OUTDOORS

Gun season deer harvest reflects reduced herd and factors in play

12/16/2013
BY MATT MARKEY
BLADE OUTDOORS EDITOR

You don’t need a slide rule, a scientific calculator, or an abacus to process the numbers from the recently concluded deer firearm season in Ohio. The harvest of white-tailed deer was down.

Ohio 2013 Deer Firearm Season Harvest Totals
Ohio 2013 Deer Firearm Season Harvest Totals

For some hunters, that’s a bad thing. For biologists, and most farmers, orchard owners, insurance companies, suburban gardeners, and landscapers, that’s a good thing.

The overall statewide harvest for the 2013 deer gun season was lower when the raw numbers are compared to those from the 2012 period. But to contort an oft-used phrase, the deer are in the details, so figuring out if it was a “successful” deer season is essentially taking on a calculus equation with a big stack of variables.

“What frustrates some hunters is when we make blanket statements,” said Mike Tonkovitch, the deer program administrator for the Ohio Division of Wildlife, and the guy who takes a lot of the arrows when hunters vent about the state’s deer management practices.

Ohio has seen both ends of the bar graph with the fluctuating size of its deer herd. Habitat loss and unregulated hunting in the early 1900s had essentially eliminated deer from the state. Some stocking efforts, plus the natural migration of deer from surrounding states, and the evolution of an intensive management system, steadily brought the whitetail population back.

By about a decade ago, the Ohio deer herd was likely pushing close to 800,000. But that figure, like all deer herd numbers, is an estimate, and even an educated guess on the head count of a wild, reclusive animal is not like herding cats. It’s more like herding invisible cats.

As the deer herd grew, the hunter corps grew. There were about 19,000 deer hunters in Ohio in 1965, and that number reached close to half a million in the past decade. With that many in the game, deer hunting is big business in the Buckeye State, providing the lion’s share of the $853 million overall economic impact hunting has on the state.

So with the tug of big dollars posted on the bottom line, plus hundreds of thousands of hunters anteing up to get in the game, the ODNR was then charged with trying to coax deer populations in individual counties to a level that satisfies hunters and wildlife observers, but limits deer-automobile crashes and crop depredation.

No excuse, just a fact. At times, juggling flaming chainsaws might be easier.

Tonkovitch hears from the hunters who were unsuccessful, or from those who are accustomed to seeing dozens of deer during past gun seasons, but have encountered far fewer this year. They tell him that too many deer have been harvested while the state has been adjusting permit numbers to reduce the overall herd size.

“We make decisions based on what is going on across hundreds of square miles,” he said, “and that’s difficult for some folks to understand. They tend to just be concerned with what is going on in their corner of the county.”

The variables come into play, as well — weather, length of season, when the season falls on the calendar, hunter effort, and where the various special seasons fall during the overall deer season. In October, Ohio held a special early statewide antlerless muzzleloader season, and some 6,000 deer were harvested in that period. So when the regular gun season opened on Dec. 2, those deer were not part of the formula.

“Logic would dictate that, given the early muzzleloader season, you would see fewer deer during the later gun season,” Tonkovitch said.

For the rest of the 2013-14 deer seasons — a second muzzleloader season that runs from Jan. 4-7, and the ongoing archery season that won’t close until Feb. 2 — weather and hunter effort remain the most significant wild cards. A fresh snow prior to the four-day January muzzleloader hunt could bump the harvest significantly.

A recent check of the 2013 year-to-date deer harvest totals for all of the completed and ongoing seasons (archery, early muzzleloader, special hunts, firearm season, etc.) shows that the overall harvest this year is down around five percent over last year.

“That’s the only metric you can look at,” Tonkovitch said.

And with a batch of fluid variables in play, that would amount to a statistical anomaly.

Tonkovitch said that in many parts of Ohio, the deer populations are still in excess of the management goals, since recent bag limit changes did not impact the overall harvest as much as was anticipated. But the herd is down from its peak numbers, by design, and that alone irks plenty of hunters.

Tonkovitch urged them to consider that besides bringing more deer-related problems, more deer often means fewer trophy bucks, and the diminished health of the overall herd.

“We do have fewer deer on the landscape, and that’s good news for us, and it should be good news for hunters. When the numbers reach a certain level, the quality of the herd suffers,” he said. “But there are still a lot of deer out there, and we’ve kind of forgotten that these are the good old days.”

Contact Blade outdoors editor Matt Markey at: mmarkey@theblade.com or 419-724-6068.