These days, we talk about states turning red or blue. But according to the latest survey of farmers and hunters by the Ohio Division of Wildlife, the map of Ohio is turning a nice, dark green.
The map shows the changes in results of periodic surveys about deer. In these surveys, both hunters and rural landowners are asked a question that one might pose to Goldilocks: “In the area that you hunt/farm, are there too many, too few, or just about the right number of deer?”
In 2015, half the hunters who responded said there were too few deer, while just 29% of farmers said there were too many. After a few years of easing regulations meant to keep the deer population under control, another survey was done in the summer of 2019. That survey made much of the map of Ohio turn green, indicating that 10% or more of hunters in those counties had changed their answer to “just right.”
That anyone answered “too many” might be amazing to folks who lived here a hundred years ago. Deer had pretty much disappeared from Ohio by the early 1900s, for the same reason that turkeys, geese, bobcats and other species had vanished from the state: Unregulated hunting and deforestation.
A huge effort was made starting in the early 1930s to bring deer back by means of trapping and transferring, said Scott Peters, wildlife management supervisor for Ohio Division of Wildlife District 3, which covers Northeast Ohio. There were spotty, short hunting seasons in the 1940s and 1950s, mostly in southern Ohio where the forests had come back. But in 1961 it was decided to close the whole state to deer hunting after the population had dropped.
Obviously, the deer population has increased in the decades since; the Division of Wildlife estimates that the herd grew by 80% from 1998 to 2008. The statewide bag limit is now six, with a maximum of one antlered deer, though that would require traveling to multiple counties, Peters said. Heavily populated counties where more control is needed have three- and four-deer limits.
The gun season continues through Sunday, Dec. 6, plus Dec. 19 and 20. Muzzleloader season is Jan. 2 through Jan. 5, 2021. Archery season opened Sept. 26 and goes through Feb. 7.
Since 2012, the archery harvest has surpassed the gun harvest. Peters said this has to do with a number of things, including hunters wishing to get out early, especially when bucks are running around during mating season. And for hunters getting on in years, being out on a 40-degree day has greater appeal than waiting for the 20-degree days that are more prevalent during gun season. But mostly it’s because hunters these days are more selective, he said.
Surveys indicate hunters are changing their techniques, sitting in tree stands or blinds rather than driving deer. The use of trail cameras allows them to pick their targets, and hunt when their odds are best. They also spend fewer days hunting.
“It’s a sign of the times. People are busier, kids are busier with sports and other things, they have less time to spend outdoors,” he said, adding that it remains to be seen if this year will be different because of COVID, which caused an uptick in the number of spring turkey permits and fishing licenses.
Very few hunters hit the six-deer limit because again, it requires traveling to different counties, and most people hunt in just one place — like the family farm. Plus, “one or two deer is all people want to eat,” Peters said. If they get those one or two during archery season, they’re not likely to continue into gun season.
For Ohio white tails, mating season is the first two weeks of November. They give birth in late May or the first week of June. The first fawn is usually an only child; after that, the doe usually gives birth to twins — occasionally triplets, but mostly twins, he said. A doe will keep the fawns with her until the following year. When she is about to give birth again, she runs the older fawns off. The does come back together when the fawns are four to six weeks old, sometimes rejoining the yearlings they had run off earlier.
Does and bucks don’t mix; bucks sometimes form bachelor groups. About half of fawns die within their first year, whether from predators, bad weather or disease, Peters said. They can usually survive on their own after six weeks, when they are usually weaned and eating enough vegetation to sustain them. If they avoid hunters and road mortality, adults can live three to six years. Unfortunately, the odds are worse for bucks since they move a lot during mating season.
Deer can survive in deep woods, or in open fields, but do best on the edges between the two. “Sunlight equals browse,” Peters said of the new plant growth that deer love to eat. Deer can damage corn before it tassels, but corn can tolerate “heavy, heavy browsing,” he said. It’s the same with soybeans; deer eat a lot of leaves, “but the plant responds with growth to compensate.” Even with eight or ten deer grazing, chances are slim that yields will be reduced.
In fact, damage to crops from 100- to 200-pound deer may be less than that inflicted by 10- to 20-pound raccoons, he said.
The list of what deer won’t eat is very short, things like glossy buckthorn and Japanese barberry. Other kinds of ornamentals, like arborvitae and common yew, are just dandy in their book, which is why they survive and thrive in urban and suburban areas.
In areas where deer are a bit too plentiful, the Division of Wildlife might offer $15 deer management permits for antlerless deer, while on public land, hunting is more strictly regulated.
Not counting Wayne National Forest, which is federal, the Division of Wildlife manages about 250,000 acres in the state, Peters said. The Division has controlled hunts on some of these lands that are not normally open for hunting.
“Public land sees a lot more pressure than private land,” he said. “This is the third year that regulations have been in place to enhance hunter opportunities and alleviate over-harvesting.”
No status quo
Ohio’s deer population has been allowed to build the last few years and has probably stabilized, or will in the next few years, Peters said. But that doesn’t mean the Division can just keep the status quo in regulations.
They started surveillance for chronic wasting disease in 2002, and nearly 24,000 tests later, no wild deer has tested positive. But the deer in some areas have been plagued by EHD (epizootic hemorrhagic disease) that is spread by biting midges. It tends to get worse about every five years, and was bad in 2012 and 2017.
“You can’t just put everything on cruise control,” Peters said of the management plan, “especially when dealing with a state the size of Ohio and all its varied regions.”
So the Division will continue to survey hunters and farmers, whose attitudes about deer really aren’t that far apart.
Many farmers enjoy hunting, especially if they can get the kids or grandkids to go along, he said. “We’re trying to find a balance between goals: Minimizing damage and road kill, and maximizing the number of deer that hunters enjoy seeing,” Peters said. In other words, trying to keep everything “just right.”
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