There’s good news for Ohio hunters — there should be ample whitetail hunting prospects in the Buckeye State in 2018. Harvest data reveals that deer populations continue to remain steady, offering opportunities for hunters who choose to head afield.
When asked about the 2018 season, Ohio Division of Wildlife Whitetail Biologist Clint McCoy said, “To be honest, there’s nothing that really jumps out,” regarding last year’s deer harvest data. McCoy continued, “And at this point we don’t have reason to expect it to vary much during this coming season.”
2017 data reveals that Ohio was essentially dead-even with the average take hunters experienced in 2014, 2015 and 2016. The 2017 harvest total of 186,247 was about a half a percentage more than the three-year average according to game officials statistics.
“One of the things that stuck out a little was the two-day bonus gun season,” said McCoy “We killed 14,000 deer on those two days, and that was a big jump from the past few years. Looking at the season as a whole, if there was one figure which stood out — that would be it. And we don’t really have a handle on why it bumped to that extent, from 9,228 in 2016, other than the weather those two days was perfect for deer hunting, with some snow cover in some parts of the state.”
A “bump” that has been following the agency’s expectations, according to the biologist, is the increase in hunter success rates. Last season, he says 35 - 40% of deer hunters were successful — up from past averages “of high 20’s to low-30%” of whitetail hunters tagging a deer.
That has more to do with changes in regulations that in habitat, according to McCoy who noted that Ohio whitetail habitat hasn’t changed much in recent years, “Nothing other than the long- standing decline in oak hickory forests in the southeast parts of the state, where forests are maturing. Some areas haven’t been cut in a long time and that tends to degrade the deer habitat, but other than that, our habitat has remained stable for the most part.”
Those regulation changes in 2017 included increasing the bag limit on deer from two to three in several southeast counties. “That was designed to stave-off the rate of growth we were expecting there,” McCoy said, adding, “And we did see a little bit of a bump in the proportion of antlerless deer harvested, a key indicator for what impact that harvest has on the population moving forward. In comparison to our long-term data set on that index, however, it’s not a big enough jump to cause a population reduction.”
The most significant change in deer hunting regulations this season affects public lands. McCoy explained, “In response to hunter desires from surveys, satisfaction indices show that public land hunters aren’t particularly satisfied with the experience, not the least of which of which is number of deer seen.”
“So, we went back to the drawing board to put together something that may help increase deer populations on public land: A limit of one antlerless deer per year on public land and no antlerless deer may be taken on public land after the seven-day gun season.”
That means on public land it will be a “bucks only” opportunity during the two day “bonus” gun season, the muzzleloader season and archery season following the week-long firearms season.
McCoy explained, “The reason we had to go beyond a single antlerless deer bag limit on public land is that we have a small proportion of our hunters who actually kill more than one antlerless deer on public land, so we had to go beyond that to have a measurable impact.”“Also,” he added, “The new reg could prompt public land hunters to take that first available opportunity at harvesting an antlerless deer early in the season instead of postponing that, in hopes of having the opportunity to take a doe later in the season.”
A recent trend McCoy’s team has noted is an increase in the number of bucks being harvested compared to long term averages. McCoy, “There has been a large jump in deer noted in bowhunter observation surveys per hour of hunting” he explained. That steady increase in hunter success rates per hour in the field and the number of whitetails harvested per 100 hunter days both point to an increase in Ohio’s overall deer population — good news for sure for hunters.
CHRONIC WASTING DISEASE
At this time, McCoy says, disease is not affecting that population beyond an isolated example of CWD in a captive deer in Holmes County and a localized outbreak of epizootic hemorrhagic disease (EHD) in 2017 in Jefferson and surrounding counties.
“We still have not seen CWD in our wild, free-ranging deer population,” he said. “We did detect it in a captive breeding facility in eastern Holmes County, which was depopulated. The effect of CWD is not something we are measuring at this time, but certainly there is a risk factor. And it does affect our hunters in that area, where we’ve imposed special regulations such as mandatory testing of harvested deer and restricting hunting over bait to minimize the threat.”
McCoy continued, “The EHD was absolutely localized, with an epicenter in Jefferson County causing significant mortality in 2017,” he explained. “As a result, we have adjusted the regulations for that county for 2018, reducing the bag limit from three to two deer as a way to jump-start that population to get it back to where it was. We also had scattered cases of EHD up the Scioto River corridor in 2017, but didn’t have it near as bad and our neighbors in Kentucky, Pennsylvania and West Virginia — which lost a lot of their deer herd to EHD.
“Historically, large outbreaks of EHD occur about every five years,” McCoy added. “And if we base our prediction on that we shouldn’t see a significant outbreak this year.”
Weather and predation have not factored into the size or health of Ohio’s current deer herd, according to McCoy. “If we go back further than the past few years, we did see a fairly sharp increase in the coyote population in the state from the 90s through the early 2000s,” McCoy said. “But over the last ten years or so, the coyote population has stabilized, so if we look at the role of predation there is nothing different worth noting.”
Ohio’s deer, at least the bucks hunters are harvesting, are getting older on average, according to biologists. “It’s a trend that’s been going on for well over a decade now,” said McCoy. “We’re seeing a much older age structure in our buck harvest. It’s a result of several things. Number one is the hunting culture has changed and hunters are targeting larger bucks, and from a large enough deer herd that they can afford to pass on a deer.”
McCoy notes, “Back in the mid ‘90s, somewhere between 65-70% of the deer harvest was comprised of yearling bucks, last season yearlings represented only about 40% of the bucks harvested. That’s a fairly drastic decline. We have not done anything of a regulatory nature to protect those yearlings, it’s been a factor of the hunters and the decisions they make to take or pass on bucks.”
In conclusion, McCoy said, “We think trail cameras play a part in the process,” he added. “When hunters are able to use them to see some of the bucks that are out there, a slammer buck walking past a trail cam is certain to affect harvest decisions when they know a Bullwinkle is out there somewhere, they tend to pass on lesser deer.”
MCCOY: BY THE DISTRICTS
Ohio Division of Wildlife Whitetail Biologist Clint McCoy was asked to rundown Ohio’s districts one-by-one. Here’s what he had to say.
Wildlife District One: Licking is the top county, where hunters killed over 5,000 deer last season. It’s one of those counties that sits on the transition zone between agricultural and forested lands and offers a good mix of whitetail habitat.
Wildlife District Two: Richland County typically leads in harvest numbers and for the same geographical reasons.
Wildlife District Three: Ashtabula County led in numbers last season, as is usual. Part of that is that it’s the state’s largest county overall, and it’s the most rural in the district, offering hunters good access to a strong deer population.
Wildlife District Four: Coshocton County was the most productive in the district last season, and it’s perennially the top county in the state for deer harvest. It offers plenty of good public ground, is very rural and has an excellent population of deer.
Wildlife District Five: Adams is the top county in a district that otherwise is very agriculturalized. But Adams is on the eastern edge where it meets hilly, forested terrain. Some of the biggest deer each season come from Adams.