky’s natural resources. In 1931, the state made its first land acquisition and 1,604 acres in Caldwell County became the Jones-Keeney Wildlife Management Area (WMA). Seven years later, 1,288 acres of Harlan County land became Cranks Creek WMA
On the national front during the '30s, conservation became more than watchword with several organizations forming during the decade. Waterfowlers, appalled at the continuing decline of duck and goose populations, clamored for action. In 1934, the federal duck stamp program began. The following year Ducks Unlimited organized.
Back home, Kentucky sportsmen, fed up with the status quo and license monies being dumped into the general fund, joined together, forming the League of Kentucky Sportsmen in 1935. The league gave the Game and Fish Commission a political voice. The gathering force helped bring about the Reorganization Act of 1936, which profoundly changed the way the Division of Game and Fish would operate. It gave the division exclusive rights to all monies derived from license sales. The division was also placed under the newly formed Department of Conservation.
The Reorganization Act brought another change -- the hiring of the first trained game and fish person to oversee the division's operations. The Vermonter accomplished much in his six years. As director, Major James Brown increased the law enforcement branch to 30, enlarged the scope of the fisheries section, created a crew for transferring fish from overpopulated streams to less populous waters and began the first real public information drive the division had known.
Brown left the division in 1942. Kentuckian Steve Wakefield, Shelbyville, served as director until 1944 when a Republican administration made the next major step in the development of the KDFWR.
In 1944, the fish and wildlife agency, as it functions today, was born. At the insistence of sportsmen’s organizations, the Kentucky General Assembly placed the Division of Game and Fish under civil service laws and made it an independent agency of state government, thus removing the agency as completely as possible from political control.
For the first time, a strong commission form of government was set up. The governor would appoint nine commissioners, one from each congressional district, with selections made from lists of five eligible sportsmen submitted from each district. Staggered terms insured the bipartisan panel wouldn't consist of all new members in any one year. The agency director was directly responsible to and hired by the commissioners. The commission board made major policy decisions, with direction from the director and qualified biologists.
The KDFWR continues functioning in this manner. Removing the agency from political control and putting it in the hands of sportsmen helped the KDFWR accomplish many feats over the years in preserving, restoring and protecting Kentucky’s natural resources.