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Published: Friday, 12/5/2008

Deer kills up, but problems persist in hunting world

Ohio hunters took 33,034 deer on opening day Monday, a significant improvement in the bag over a rain-hampered opener in 2007 but well below former tallies in the 40,000 to 45,000 range.

The Ohio Division of Wildlife noted that the first-day results were a 70 percent improvement over the 19,391 deer taken the same day in 2007. But such statistics are a spin, putting on the best face.

Weather conditions Monday were nearly ideal - no frog-drowning rain like a year ago, just clouds, spitting snow, 30s. Some 400,000 hunters were afield, according to wildlife division expectations. So why was the kill still 20 percent below those of yesteryear?

Opinions can be like bellybuttons - everybody has one. But it says here that the hunt has changed. In part it has been redistributed - more bowhunters who are increasingly more successful, more special hunts are offered - youth, controlled draw-hunts, special and statewide muzzleloader hunts, an extra shotgun "weekend." Then there are such extra attractions as reduced-cost antlerless deer tags, "free" [subsidized] venison-for-the-needy programs, and so on.

But there are only so many hunters, and they have only so much time to hunt. It spells a decline in interest in the One Big Hunt in the One Big Week.

Demographics count too. The wildlife division used to say 500,000 hunters would grab shotguns and hunt deer week. Now it is 400,000, with luck.

Erosion within an aging hunting community may be one reason. We're slowly losing The Hunting Generation, the once young men who grew up with tall tales by Jack O'Connor and many other writers about The Hunt in The Good Old Days.

Herculean efforts to draw in young hunters - a new generation given special treatment and special hunts - have helped. Some. Young hunters, for example, killed about 9,800 deer in their reserved weekend ahead of gun-week this week. There was no such thing - not even on the radar - 20 years ago. But whether their impact will replace the drop-outs of the aging Baby Boomer generation is questionable.

Yep, times have changed. Internet, cable, satellite TV, cell phones, and myriad electronic gidget-gadgets till you're sick of it. Distractions, less open land, urban sprawl, tons more people. No more with kids "going outside to play." It's not hard to cipher.

Meanwhile, deer keep on procreating like they have for ages. In these latitudes, there is no winterkill, for starters. And with a lack of, and societal intolerance for, large deer-eating predators, the state herd lays on an extra 30 percent or more each year in population. That is a lot of cropping to do to keep things even.

In the absence of hunting, the 700,000 deer estimated in the state prior to fall hunting seasons easily could more than double in just three years. What then?

The deer limits nowadays are liberal beyond imagining 30 years ago, and still they come. The kill has ramped such that in five of the last six years hunters have been taking 200,000 or more deer a year, including more than 230,000 deer in each of the last two years. This in a state that closed the season for lack of animals 47 years ago and where just 10,000 deer were killed in 1974. Still they come.

All of which is not to fault the deer managers and regulators within the Ohio Division of Wildlife and the Ohio Wildlife Council. They know. They see. They are trying. More public hunting land is available than ever.

But increasingly less private land is open to hunters. That is telling. So one wonders where deer and deer hunting are headed.

The sagging economy is not the answer, especially since $4 gas went away, at least for a while. The underlying problems remain.

Maybe, like a year ago, the deer hunting community by end of gun-week will make up the improved if still underwhelming opener results and hit the forecast target of 120,000 to 125,000 deer killed by Sunday sunset. Maybe another 25,000 or so deer will be taken on "gun weekend" Dec. 20 and 21 and a like number in the statewide muzzleloader season Dec. 27 to 30. Maybe by Feb. 1, bowhunters will end up coming close to the 78,000-plus deer they bagged a year ago, this after a second-best 51,000 the first six weeks this year.

Maybe we'll take down the population by 230,000, 240,000, 250,000. But when will the willing and able hunters take all the deer they want and need? Are we already there? As said afore, what then? It is something to ponder this winter and thereafter. But the problem is not going away, like a fleeting whitetail's "flag" over the crest of the ridge.

The top five counties in the opening day bag according to preliminary totals, with 2007 figures in parentheses, include Tuscarawas 1,821 [833]; Washington 1,456 [540]; Coschocton 1,307 [659]; Harrison 1,286 [732], and Guernsey 1,202 [871].

The totals for the 18 counties of northwest Ohio include: Allen 130 [67]; Defiance 323 [93]; Erie 82 [46]; Fulton 150 [69]; Hancock 83 [103]; Hardin 133 [129]; Henry 108 [63]; Huron 288 [220]; Lucas 75 [59]; Ottawa 9 [18]; Paulding 139 [80]; Putnam 150 [101]; Sandusky 54 [35]; Seneca 242 [187]; Van Wert 74 [33]; Williams 264 [164]; Wood 108 [78], and Wyandot 186 [172].



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