We cornered the state's top two white-tailed deer experts to try to get a handle on what hunters can expect to experience — and why — in the deer woods this season. Ohio Division of Wildlife Deer Biologist Clint McCoy and Deer Program Administrator Mike Tonkovich provided some excellent insight into the management of Ohio's deer herd and how they are working to help maintain the high quality of hunting the state's sportsmen have come to expect.
When asked about the notable aspects of the 2016/2017 season harvest, Tonkovich said that it depends on what we want to compare it to.
"Compared to the 2015 season, it was down," he said, adding: "But is that a legitimate comparison? We think 'year-over' comparisons are much like daily changes in the stock market — worthless. When you consider an investment, you look at past year, past three years and past 10 years. With the harvest being a function of so many factors, we believe that year-over comparisons can be misleading. Which is why we have begun evaluating harvest in a much broader, more meaningful context: how does the harvest compare to the 3-year average?"
According to McCoy, "2015 was a banner harvest year. Everything lined up for large harvest (poor mast crop, early crop harvest, decent gun season weather). The buck harvest was up nearly 15 percent. Because the 2015 season was so productive, it was unlikely from the outset that 2016 would be able to match it, even with a growing population," McCoy said. "With 2016 being an average year 'conditions-wise' for harvest, I expect buck harvest increases in 2017/18, signaling a growing herd."
Compared to the three-year average, last season harvest was off by 67 deer. Overall hunter success changed very little last season, when approximately 1 in 3 licensed adult hunters harvested at least 1 deer. Regulatory changes — including those that made additional straight-walled cartridge calibers legal — also probably had little effect on the total number of deer that hunters took.
As for habitat changes that may affect harvest rates, McCoy commented that there were no state-wide habitat changes that would dramatically affect year-over-year harvest, but said, "We would be remiss not to mention the general trend of aging forests (declining habitat quality) in eastern Ohio. As forests age, they produce less year-round food for deer."
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Tonkovich added, "Long-term (habitat change) may impact harvest, but not from one year to the next, at least not on a scale that we can measure."
While deer bag limits were unchanged in 2016, this season will see adjustments in 28 counties. In Northwest Ohio, seven counties (Williams, Fulton, Defiance, Henry, Paulding, Putnam, and Allen) we see the bag limit reduced from three to two deer. On the other hand, in an effort to slow herd growth in southeast Ohio, the bag limit will increase from two to three deer per hunter in 21 counties.
The only other notable changes in 2017 involve straight-walled cartridges, according to Tonkovich.
"A modification to the rules regarding straight-walled cartridge rifles will allow any straight-walled cartridge rifle between .357 and .50 caliber for deer hunting," he explained. "After three seasons of hunting deer with straight-walled cartridge rifles with no biological impacts to the herd or additional hunter incidents, there will no longer be a published list of allowable rifles. This rule change is easily understood and enforced, while also being inclusive of a great number of rifle options."
Both deer biologists agree that the state this year has a higher population of whitetails compared to a year ago, and predict a rise in harvest rates.
"Fall 2015 surveys of both hunters and farmers revealed that there was room for modest herd growth in most areas," said the deer program leader. "Pockets in the southwest and north central portions of the state reported the herd size was fine where it was at and contacts in portions of the northeast, west central and northwest wanted to see an increase in the size of the herd."
WEATHER AND PREDATION
The role of weather and predation on Ohio's deer herd in recent years is hard to measure, according to the biologists. Tonkovich said that it is "very difficult to isolate the effects of weather. The past couple of falls have been unseasonably warm. Many find the warmer weather of the archery season much more appealing than the sometimes very cold and uncomfortable weather of the gun season," which he noted is likely one of the factors contributing to the increase in the archery harvest in recent years.
"Young hunters had a break in 2015 with good hunting weather during their firearms season," he said, "but three of the past four youth seasons have fallen on days when it was especially cold, which limited harvest."
McCoy noted that effects of predation have remained relatively constant since 2006 when the state's coyote population leveled off after a decade of growth.
DISTRICT DISTRIBUTION SHIFTS
"There is very clearly a shift in the distribution of the harvest since the late '70s," said Tonkovich. "In 1977, District 4 accounted for 65 percent of the entire deer harvest and that year 91 percent of all deer were taken with a firearm. Today, District 4 accounts for only slightly more of the total harvest than District 3, and that may change very soon.
"The gun harvest in District 4 has gone from accounting for nearly 70 percent of the entire gun harvest to roughly 40 percent. At the same time, there has been slow but steady increases in both the archery and the firearms harvest in District 3. Interestingly, the archery harvest in 4 has remained virtually unchanged since the late 1970s."
Tonkovich explained that data would suggest that people traveled to the Hill Region to hunt deer with a gun back in the day, not with a bow, saying: "Interesting to note that prior to the 1990s, D4 accounted for a larger share of the archer harvest; during the 1990s there was a tug-of-war between (districts) 3 and 4 and for last decade, District 3 led the state."
The data show that Ohio's deer herd and hunting opportunities are ever-changing. The good news for hunters is that the population is thriving, management is responsive and pro-active, and we face no immediate threats to our world-famous deer herd from disease, predation or acts of man.
"And all indications are that we should have a good deer hunting season this fall," according to the leader of a program, who, as an avid whitetail hunter himself, has as much to gain as any of us who will be taking to the field this season.
DEER HERD INDICATORS
Tonkovich notes that regulation changes meant to increase deer herd size often take two years to turn up in harvest numbers. One example of this two-year lag is that in 2015, some 21 counties in southeast Ohio (along with several others) underwent a bag limit reduction from three to two. This regulation allowed more does to survive the hunting season and produce fawns in the spring of 2016. Roughly half of the fawns were button bucks and were afforded protection in the fall of 2016. Therefore, additional bucks produced as a result of the 2015 regulations will not show up in the buck harvest until they are at least 1.5 years old in the 2017-2018 season.
"While a population response has yet to manifest itself in the harvest totals," Tonkovich said, "the composition of the harvest reveals that growth is very likely in these 21 counties over the next couple of years. A predictable relationship exists between the proportion of the harvest that is antlerless and buck harvest change two seasons later. When antlerless deer comprise 61 percent of the harvest or less, the deer herd grows. Antlerless harvest that is 61 to 62 percent of the total results in relative stability. When the proportion of the harvest that is antlerless exceeds 62 percent, populations are typically reduced. For the 21 southeastern counties included in this year's bag limit increase, their respective 2015 and 2016 harvests were 55 and 54 percent antlerless, signifying this region's lowest level of antlerless harvest intensity in nearly 20 years. For these reasons, significant herd growth is expected."