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Forecast By Tom Cross

A storm of controversy and second guessing erupted when the new deer regulations were proposed this spring. Gone is the weekend “bonus” hunt that was held in late December; say hello to the new muzzleloader antlerless-only deer season in October. Gone too is the 6-day early season muzzleloader hunt that was held at Shawnee, Salt Fork and Wildcat Hollow. A new regulation tacks on an additional 30 minutes hunting time each day during the deer gun seasons. Gone too is urban deer zones; all deer hunting zones are now replaced with new county-by-county bag limits. There is also a new deer tagging system that will require some pre-planning.

After the wildlife council approved the above changes in April an outcry erupted over the elimination of the two-day ‘bonus’ gun season in December by State Senator Chris Widener, (R), Springfield, who was critical of the elimination of the bonus season and reasoned, “Why are we taking opportunities away?”

Weighing in too was president of Whitetails Unlimited in Ohio who also expressed concern about the elimination of the ‘bonus’ weekend hunt and questioned the proposed muzzleloader antlerless-only hunt scheduled for October 12-13, during the bow season. As now adopted, that second weekend in October is antlerless only for all deer hunters, including bow hunters, making it a no-bucks weekend for everyone.

According to the Division of Wildlife, participation in the early muzzleloader season at Wildcat, Salt Fork, and Shawnee had waned over the years and their surveys showed support for a statewide early muzzleloader hunt. The Division also pointed to low harvest numbers by bow hunters during that second weekend in October. Mike Tonkovich, head deer biologist for the Ohio Division of Wildlife (DOW) said they’ll be watching closely the participation in the early hunt and the results.

Ryan Dietsch and his 219-inch Ohio bruiser. Photo via North American Whitetail.

Other complaints about the early season are that it’s usually hot and insects, ticks, and flies are still prevalent. Some hunters also feel that the deer are still in their summer coat and have not yet added winter fat, making this period a less-than-ideal time to harvest meat for the freezer. Across most of southern Ohio, the average highs for that time of year is between 67 and 69 degrees. However, DOW believes the milder weather in October will increase participation.

Some of the other changes in this year’s deer regulations included adding a half-hour of hunting time after sunset. Previously all deer gun hunting had to cease at sunset, but now legal hours are one-half hour before sunrise to one-half hour after sunset (the same hours as archery season).

Deer permits for 2013 have a different look with easy to understand tagging instructions. Hunters will have to make their own temporary tags, as deer permits will not include tags. Temporary tags can be printed on line from the DOW website wildohio.com. Keeping tags dry is another matter; tags should be kept in a plastic bag or protective plastic pouch. At many retail outlets weatherproof plastic license holders are available.

One of the biggest changes from the DOW is the move from the long-held ‘deer zone’ management to county-by-county management, with each county having specific bag limits. Previously counties in southeastern Ohio had similar management goals as did counties in western Ohio, northwest and southwest Ohio and could be lumped together in ‘zones’ and managed as a group.

“As some counties saw increases in deer harvest other counties in the same zone had decreases in deer numbers, the deer zone map was beginning to look fractured and confusing. Under the new system, bag limits will be set on individual county basis, not geographic or regional needs,” said Tonkovich.

Also eliminated were the five urban deer zones which, according to Tonkovich, were established because of limited antlerless hunting opportunities at that time. These zones encouraged the harvest of multiple numbers of antlerless deer in areas with high-density deer herds. Now because of generous bag limits across Ohio, urban zones were no longer deemed necessary.

No one would argue that the deer hunting landscape in Ohio has changed dramatically in the past 10 years; so where are we at going into the 2013-2014 season?

Last season, for the third consecutive year, the statewide total deer harvest declined; hunters tagged 218,910 deer in 2012-2013. Although technically the harvest declined, it did so by one about one-third of one percent: a difference of only 838 deer.

“With less than a 1,000 deer difference in the harvest that is statistically unchanged from the 2011-2012 season, when 219,748 deer were taken,” said Tonkovich. “I was expecting to see a real drop of 5 to 7 percent because that’s what we had seen two years prior; no reason to believe the 2012 harvest shouldn’t have been down the same amount, because we just came out of six years of stable regulation.”

Tonkovich added that last season’s results were not a big surprise:  “Statistically it’s insignificant relative to what we’ve seen in the past. We’ll probably see the same thing continue for a number of years. You reach this equilibrium or balance [....] What happens is we’ve reached a point where the hunting population is fairly stable and their success equalizes the deer population and you reach this state of equilibrium with hunters and deer and I think that’s where we’re at today.”

Biologists don’t forecast any real growth in deer numbers and expect the total statewide harvest to remain relatively flat for the foreseeable future.

“The days of seeing 158,000 deer harvested going down to 117,000 and then back up to 195,000 deer are long gone,” said Tonkovich. We’re going to see some fluctuations, but those will largely be dedicated by some major regulation changes or through some dramatic weather shifts that influence harvest. That’s the only thing I think is going to dramatically influence the harvest moving forward. I see plus or minus 5,000 to 10,000 deer from here on out.”

Tonkovich believes the statewide deer herd has finally reached zero growth or has leveled out as a result of harvest pressure. However, he points out too that only about 25 percent of the counties are at or near target levels.

“Largely, it’s east central and southeast Ohio that are above goal. The western counties we’ve always been very conservative with, which has allowed those deer populations to grow. Now with many of them are well above goal we’re going to address that with more liberal bag limits,” said Tonkovich. “East central and southwest Ohio is where we have been hitting the deer the hardest. You have to weaken the deer herd enough in order to get enough of those deer removed every year that they don’t inch up on you.”

Ohio’s west-central counties, where the deer herd is on a growth spurt, are the breadbasket counties of the Buckeye state. Vast fields of beans and corn provide the deer with a highly nutritious diet and, as biologists like to point out, bucks from that region have the largest beam diameters for their age. However, one of the drawbacks is lack of available cover, which in turn makes those deer highly susceptible to hunting pressure.

“Absolutely there’s growth in those western counties, that’s why you’re seeing some bag limits over there the same as our eastern counties,” said Tonkovich. “Some of those western counties just didn’t seem to go anywhere for the longest time, then all of sudden boom, they got out ahead of us. If you look at the buck harvest trends for the past two years, you’ll see it really jumped.

“When I looked at developing proposals to get county deer populations down, we’re very near goal in some of these counties and probably at or below goal in most counties,” said Tonkovich.

He also pointed out that biologists do stay alert for signs that a deer population is in decline, but harvest numbers alone are not a completely accurate measure of deer herd population trends. That’s because in the face of a herd decline, hunters may simply work harder to get the number of deer they want. The harvest may stay close to the same even if there are fewer deer, so harvest figures could “miss” the beginning of a decline.

“So if we’re at goal, if these populations in 2012 look like they are at or very close to goal, I’m not going to wait another year (to adjust limits), because if we wait another year we’ll probably already be behind two or three years because of the additional hunting effort put forth to harvest the same number of deer,” he said. “That is the justification for moving many of the counties into lower bag limits. I’m not going to wait until we’re at goal or below goal before we act, because by the time we act hunter effort has already propelled that population much lower than we think it is.”

At one time biologists estimated the peak statewide deer population between 700,000 and 750,000 animals; that number has obviously been reduced.

“If we were to look at the hunted population and the un-hunted population of deer across the state, I would say we’ve reduced the overall deer herd by around 15 percent,” said Tonkovich. “Our biologists in years past brought our deer population back from near extinction. When I think about the job I have to do and the biologists that follow me will have to do, trying to figure out how to kill enough deer to keep the population in check is way harder to do than trying to build a population.”

The top seven counties from 2011 were still the top seven counties in 2012: Coshocton, Licking, Tuscarawas, Muskingum, Guernsey, Harrison, Knox, Ashtabula, Carroll and Belmont turning in the state’s top harvest figures. With the exception of Ashtabula and Carroll counties, the remaining five all saw decreases in their overall harvest numbers.

For bow hunters Licking (3,235 bow kills), Coshocton (2,637 bow kills) and Tuscarawas (2,320 bow kills) was the trio that led the state in archery harvest in east central Ohio. In southwest Ohio, Clermont (1804 bow kills) Hamilton (1775 bow kills) and Adams (1734 bow kills) were tops. In the northwest it’s Williams (856 bow kills). In the northeast Ashtabula (1,915 bow kills) and Trumbull (1,459 bow kills) were tops. In central Ohio, Fairfield (1061 bow kills) tops the list. And in the southeast corner it’s Guernsey (1,912 bow kills), Athens (1,422 bow kills) and Hocking (1406 bow kills).

For the late-season muzzleloader hunt held in January, hunters who follow harvest numbers will not be surprised that Guernsey (821), Coshocton (813) and Tuscarawas (784) led the pack.

Coshocton has plenty of public hunting at Woodbury Wildlife Area and the Conesville Coal Lands (a combined 33,740 acres). In Licking and Tuscarawas County, pickings are slim for public hunting. Muskingum County has Dillion, Powelson, Tri-Valley Wildlife Area and Blue Rock State Forest, which amount to over 27,000 acres of public-land hunting. In Guernsey County it’s the 12,000-acre Salt Fork Wildlife Area. Salt Fork State Park has camping and cabins, too.

In the southwest, Adams, Clermont, Highland and Warren counties are loaded with public hunting at Tranquility, Paint Creek, East Fork and Caesar Creek wildlife areas.

In the northwest corner, Williams County has the 2,400-acre Lake La Su An Wildlife Area, which offers 2,400 acres of public hunting.

The bulk of Ohio’s public hunting is found in the southeast corner of the state in Shawnee, Brush Creek, Zaleski State Forest and Wayne National Forest.

For a complete list of public hunting areas request publication #77 from the DOW. Perhaps the most useful tool to come along in locating public hunting is found at myhuntinglands.com/maps. Just click on the state, then from the menu on the left choose the county and a map appears with all public lands in that county.

For more information about deer hunting opportunities contact the DOW at 1-800-WILDLIFE.

Don’t forget to upload your best deer photos to our Camera Corner!