Division of Wildlife discussed potential changes to Ohio deer herd management strategies

by Larry S. Moore

The Ohio Division of Wildlife, like many hunters, is talking deer hunting. Of course the news is the early increase in the harvest numbers, which are now reported weekly. Recently, I attended events where Dave Kohler, Acting Executive Administrator Wildlife Management and Research, and Dr. Michael "Tonk" Tonkovich, Deer Project Leader, presented the current status and projections for the remainder of the deer season. They also gave some sneak previews into possible changes in 2013 regarding the deer herd management.

Kohler indicated that the Division is expecting the total harvest to be down about 10% with the numbers being in the neighborhood of 208,000 deer. Kohler said, "We've had total harvest declines in the last couple of years. We were trying to reduce the deer herd size in most counties as they were above the targeted goals. The regulations were geared to accomplish the reduction. We continue to encourage hunters to harvest doe. We know Ohio is a great buck state but we need to harvest doe to maintain a healthy balance. The anticipated decline should be fairly consistent across the state."

Dr. Tonkovich presented a seminar at a recent Preble County deer clinic. He covered quite a bit of the Division's current and, perhaps future, approach to the deer herd management. Tonk first noted, "I love getting out of the office and interacting with our constituents. It's always exciting. The time has passed that we simply manage our deer herd through harvest regulations. We have more deer than hunters and 95% of Ohio's land is privately owned. We need your help to be successful in the deer management program."

Tonkovich pointed out some changes in the deer regulations for the 2012 season. The first is the addition of seven counties in Western Ohio to Zone B. He also noted a change in the game check process to allow hunters until noon the day following harvest of a deer to report it. The exception is on the last day of any season (youth gun weekend; gun week; statewide muzzleloading or final day of archery season) the harvest must be reported by 11:30PM of the last day.

He presented the history of deer management in Ohio saying, "We strongly believe Ohio's farmers share the burden of a large rural deer population. This is why the Division periodically surveys their attitudes toward the deer herd. The last survey statewide with farm producers was conducted in 2000 by the National Agriculture Statistic Service for the Division. The state was divided into four regions of farmland, hills, northeastern metropolitan and an intermediate region. The results were that all four regions wanted to see fewer deer with a range of 4% to 14% fewer. We have been attempting to move the deer population toward desired goals with the regulations."

Tonkovich explained that very few of the hunters kill more than one deer even with very liberal harvest regulations. He reported that 95% of the successful hunters killed only one or two deer so adding deer to the bag limit has little impact on the herd. Tonkovich believes the special early antlerless deer permit is having an impact toward reducing the herd. The early antlerless tag is good only through November 25 and is no longer valid for deer gun week in Zone C.

The future of Ohio deer management has several new possibilities. The current online reporting system offers near real-time data for the Division. This may be used to drive county specific antlerless tags or even to issue additional tags for a specific county in order to achieve the desired harvest.

However, Tonkovich also pointed out that managing the deer herd on a county-by-county basis may not be the best approach. He said, "We are considering a major change in deer herd management. Ohio has always used the county as the management unit. Political boundaries are not necessarily the best choice for management. The terrain and habitat mix within a county may not fit into the same management approach. There are variables such as public land access, leased land and human population to impact management decisions. We are going to seriously look at other management unit options. It may not come to pass or may lead to another approach. Whatever we do, the farmers and hunters will play a major role providing input. We will also consider habitat health in the management mix. There are some signs of deer herd health decline in areas of eastern Ohio with reduced antler beam being one indicator. It's time to bring the habitat health into the mix for deer herd management."

Tonkovich also reported there will be changes in the game check and tagging process in 2013. The Division is looking to make the process more simple and consistent for all hunters. The details will be presented at the Division's March Open House events. Hunters should look for more information on these changes after the first of the year.

He noted that the special early muzzleloader season in the three special areas is also under review. It is possible the three special area hunts could be replaced with a statewide season sometime in early to mid-October which would be for antlerless deer only. The antlerless deer only restriction would also apply to archery hunters during the special season.

A number of hunters and at least one statewide organization, Buckeye Firearms Association, has been pressing for the use of pistol caliber cartridges in rifles during the Ohio deer gun week. Basically the proposal is that any currently legal pistol cartridge would be legal in rifles. If the cartridge is not currently legal for handguns for deer, it would not be legal in the rifles. Tonkovich acknowledged several meetings, noting, "There is some interest in these cartridges for rifle hunting. I think there is some merit to the proposal and they are attractive for young hunters. I don't believe there is a biological impact to the deer herd by the proposal. It's all about public perception since there is the word 'rifle' involved. Hunters and landowners may be confused about what will be allowed. We can't afford any landowner closing access to hunting because of any regulation. We have asked Buckeye Firearms [Association] to fund a survey study on the issue."

Tonkovich presented the official Division position regarding pistol caliber cartridges for rifle (PCR) use, "Because we believe the PCR will benefit only a small number of hunters at this time, we are not prepared to fund the project. However, we agree to conduct the research if Buckeye Firearms [Association] will fund the project. We need to have data that our sportsmen, landowners and out of state hunters are not opposed to it. We are going to leave PCR on the back burner."

There are a lot of potential changes in store for deer herd management in Ohio. Other changes are simply being evaluated. All the possibilities should make for a lively discussion at the 2013 open houses.

Outdoor writer and hunter education instructor Larry S. Moore is a long-time volunteer leader for Buckeye Firearms Foundation and winner of the 2005 USSA Patriot Award, the 2007 League of Ohio Sportsmen/Ohio Wildlife Federation Hunter Educator of the Year and the 2010 National Wild Turkey Federation/ Women in the Outdoors Hunter Education Instructor of the Year.

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