DOW discusses harvest numbers

Al Smith - Guest Columnist

We all look at numbers differently.

When it comes to Ohio’s most popular hunting seasons, many people look at the bottom line so to speak. Numbers tell us 182,169 white-tailed deer were harvested in Ohio during the 2016-17 season. A total of 188,329 were harvested during the 2015-16 season. A season consists of archery, youth, deer-gun week, extra gun weekend and muzzleloader. Simple numbers indicate the deer takes were similar and the harvest was down slightly.

For sheer numbers concerning the Limaland area during the 2016-27 season, here are the results for the 9 local counties with their harvest numbers from the 2015-16 season in parenthesis: Allen 1,039 (1,102); Auglaize 751 (828); Hancock 1,179 (1,185); Hardin 1,220 (1,270); Logan 1,919 (2,071); Mercer 661 (603); Putnam 709 (704); Shelby 961 (1,050) and Van Wert 458 (492). The harvest was up slightly in Mercer and Putnam counties while it was down in the other 7 counties. Total harvest this season was 8.897 compared to 9,305 a year ago.

Biologists look at these numbers differently. They go into detail looking at various aspects of the harvest. These are among the questions they ask when look at the harvest numbers:

What was the management goal? How many antlerless and antlered deer were killed? What factors played into those numbers? Are landowners and hunters satisfied with the size of the herd? How did weather affect the harvest?

Dr. Mike Tonkovich, deer program administrator for the Ohio Division of Wildlife (DOW), and his colleagues take a thorough look at the numbers. Tonkovich, who also is well-known nationally as a deer expert, said the DOW breaks the harvest into antlerless and antlered. The wildlife agency attempts to manipulate the antlerless harvest and Tonkovich said, “the buck harvest ’follows’ our lead so to speak.”

When the DOW moved to more conservative regulations in 2015 and 2016, it hoped to see a fairly significant drop in the antlerless harvest in 2015. These had been the most conservative regulations some areas of the state has seen since the early 2000s, according to Tonkovich. So why was there a large increase in the statewide antlerless harvest?

The answer is nuts.

This is where ecology and biology mix. The mast or nut crop was poor in many of the state’s large counties in east-central and southeast Ohio. In poor mast years, deer are vulnerable to harvest for a couple of reasons.

Tonkovich explained: “The lack of food means more movement, which in turn leads to more encounters with hunters. Second, deer respond very well to bait! Anyhow, these large harvest increases carried the state and we saw an increase, rather than a decrease in the antlerless harvest. Fast forward to 2016, the antlerless harvest went down. A couple of factors likely contributed to this. The single largest factor was that the increase in 2015 was ‘artificial.’ I like to think of the 2016 harvest as a ‘correction’ to borrow from the folks on Wall Street.”

The antlered buck harvest is different.

“Bucks of course get no pass when it comes to increased vulnerability. While they may not be as interested in food as does and fawns, they are certainly interested in does! The bump in 2015 was largely due to increased vulnerability, but also we would attribute a small amount of the increase to a few more deer in some parts of the state. In other words, there was some recovery, albeit slow, in some areas of the state underway prior to 2015. If 2015 and 2016 were closer to typical or average years, we would have seen a sizeable decrease and a small increase in the antlerless and antlered harvests, respectively in 2015 and I would have expected the buck harvest to increase slightly again in 2016 while the antlerless would have been fairly flat,” Ohio’s deer guru explained.

So, is the herd population where biologists would like to see it or do they think it should be increased or thinned?

“Our survey of production landowners and hunters in 2015 revealed room for modest herd growth in most areas of the state,” Tonkovich stated.

What’s modest?

Tonkovich said 29 percent of farmers thought there were too many deer and half the hunters felt there were too few.

“We think that modest growth will balance the dissatisfaction levels among the groups. The conservative regs in 2015 and 2016 were designed to provide modest growth. How will we know when we’re there? We’ll survey the groups again in next year,” he said.

Are you thinning the herd better in areas when the population may be more than you wanted? As noted, our intent was to put a few more deer on the ground in most areas of the state.

Under new proposals for the 2017-18 deer season was a modification on bag limits for several counties. In Limaland, Allen and Putnam counties would be reduced to two deer per county if the proposals are approved by the Ohio Wildlife Council.

One aspect not covered in deer harvest numbers is the amount of deer that find safe haven in municipal areas and other areas that include parks. With restricted hunting, these areas produce an overpopulated local herd, which can cause all kinds of ecological problems. Cities trying to thin herd with hunters have come in for much criticism until people see their flowers, plants, shrubs and trees ruined by browsing deer. The Indiana state park system has had huge success thinning its herd over the past 2 decades. Ecologically, wild flowers that had been gone for years are re-appearing again. Saplings are growing into trees.

Over populated deer also may be negatively affecting song bird populations.

“Some birds need low-lying vegetation for nesting and foraging,” said Vitek Jirinec, the lead author of a new study published in Landscape and Urban Planning, but deer tend to eat this vegetation. As a result, these birds “seem to have a negative relationship with deer densities,” he said.

Tonkovich said he and his colleague are rarely if ever involved in discussions about overpopulated deer in such areas.

“There’s generally very little need for science in those situations. You would be better served with a referee. Science says deer will attempt to reproduce at the same rate that they always have. Deer must die. You either have to remove them with hunting, automobiles, or some other lethal means, as there will be more added to the population each year than will die naturally. The science is clear,” he said.

Al Smith

Guest Columnist

Al Smith is a freelance outdoor writer. You may contact him at and follow him on Twitter @alsmithFL

Al Smith is a freelance outdoor writer. You may contact him at and follow him on Twitter @alsmithFL