Outdoors: Too many deer? Too few? Hard to answer
By Dave Golowenski
For The Columbus Dispatch Sunday February 19, 2012 7:49 AM
As noted last week, Ohio deer hunters took about 41,600 fewer whitetails during the 2011-12 season compared with the record 261,260 tagged in 2009-10. The harvest a year ago also was down.
News of the two-year drop — about 15.9 percent — has sparked numerous exchanges on deer forums on the Web. In the strictest sense, opinions run the entire gamut of A to B, to wit: The Ohio Division of Wildlife is at fault; the weather is to blame.
An apparent majority seems to think culpability rests mostly with the division; for example, its switch from check stations to electronic reporting of tagged deer. Then there are accusations that the division is working furtively at the behest of the insurance companies and the Ohio Farm Bureau to lower deer numbers. The wildlife biologists? They don’t seem to know — or care — what’s going on, some critics say.
One hunter, apparently writing in jest given the smiley faces on his post, suggested that maybe the solution lies with pitchforks and torches: “It’s time to make a plan and go get Tonkovich.”
Wildlife biologist Mike Tonkovich is charged with trying to figure out how to manage Ohio’s deer population in the best interests of all. That’s no easy task, given that hunters generally want more deer, but farmers and many urban/suburban dwellers generally want fewer.
The citizenry, which include farmers, urban dwellers and hunters, certainly aren’t blind. However, their view is restricted to the local landscape, which might hold many deer or might hold few. The number can fluctuate from year to year.
Meanwhile, the public hears reports about a growing herd that might indicate a runaway statewide deer population. Such awareness raises concerns among the whitetail-weary and makes hunters question whether the population estimates are reliable when they don’t see as many deer as they think they should.
Here’s the upshot: Tonkovich said not only is far too much emphasis placed on the estimated size of the statewide herd, but that estimate is next to meaningless when it comes to deer management.
The statewide estimate, he said, has “no bearing whatsoever on harvest regulations last year, this year or in the future. There’s not a statewide population goal. Unless my boss gets pressure, we’re not going to talk about (statewide) population anymore.”
Tonkovich manages deer by trying to work with a snapshot no larger than a single county. Simply put, deer are unequally distributed across a varied landscape, which explains in part why an island of two central Ohio counties, Fayette and Madison, will be included next year in the most restricted harvest zone. (The restricted zone, by the way, has over the years shrunk to only four other contiguous counties along Lake Erie in northwest Ohio.)
What makes Fayette and Madison different from surrounding counties is the ease with which hunters can wipe out deer. Two-acre woodlots sprouting amid a mostly agricultural expanse offer deer meager opportunities to avoid hunters.
“Five hunters easily can eradicate all the deer in a stand of trees,” Tonkovich said.
Hunting being the “most significant source of mortality,” he said, means that cutting the season harvest limit is the only cost-effective way to keep numbers at a level that satisfies hunters and doesn’t impose too heavily on farmers. Increasing the limits would have an inverse effect over time.
People annoyed by browsing wild animals on their piece of urban landscape, whether focused on deer sharing roadways or dining in their flowerbeds, often have the impression that the state is overrun with deer. The urban population, though, has never been counted in the state herd estimates. That’s because residential whitetails represent deer that are generally out of the reach of hunters and, therefore, wildlife managers.
“The urban populations are expanding, and they are waiting for no one,” Tonkovich said. “And we can’t touch them. Using automobiles to manage them is not an option.”
Ultimately, the control of nuisance neighborhood deer, he said, likely will require a costly program of contraception, which requires injecting individual deer, or the costly and, to some, unsavory hiring of sharpshooters to knock down the numbers.
As for the overall deer population, Tonkovich described the situation as somewhat “static.” He said he isn’t certain what’s behind the harvest decline of the past two years, although some signs point to fewer deer in counties where populations have tended to run high.
There is, though, a hitch in that assumption.
The models used to determine deer numbers are based on the annual harvest. What remains an unknown, however, is hunter effort. People are either spending a little time to fill a tag or a lot of time to do so. If hunters are giving up before they get a deer because of weather, lack of tenacity or any other reason, the decline in harvest might not be an indication that the deer numbers have fallen.
The division mailed more than 20,000 surveys and emailed another 16,000 to deer hunters in an attempt to get a handle on the effort factor in the deer-harvest equation. However, Tonkovich said the lack of response makes drawing conclusions sketchy and difficult.
Taking several minutes to fill out a survey and returning it in a timely manner, Tonkovich said, can help the division determine the missing piece that indicates whether regulations need to be tightened or loosened in a county. Based on harvest numbers alone, it’s possible that population estimates can lag behind by several years before the true deer numbers become apparent.
“If a hunter wants to make a difference, that’s where a hunter can make a difference,” he said. “ The thing we don’t know is effort. What we don’t know is whether people are hunting less because there are fewer deer. Or, are they just hunting less, and so it seems like there are fewer deer.”
What Tonkovich does know is that the number of purchased deer permits decreased during the most recent season by 4 percent after having fallen about 5 percent the previous year. That could be part of the reason for the drop in harvests, but the kill dropped considerably more than did permit sales.
By the numbers
Ohio deer kill totals over the past five seasons, according to the Ohio Division of Wildlife (the 2009-10 kill of 261,260 is the state record):
The last column is the largest hunting county, consistently Coshocton (over 100 mi south of Solon). ODNR encourages "urban hunting program" for the convenience of "sport hunting" and the license revenue it produces in this declining market.
See the full article here.