Kentucky's Deer Restoration

​Restoring Kentucky’s deer population took patience and some good old-fashioned ingenuity.

(Note: Former Kentucky Afield magazine writer J.B. Garland first published this story in 1998. Although some information may be dated and some personnel have changed, it provides a glimpse into Kentucky’s deer restoration efforts.)

Deer Release 

Morning light had not yet pushed away the shadows when the deer trapping crew drove up to the tennis courts at Lake Cumberland State Resort Park. It was cold that January morning and the resort was closed for the winter, but Kentucky Fish and Wildlife Deer Coordinator John Phillips and crew had a special purpose for being there. Usually trapping crews used box traps, tranquilizer darts or net traps to capture deer, but the state park offered a unique opportunity.

Today’s crew had been baiting the tennis courts for several weeks, leaving both gate doors open. A week before the trapping was to take place, one of the doors was shut. Finally, this morning, the crew approached the courts and shut the other door trapping the feeding deer inside. The capture was made easily, but the deer still had to be tagged and loaded onto trucks where they would be transported to other counties and released to establish new viable deer herds.

Greg Powers, a member of the trapping crew, cornered a young button buck. Grabbing the deer’s front legs, he wrestled it to the ground so another member of the crew could tag it. Powers took a good look at the deer after it was loaded on the truck; it wasn’t the last time that he would see it.

Six years later, Powers was bow hunting on the Paintsville Lake Wildlife Management Area when he took a monster of a deer. According to its ear tag, it was the same buck that he captured on the Lake Cumberland park’s tennis courts. The buck was a non-typical that scored 200 7/8 on the Pope and Young scale, the second highest Pope and Young Club entry from Kentucky.

By the time Powers took his record deer, hunting had become a realistic pursuit all over the state. But fewer than 50 years before, Kentucky didn’t allow deer hunting because of low populations, and just 20 years before it was still rare to bring home a deer from a hunt. Concerned sportsmen had taken action but deer restoration took time to be successful.

Concern for dwindling wildlife populations in Kentucky began before the turn of the century when, in 1894, the Kentucky legislature passed a law making it illegal to kill a buck, doe or fawn between March 1 and September 1. In 1912, sportsmen convinced the legislature to take further action and form a Game Commission. The commission recommended closing the state to deer hunting. Kentucky’s General Assembly agreed - during the 1916 General Session, legislators closed the state to deer hunting. Deer hunting did not reopen until 1946.​

The first modern-day deer hunt actually came because of one Isaac Bernheim. In 1929, Bernheim brought 15 red deer (a close relative of elk) from Europe and released the giants on his property, which he managed as an example of conservation in Bullitt County. The red deer herd grew so large that local farmers began complaining. In January 1946, it was red deer, not whitetails, that became the focus of the first legal deer hunt in Kentucky since before World War I.

It cost $10 for hunters to participate. If they were lucky enough to kill a deer, they had to pay an additional $15 for a tag. Although hunters took fewer than 30 deer, the hunt successfully scattered the herd.

However, scattering the existing herds of white-tailed deer would not be enough to establish a statewide deer population. So the Kentucky Division of Game and Fish, now the Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife Resources, received deer from Wisconsin to begin a white-tailed deer restoration program. Departmetn personnel relocated most of these deer to Christian, Crittenden, Livingston and Ballard counties. Ballard Wildlife Management Area (WMA) and Mammoth Cave received stockings of Kentucky deer and Wisconsin deer, and later became trapping sites.

Stocking would be the method to establishing a statewide deer herd. Unfortunately, before 1945 there was little work done in the area of biological wildlife management. Wildlife management was largely limited to law enforcement. As a result, early deer hunting seasons were too liberal, ultimately undoing much of what previous stocking had established.

In the 1960s and 1970s, deer stocking intensified. Seasons grew more restrictive to protect the state’s herd. Much of the state’s current deer population originated from deer trapped at Ballard WMA and Mammoth Cave and moved elsewhere in the state between 1963 and 1974.

Robert Willis set up the first deer check stations in 1976. Willis and John Phillips, a biologist with the Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife Resources, met at Kleber Wildlife Management Area the day after the deer season ended. Willis and Phillips hand-sorted all the deer check cards to tabulate the year’s deer harvest.

By the 1980s, the western two-thirds of the state had enough deer to open a season. Statewide, more than 40,000 cards from check stations were compiled using a scanner. Still, many eastern counties didn’t have viable deer herds. Deer transplanted to eastern Kentucky faced additional problems of rugged terrain and dogs. These elements, not poachers, were the major obstacles to the growth of the herd.

When Phillips became Kentucky’s deer program coordinator in 1978, he began defining the differences in deer populations from east to west across the state. He determined that counties could have a season if there was more than one deer a square mile. So instead of putting 50 deer in a county, he proposed putting 500 deer in each county. His theory was successful. During the 1980s and 1990s, Phillips and his crews trapped and released around 12,000 deer.

Charlie Wilkins remembers the intensity of the program during those years. He came on as manager of the Ballard Wildlife Management Area in 1985. During the winter months, deer trapping was a seven-day-a-week job for Wilkins and his crew, which consisted of 11 men. The object was to trap as many deer as possible and transport them as quickly as possible. The labor was time-intensive and work-intensive.

From the first restrictions on hunting in 1894, to nearly statewide seasons in 1997, the torch has been handed down. It took dedication to raise Kentucky’s white-tailed deer population from fewer than 2,000 in 1945 to a statewide herd of more than 450,000 today. The state’s last deer stocking will occur in Perry County in 1999.