In a juxtaposition of genuine concern, bubbling anger and a heartfelt belief that Ohio’s deer management program is off-kilter, some 90 sportsmen and landowners listened intently January 23 in Akron while the state’s wildlife officials presented their side of the multi-headed topic.
That 90-person figure represented just the number of people who assembled at the Ohio Division of Wildlife’s District Three (Northeast Ohio) office in Akron.
Other – albeit, smaller – crowds were concurrently gathered in each of the agency’s other four wildlife districts, all of the congregations going through the same established protocols that explored three different and pre-determined components:
An update on chronic wasting disease in Ohio, the deer herd condition trends in the state, and a look at the anticipated transition to greatly refined deer management units, likely to transpire beginning with the commencement of the various 2016-2017 deer-hunting sessions.
The five-district concurrent program also represented an expanded offshoot from the state’s first-ever Ohio Deer Summit, held at just one location last year. This year’s program at five venues allowed for easier access and participation by interested stakeholders, Wildlife Division officials said.
And though Akron’s first presentation by District Three wildlife biologist Scott Peters was carefully observed by summit attendees, it was the second address by the Wildlife Division’s deer management administrator Mike Tonkovich that fell totally on wide-awake ears.
No wonder since Tonkovich is the lead agent on how the Wildlife Division looks at such thorny and tough-nut-to-crack issues on the order of bag limits, numbers of deer-hunting seasons and their lengths, fawn recruitment, coyote depredation on deer, deer herd health, composition and population size/density, along with a plethora of other associated satellite topics.
Given the balancing act of juggling what this or that hunter wants with the interests of landowners even Tonkovich wryly noted the challenges he and his agency associates face.
“I know I am doing my job if I am hated equally by everybody,” Tonkovich said.
Yes, Tonkovich said, the Wildlife Division is well aware that the state’s deer herd is smaller, even much smaller than what it, landowners, sportsmen and other stakeholders saw a decade or two ago.
Yet the reduction was necessary, Tonkovich said, noting that with a herd that swelled to unprecedented high numbers was not in its best interest.
If anything, just the opposite, Tonkovich said, pointing out that when the state’s deer herd blossomed to mind-boggling numbers its health suffered.
“There is other evidence that supports the decline in the overall health of Ohio’s deer herd, too,” Tonkovich says. “We have much older bucks running out but with smaller antlers.”
Such comes with a biological understanding that too much competition for a hard-hit natural food source was resulting in an ever-so-slow decline in the production of trophy bucks.
To illustrate, Tonkovich notes that submissions of qualifying entries into the popular Ohio Big Bucks Club have not kept pace with the annual, overall antlered deer kill.
Indeed, Tonkovich continued, the odds of a buck being eligible for inclusion in the Ohio Big Bucks Club is today one-half of what it was in 1990.
Along with an almost imperceptible drop in the number of trophy bucks came reduced poor fawn recruitment with females exhibiting the natural phenomenon of lowered pregnancy rates during times of distressed habitat.
“The roller coaster is now on its way down,” Tonkovich said.
Perhaps but more than a few attendees believe that ride is headed south too fast and has already plummeted too far.
When given the opportunity to express themselves several attendees would recite the same mantra, that being, “I hunted the gun season/the early doe-only muzzle-loading season/the statewide muzzle-loading season/the archery deer-hunting season and I never saw an animal.”
Other participants groused how the Wildlife Division should never have allowed – and must end – allowing hunters to legally kill “four, five and six deer.”
“That’s too many; you can’t use that many,” complained one of the summit’s attendees.
Meanwhile, taxidermist Fritz Brekhimer of Trumbull County’s Cortland provided an anecdotal glimpse of the Ohio’s deer herd decline by saying this season he’s received only about 100 deer heads for mounting purposes.
“I usually see 150,” Brekhimer said.
And no one argued with Joel Reynolds of Delaware County who chimed in that the Wildlife Division must come up with a resolution to the state’s ever-expanding coyote population, an almost certain major factor in an ever-shrinking deer herd.
“I’d prefer to kill them all,” Reynolds said of the coyotes, not the deer.
Reynolds said too that a solution must be found before his nine-year-old son Caleb loses interest in deer hunting before he even graduates from apprentice hunter status to a legally licensed junior hunter, complete with having passing a hunter education course.
And thus the onus of what will percolate to the top when the Wildlife Division’s work-still-in-progress refined deer management unit strategy goes from concept stage to show-room model rests squarely with the agency; the bulk of the summit’s attendees appeared to share.
“(With) all of the issues we’ve talked about, we are here to remind the Ohio Division of Wildlife that you work for us,” said Dennis Malloy, an official with Whitetails Unlimited and himself a former agency wildlife officer.- Jeffrey L. Frischkorn
Jeff is the retired News-Herald reporter who covered the earth sciences, the area's three county park systems and the outdoors for the newspaper. During his 30 years with The News-Herald Jeff was the recipient of more than 100 state, regional and national journalism awards. He also is a columnist and features writer for the Ohio Outdoor News, which is published every other week and details the outdoors happenings in the state.