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.”