Caldwell County hunters took more deer in the 2019 hunting season than at any other time recorded by the state's wildlife agency. But that may not be enough, according to one local hunting professional.
A total of 2,228 deer were harvested in the five-month season that ended in late January. The tally is 217 more than the previous record registered just two years ago, according to Kentucky Department for Fish and Wildlife Resource (KDFWR) records that date to 1976.
"Those numbers are fantastic," said Tad Ladd, who owns Western Kentucky Whitetails, a deer hunting operation located in northern Caldwell County.
Deer and elk hunting adds about $550 million to the state's economy each year. And Western Kentucky Whitetails brings some of that to Caldwell County.
Ladd typically hosts more than 80 hunters -- all from out of state -- each year to kill deer on the gaming outfit's highly managed acreage. While the operation is all-inclusive, offering guests everything they need during their stay, Ladd said those men and women spend hundreds of dollars outside the camp on fuel, food and necessities before they arrive at the hunting operation.
"I would say each may spend $400 to $500," Ladd said.
That injects tens of thousands of out-of-state dollars into the local economy, and that is from visitors at only one commercial hunting operation in the county. Hundreds of other hunters -- some local, others from outside the area -- may spend as much or more locally for the season on outfitting, food or even lodging.
"They're all spending money here," Ladd adds.
While the record harvest and its economic impact are good news, Ladd said it should be better.
"The numbers are not where they need to be to keep the population in control," he said. "These numbers could be incredibly higher."
Ladd, who has been hunting deer for 39 years since the age of 11, explains his reasoning based upon the limits KDFWR sets for hunters.
In far western Kentucky, to best manage the burgeoning herd, the agency allows hunters to take one buck and an unlimited number of does. But in each of the 22 counties in Zone 1, the balance is roughly even. That means hunters are taking an average of only one female per antlered deer harvested.
In Caldwell County, only 51.4% of the deer killed in the 2019 season were female. Statewide, only 47 percent of the harvest was female, though other hunting zones in the commonwealth do restrict the number of does that can be taken. No more than one buck can be taken anywhere in Kentucky.
"They need to be higher or you're going to end up with disease," Ladd said of the number of does taken in western Kentucky. "It's way out of whack and only getting worse."
In fact, in six of the seven states bordering Kentucky, chronic wasting disease has been discovered. The always-fatal neurological disease has yet to be detected in Kentucky, but overpopulation concerns Ladd, who makes a living off deer hunting. He also said the overcrowding heightens the risk of deer-vehicle collisions and leads to catastrophic losses for some farmers. He believes deer can create more damage to crops than drought, fungi or other disease. And crops offer a year-round escape from famine for the animals.
Healthy adult deer have no real natural predator in the wild, though a desperate pack of coyotes may attempt to chase down deer. Generally, Ladd said, coyotes prey on fawns or weak or injured juveniles and adults.
"Bobcats may take a fawn at birth," he added.
That leaves only humans and natural selection through disease to thin the heard.
"Our biologists gain yearly estimates on the deer herd using a predictive model which considers a variety of factors, including harvest and road kills," said Dave Baker, information branch manager with KDFWR. "Currently, we estimate that more than 80 percent of Kentucky's counties meet or exceed targeted deer population levels."
The deer population and associated hunting opportunities have exploded over the last four decades. In 1976, the earliest data available from a fish and wildlife database, only 3,476 deer were taken statewide and only 17 in Caldwell County. Five years later, when Ladd first took the woods to hunt, the number climbed to 273 locally and just under 15,000 across all 120 counties.
"As a kid, I used to get excited about just seeing a track," he said. "I would get excited and tell everybody at school."
A few decades later, plentiful food opportunities in the fields have helped perpetuate an explosion in the herd.
Two years ago, with a deer population estimated at around 860,000, the state's wildlife agency increased opportunities for hunters, expanding crossbow season and increasing take limits. But KDFWR typically likes to wait a few years before adjusting the rules.
"Our biologists prefer to stay the course on harvest regulations for at least three years," said Baker. "This gives researchers a chance to look at longer term trends and determine if new adjustments are needed."
Deer hunters harvest 148,382 total animals in the just-concluded season, second to only 2015 when 155,730 were killed. Nearly three-quarters of the 2019 harvest came during the 16-day modern firearm season.
"We can guide the management of deer in Kentucky, but it's the hunters who do the heavy lifting through their deer harvests," Baker said.