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 an agency supported by license fees. The request was rejected. Two years later, with amended proposal in hand, he tried again. In 1912, the legislature approved the formation of the “Kentucky Game and Fish Commission” but neglected to provide operational funds. The agency 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 agency 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 commission could only spend money from license sales, but agency didn't have exclusive control of all license revenue. The commission 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 commission had four governor-appointed commissioners with quasi-regulatory power. Their only compensation was expenses.
The agency’s purpose 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 agency 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 commission in the first year because politics largely influenced appointments. One record reports 190 game wardens in 1913.
The agency 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 commission 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 commission tried pheasants. In 1917, the agency stocked 2,500 English ringnecks. This, too, failed.
The commission fared better with natural restoration of Kentucky’s diminished deer herd. After a field 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 agency 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.
Sportsman's groups came together, which was the precursor to the Reorganization Act of 1936.
The Reorganization Act brought another change -- the hiring of the first trained game and fish professional to oversee the division's operations. The Vermonter accomplished much in his six year tenure. 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 commission had known.
Brown left the agency in 1942. Kentuckian Steve Wakefield, Shelbyville, served as director until 1944 when a new governor’s administration made the next major step in the development of the organization. In 1944, the fish and wildlife agency, as it functions today, was born.