Ohio's 2009 Deer Outlook Part 1: Where To Find Your Deer

Another record season in 2008 means great hunting this fall. Here's what Buckeye State deer hunters can expect when the season opens in 2009. (October 2009)

During the 2008-09 deer season, Buckeye State hunters downed a record 252,017 whitetails.

That record take of whitetails can be attributed to a couple of factors, according to Mike Tonkovich, a deer biologist with the Ohio Division of Wildlife: Increased bowhunter interest and the reduced price antlerless permits.

MANAGING THE HERD

Tonkovich works with two different sets of harvest data compiled at the end of each season.

"All the data listing the number of deer taken in each county including the number of bucks, does and button bucks is taken into consideration. The other data we use is age sampling," Tonkovich said. "Age is perhaps the most important data because from that we basically reconstruct the pre-hunt population, subtract the harvest, get a post-hunt population and project forward to the following year."

Other important data comes by way of hunter surveys.

"Surveys are becoming incredibly important. Not only surveys of hunters and landowners, but their attitudes, opinions and behavior," Tonkovich said. "One of the things we're struggling with is trying to make sense out of what the harvest data really means. Today, with so many deer and with so much interest in antlers, we're not really sure what our buck harvest data means anymore.

"As an example, the number of yearling bucks (18-month-old bucks) in the buck harvest data is down considerably," Tonkovich said. "It used to be 65 percent of the total buck harvest, but hunters are being more selective, and the yearling buck take is down substantially, which brings into question the overall buck mortality rate."

Harvest data includes a compilation of the number of deer and the number of hunters.

"We have a good idea of what our hunters are doing through license sales," Tonkovich explained, "but what we don't know is how many hunters are hunting in each county and more importantly how that hunter shift has changed over time."

Harvest data alone doesn't tell the full story on local deer populations.

"It's difficult when we see the harvest numbers going down, yet motorist,, farmers, and landowners are telling us they're seeing hundreds of deer, so how can the harvest be going down?" Tonkovich said. "This gets back to the limitations of a system based entirely on harvest. You hope it's representative of the deer population, but it may not always be because of changes in hunter behavior."

In the past, the buck harvest had always been a reliable indicator of the total deer population, but Tonkovich questions if modern buck harvests are truly a reflection of the deer population.

"Historically, when the buck harvest goes up, it's a good indication that the overall population is up. If the buck harvest goes down, it's a good indication the population is down," Tonkovich said. "The same thing used to be true for deer/vehicle collisions. Buck harvest up, deer/vehicle collisions up."

Deer/vehicle collision data has changed too, according to Tonkovich. "In many cases, law enforcement will not file an accident report unless there's an injury or the vehicle is immobile."

The bottom line is biologists are left with less accurate information then they had 10 to 20 years ago.

"I think the big issue today is the supply has exceeded the demand. The demand for deer is going down because hunter numbers are going down, and the deer population is doing just the opposite."

Although the deer kill for 2008-2009 set a record, it was not the big headline as in the past.

"We're not about setting records," Tonkovich noted. "I'd like to report next year that we're down significantly, not due to weather, not due to disease outbreak, but due to the fact that we've actually turned the corner on the deer population.

"Today, a record means you've got a growing deer population and that's not what we want right now," Tonkovich said. "We don't have a specific number of deer that we're shooting for because we don't manage deer on a statewide level. We manage 88 populations of deer, one for each county."

There are plenty of deer for Ohio hunters, as the 2009 deer population is estimated to be 700,000.

"That's probably an underestimate," Tonkovich said. "There again, that number is based solely on harvest data, but we know deer die of other causes, too."

2008 IN REVIEW

Looking back on the 2008-09 season, biologists were hoping for a statewide harvest of 250,000 whitetails.

"We ended the '07 season with 232,000 deer harvested, so we definitely had lots of room to make up," Tonkovich said. "We expanded the opportunity to use the special reduced price antlerless permit during gun season in Zone C, and, with decent weather, we thought a kill of 250,000 was possible."

As the numbers begin rolling in for the first six weeks of archery season, the 2008 season started out looking like a repeat of the '07 season.

"At that point, I was a little disappointed. It didn't look like we would reach 250,000, and the gun season was somewhat of a disappointment," recalled Tonkovich. "The big surprise came with the gun season harvest data, which is accompanied by weeks seven, eight and nine of the archery season."

Archery hunters put it over the top during those final weeks just before the deer gun season.

"The big increase in deer harvest came during those three weeks prior to gun season," Tonkovich said. "We came up from 14,000 deer harvested during the '07 season, to over 23,000 during that same period in '08. That put us over the top."

The opportunity to use those unfilled tags during the deer gun season applied only in Zone C.

"That wasn't the success I had hoped for," Tonkovich said. "My fear was giving hunters another seven days to use those permits wouldn't necessarily increase the harvest, it would just be delayed until gun season."

Tonkovich was concerned that shifting the harvest could lead to some unforeseen circumstance where those permits might not be used.

"Looking at the

data, we did shift the harvest to the gun season in Zone C," Tonkovich said. "If we'd had another washout like we had during the '07 gun season, we would have had a bunch of unfilled tags and we wouldn't have harvested the number of antlerless deer we wanted."

Tonkovich pointed out that gun season is not the time to rely on hunters taking lots of deer.

"Most of the hunters taking multiple deer are spread out over the course of a season, one or two during the archery season, one in the gun season, and maybe one during the muzzleloader season.

"We looked at the antlerless archery harvest in Zone A and it was up 22 percent from '07, while the gun harvest was only up 5 percent over '07. The antlerless archery harvest in Zone B was up 19 percent, while the gun season harvest was up 4.5 percent. In Zone C, the antlerless archery harvest was up only 7 percent, yet the gun season harvest went up 22 percent," Tonkovich said. "What this shows is we're trying to shift pressure over to the antlerless segment and we've been very successful.

"Our buck harvest remains relatively stable, while our antlerless harvest has consistently gone up. The first year, 84,000 reduced price antlerless permits were sold. The second year, 121,000 permits were sold. So clearly it's been effective."

Another reason for the early expiration date of the $15 antlerless permit is biologists would like to shift the antlerless harvest into the archery season.

"For bowhunters, there's one plus in getting antlerless deer harvested during the archery season. Archers are much more adept at identifying button bucks then gun hunters are," Tonkovich said. "What we're seeing is the percentage of button bucks in the antlerless harvest going down when we move the antlerless harvest into the archery season."

WHAT'S NEW FOR '09?

New for the 2009-10 deer season is moving the statewide muzzleloader season to Jan. 9-12.

"The popularity of muzzleloader hunting has dramatically increased," Tonkovich. said "Muzzleloading has grown to over 12 percent of the overall gun season harvest, when a decade ago muzzleloaders accounted for only 2 percent.

"Talk about seasons being crowded -- last year was a case in point. December turned into one long firearms season," Tonkovich said. "We had 13 days between gun seasons and the bonus weekend, and only five days between the bonus weekend and muzzleloader season."

Ohio's top counties for the '08 season were Coshocton with 9,564 deer harvested, Tuscarawas with 8,814 deer taken, followed closely by Licking with 7,967 deer, Guernsey with 7,916, and Harrison, with 7,454 deer checked.

Ohio's three deer zones remain the same as last season, Zone A -- northwest Ohio; Zone B -- central Ohio; and Zone C -- southeastern Ohio.

Zone A, consisting of 20 counties, contains the lowest deer population in the state at five to 12 deer per square mile. In this agriculture belt, deer feed primarily on farm crops.

"There are a number of counties in Zone A where we are making progress in terms of moving the herd toward our goal, and there are probably an equal number of counties where the deer herd is growing slightly, but we'd still like to see the harvest increase," Tonkovich said. "That part of the state has never had an abundance of deer.

"There are a couple of counties in the extreme northwest -- Williams, Defiance and Paulding counties -- where things are a little different," Tonkovich noted. "That part of the state simply holds fewer deer and has been vulnerable to over-harvest, so we've been a little more protective of the herd. When you look at the age structure of deer that come out of Zone A, it is much younger then any other part of Ohio. The deer are obviously not living as long, which means hunting pressure is much higher, and I predict the harvest comparable to last season, perhaps up 2 or 3 percent."

Zone B consists of 30 central and northeast counties that have an average deer density of 15 to 35 deer per square mile. Again, agriculture is the whitetail's primary food source.

"We'd like to see the deer population reduced in Zone B as well. There are a number of counties that are over goal, but we're making progress," Tonkovich said. "Southeast Ohio is where we need to put our efforts to reduce the herd, but Zone B is not far behind. I would expect about the same comparable harvest as last year."

Zone C, the largest of Ohio's deer zones, consists of 38 southeastern and southwestern counties with an average deer density of 30 to 60 deer per square mile. It contains the most public land, including Wayne National Forest, Shawnee and Zaleski state forests, plus a number of wildlife areas and public hunting lands. Deer feed on a mixture of acorns and crops.

In southwest Ohio, look to Tranquility and Paint Creek wildlife areas, Brush Creek State Forest and the Edge of Appalachia Preserve in Adams County.

FUTURE CHALLENGES

"One of the difficult parts of deer management is that whitetails are not evenly distributed across the counties. You have private land where deer densities are high and public land that is subject to heavy hunting pressure. You've got hunters who want you to manage public land differently than private land. That's the challenging part of the job," Tonkovich said. "The big issue in these areas, where we have 30 to 60 deer per square mile, is how to give hunters access to these deer."

In the final analysis, Tonkovich expects 2009 harvests to be similar to last season.

"The muzzleloader season is the only wild card this year. If I was betting man, I would say we're going to kill more deer in the muzzleloader season than we have in the past three or four years. If we get three or four inches of snow on the ground, we could see a harvest as high as 30,000 deer," Tonkovich predicted.

However, Tonkovich said he would like to see the deer kill down for the season because it would indicate a reduction in the deer herd is finally taking place.

"If we don't have a disease outbreak and the weather cooperates, I'd be delighted if the harvest was down to 240,000 or 250,000 in spite of the fact we may take a few more deer during the muzzleloader season," Tonkovich said. "That would tell me we've made progress in turning the corner on some of these deer populations, and those three years of liberal antlerless harvest is finally paying dividends. If we exceed 250,000 and set another record, then that clearly means we haven't found the right combination yet."

For more information about Ohio's deer-hunting opportunities, contact the Ohio Division of Wildlife at (800) WILDLIFE (945-3543) or log onto www.wildohio.com.

For travel information and accommodations, contact the Ohio Division of Travel and Tourism at www.discoverohio.com, or call (800) BUCKEYE (282-5393).

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