Ohio's 2010 Deer Outlook -- Part 1

Ohio's 2010 Deer Outlook -- Part 1

Buckeye deer hunters have never had it better. Here's a look at some of the top areas statewide...

Buckeye hunters had another record-setting season last year, killing 260,442 deer during the season. That is an increase of more than 9,000 deer over the previous record take of 251,299.

While that indicates whitetails in abundance for Ohio hunters, what biologists see is not all rosy in their efforts to control the state's growing deer population. The state's agricultural watch dog, Ohio Farm Bureau, would like to see the state's deer head, estimated at over 700,000, pared back to a scantly 250,000. Squeezed between the dynamics of two forces -- hunters who like the high deer numbers and agricultural interests that can be hurt by crop damage deer do -- the Ohio Division of Wildlife walks a fine line between its paying constitutes and the private land the deer live on.

Asked about last year's record take, Mike Tonkovich, head deer biologist for the Division of Wildlife replied, "There were parts of it I was disappointed with and parts of it I was excited about. I had hoped the harvest would be down over the previous year. Our goal is to start turning the corner on the population."

Tonkovich would like to see the deer harvest down between 240,000 and 250,000, but no higher then 260,000. However, Tonkovich said, there were a few bright spots.

"There are some things we'll have to wait for before we can fully assess what kind of impact we've had, but a couple of good things came out that stuck me," said Tonkovich. "While the buck harvest was up about 5 percent in 2009, the antlerless harvest was up only 3 percent. That could be good news because antlerless permits sales were up 10 percent. We (DOW) sold a record 133,000 antlerless permits in 2009. The interest was certainly there but we harvested only 3 percent more antlerless deer. This means we could be leveling out in terms of population and making progress. In looking at the buck harvest in a particular year what you're really looking at is a time line. Most of the bucks taken in 2009 were year-and-a-half old bucks that were born in spring of 2008. So when you look at the 2009 buck harvest, what you are looking at is a reflection of how many does were available in spring of 2008 to drop button bucks. Ohio had a large harvest of antlerless deer during the fall of 2008 but we won't find out what really happen until fall of 2010. And then again the antlerless harvest we had in 2009 won't reap any dividends until fall of 2011 in terms of looking at the buck harvest data. A smaller buck population, since bucks and does are born in equal numbers, means there were fewer doe fawns born as well. So we use our buck harvest data to gauge where the total deer population is."

In summing up the 2009-2010 season, Tonkovich pointed out the bright spots in the harvest data he's working with.

"The long and short of it is we saw just a small increase in the antlerless harvest in '09, but the sale of antlerless permits went up greater," said Tonkovich. "I was also pleased with the muzzleloading harvest. We justified moving the season into January because in the past December was like one long firearms season," he said. "We set a state record muzzleloading harvest with 25,007 deer after seeing a four-year slide in the muzzleloading take."

Although the total harvest was up it was only a 4 percent increase over last year.

"That's not a significant number," said Tonkovich. The reason, he says, is that small variations in hunter success occur from year to year even if the deer population were to stay the same.

Looking ahead to the 2010 season Tonkovich said hunters can expect much the same as last year and looks for near repeat in the numbers.

"I expect the population to stay right about where it was at last year," said Tonkovich. "We're going have a very similar population and a very similar harvest to last season, which may mean again somewhere between 245,000 to 260,000 deer with a comparable antlerless harvest or perhaps a few more antlerless deer.

In effect, does and bucks are managed differently and Tonkovich points out that to understand the deer harvest you need to do more than look at the total season take: you have to examine the trends in buck and doe harvests and see how they relate to each other. If state hunters were killing enough does to decrease the deer herd's population, then eventually the buck harvests would decline (because fewer does would be dropping fewer male fawns for hunters to kill in later years). But no buck harvest decline is in evidence yet.

"The buck harvest for the last four or five years, particularly since we added the antlerless permits, has been fairly stable at 88,000 to 93,000 bucks harvested across all seasons statewide, whereas the antlerless harvest has been going up. So we're making progress at putting more pressure on the antlerless segment of the population, which is a good thing, but has yet to reap any significant dividends. Not until I see that buck harvest start to do a 7 to 10 percent drop am I going to believe we've turned the corner.

"The archers continue to do well breaking the 90,000 mark for the first time, while the gun harvest actually dropped this year from 117,000 to 114,000. So the archers continue to have great success," said Tonkovich. "We took 91,000 deer with bow and arrow and that's just amazing."

The biggest jump in the antlerless harvest last fall came during the bonus weekend gun season, when hunters killed 20 percent more anlterless deer than in the previous year, the harvest increasing from 12,092 in 2008 to 14,473 in 2009.

The movement of the statewide muzzleloading season to Jan. 9-12 was also a boon to black powder hunters. Hunters killed 25,007 deer in 2010 compared to 20,966 deer taken in 2009 -- a 17 percent increase. Black powder hunters took 19,160 does (or antlerless bucks) during the muzzleloading season, which was up from last season when 15,462 antlerless deer were taken.

However that season segment was not without some controversy.

"People were upset as we were killing a lot of shed bucks because of the late timing of the muzzleloading season," said Tonkovich. "But there was a whole other issue going on with the mast crop failure -- it wasn't a complete failure but a very, very poor mast crop. Not only in southeast in Ohio but West Virginia reported a record poor mast crop and they were seeing shed bucks very early. So that compounded things. Bucks in poor condition are going to shed their antlers earlier. And that's exactly what happened in West Virginia and in southeast Ohio. Statewide we didn't kill that many more shed bucks over last year but there was a noticeable increase in southeast Ohio (District 4) because of the mast crop which can be a problem in regions where deer are more dependant on mast then agriculture. It was clear from looking at the data it was the mast dependant population that was affected."

Southeast Ohio contains the highest densities of deer in the state: 30 to 60 deer per square mile. In contrast some counties in northwest Ohio have some of the lowest deer densities in the state at only 5 to 12 deer per square mile. "I would argue that hunter success and deer densities are probably very similar across the entire state," said Tonkovich. "In northwest Ohio you have a woodlot that has some deer and you add a 200-300 yard buffer around that woodlot and that represents deer habitat. But in terms of deer per square mile of deer habitat, not land area, but defined deer habitat, I would say the number of deer per square mile of deer habitat is probably similar, not a whole lot different. We kill more deer in southeast Ohio because we simply have more deer habitat."

Deer hunting's popularity continues to climb in Ohio; an estimated 420,000 hunters purchased a record 625,000 deer permits last season. That's a gain of over 13,000 permits from 2008 season and an increase of 117,000 tags sold during the 2007 deer season. As a result, hunters who have only public land available to hunt have complained that the deer hunting on public land suffers from too much pressure.

Over a third of Ohio's deer harvest last season came from bowhunters. Photo by Tom Cross.

"It's getting worse as leasing becomes more popular and access becomes more and more limited. This has been an issue for long time," said Tonkovich. "What I would like to see us do is make some of our public lands a lottery hunt, limiting the number of hunters and make it a quality hunt. Many states are now doing that."

Regulations changes for the 2010 season include a deer zone change and the elimination of having to purchase an either sex tag before purchasing an antlerless permit. If you don't care about horns, hunters for the first time will be able to purchase just the $15.00 antlerless tag and a $19.00 hunting license and be ready to hunt deer. The only other change for the 2010 season is the expansion of Deer Zone B to include the nine northwest counties of Allen, Defiance, Fulton, Henry, Lucas, Paulding, Van Wert and Williams.

The top spots in the state for bagging a deer haven't changed all that much from last year's big harvest counties.

"I'd look at those big east central counties, Tuscarawas, Coshocton, Holmes, Harrison County; that east-central corridor has got some terrific deer hunting," said Tonkovich. "It's the perfect mix of agriculture and cover."

In other parts of the state, Logan and Morrow counties in central Ohio are Tonkovich's picks; and Ashland County up in District 3. In southwest Ohio, Adams, Clermont and Highland County are the top picks.

"Richland County is one of the counties I would highlight. Ashland County is a great county too; Morrow County's taken off; Logan County has some tremendous opportunities, those are counties with high harvest numbers and some terrific hunting opportunities," said Tonkovich. "When you get up into District 2 public land opportunities are very limited but Williams County is probably one of your best bets. We added the nine counties out of District 2 to Deer Zone B which are obviously doing very well so those counties might be some new areas to look at."

Zone A, now consisting of only 11 counties, still has the lowest population of deer in the state with 5 to 12 deer per square mile. This zone is partial agriculture and partial urban. Harvest numbers should be similar to last season. Hunters in Zone A are limited to two deer.

Zone B has grown to be Ohio's largest deer zone with 39 counties including the northeast and northwest corners of the state. Deer densities range from a low of 15 upwards to 30 deer per square mile. Tonkovich doesn't expect any changes in the deer harvest numbers. Hunters in Zone B are limited to four deer during the archery season, after gun season opens up it backs down to two deer.

Zone C has the most deer and a six deer limit throughout the archery season and first week of gun season. It also has an abundance of public hunting lands, including Wayne National Forest and Shawnee and Zaleski State Forest, state wildlife areas and AEP lands. In the southwest corner of the state Tranquility and Paint Creek Wildlife Areas offer some of that region's top deer hunting. Deer densities range from 30 to 60 per square mile. Harvest numbers could potentially be up this season.

Tonkovich wants to see continued pressure on the antlerless segment of the deer population.

"The last thing we want to do is get hunters comfortable with seeing 25 deer every time they go hunting because we've got to get the population down," said Tonkovich. "If you look at the harvest numbers over the past few years I still think the deer heard is tending upward. I'd eventually like to see the deer herd 25 percent lower then what it is now."

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