AKRON - In the span of three hours – duplicated twice – the Ohio Division of Wildlife reviewed the state’s deer management program’s past, examined its present, and then forged ahead to give Deer Summit attendees a peek at the playbill’s future.
Today - January 30th and eight days before the books were closed on Ohio’s all-inclusive 2015-2016 deer-hunting season picture – a troupe of Wildlife Division officials addressed a crowd of roughly 70 interested deer hunters, landowners and two Wildlife Council members in a morning’s worth of speaking and power-point presentations.
The same officials then repeated their agenda to a similar-sized group in the afternoon.
While the same process was held several days earlier in Columbus that presentation wasn’t exactly a bust though calling it a dud in terms of attendance would not be far off, either.
Combined, the two sessions at the Wildlife Division’s District Three headquarters in Akron saw an attendance rally roughly four times larger than it was for the Deer Summit scheduled held in Columbus.
Melding the past with the present, several agency speakers touched on any number of current hot-button issues. Among them were the computerized deer-check reporting system (a good thing), the status of Chronic Wasting Disease (a very bad thing), and the agency’s CWD surveillance efforts in Holmes County (another good thing).
As for the oft-times-lament by sportsmen of the maligned computerized deer-check system, Wildlife Division District One law enforcement supervisor Leighland Arehart pointed out that the deer-check process is easy on the successful hunter in a number of ways. Included is not having to rush around and find a check station that is still opened at night.
As for the system’s impact on the Wildlife Division; well, says Arehart, that’s all pretty positive, too.
“The system has been very good for us,” Arehart said. “It helps us by providing real-time data and access to that data, and we see far fewer data entry errors. It’s a more efficient system in saving time for our field officers.”
All of which saves sportsmen’s dollars, Arehart said.
Almost anticipating the sound of the “yes, but” wheels turning within the heads of at least some Deer Summit attendees, Arehart pointedly noted that while the computer-based deer-check system is hardly foolproof - “no system is,” he said – the fact remains that on-going assessments have determined that it is no more and no less inclined to result in cheating by hunters.
“If that were the case, our biologists would note some sort of (reporting error) trend but we’re not seeing anything that cannot be explained,” Arehart said.
Adding another nail to coffin that the computer-based system is not up to the challenge of thwarting cheating hunters, Arehart said that as a percentage, violations for improper tagging under the old deer check system accounted for almost 25 percent of all deer-hunting violations.
Under the current computerized system the ratio is, Arehart says, also about 25 percent.
“It’s a terrible misconception that the system does not work,” Arehart said.
In moving up to the present, the Wildlife Division’s deer management program administrator Mike Tonkovich noted that Ohio’s deer hunters enjoyed an overall good hunt in 2015-2016; maybe even one of the best in the past few years.
Though the final deer kill numbers weren’t known at the Akron Deer Summit due to the fact that eight days still remained in the archery season, Tonkovich was confident enough to say that a total deer harvest of around 187,000 animals is in store, which would represent an increase of six percent over the total kill recorded last year.
Several factors found their way into the increased deer kill; chief among them being a generally poor mast crop statewide. Without a hearty stock of acorns the deer – especially bucks – began frequenting bait sites placed by archery hunters, Tonkovich said.
Then too, said Tonkovich, nice weather and an early harvest of standing corn that deer typically use as sanctuaries helped see to it that animals became more vulnerable to the arrow and the slug this year.
“Everything worked in favor of the hunter ,” Tonkovich said. “But we may pay the price a little next season with a slightly smaller herd size.”
One item that Tonkovich made sure to address was the abandonment of the two-day mid-October antlerless-only/muzzle-loading-only deer-hunting season in favor of the two-day late- December general firearms deer-hunting season that was held this session.
The actual number of deer killed during the 2014 early muzzle-loading season was practically identical to 2015-2016’s two-day/ bonus gun deer hunt, Tonkovich said.
“So all it became was just a swap,” he said.
In the realm of the guessing-game of what’s in store in the way of laws, seasons, and such for the future, the near-term for 2016 will largely - if not, identically - mirror what deer hunters encountered this season past, said Mike Reynolds, the Wildlife Division’s point man on wildlife management when it comes to such critters as the white-tail deer and other forest game animals.
However, the Wildlife Division is poised to make a long-term change as to how the agency manages deer - and deer hunters - that puts even the flip to the computerized deer-check system a distant second in significance.
What the agency is moving towards is a deer management unit system instead of the present one that is based on population objectives for each of Ohio’s 88 counties.
Ultimately the Wildlife Division’s objective is for Ohio’s deer herd to get off the “roller coaster ride” of tough-to-manage high and low swings in animal numbers, Reynolds said.
“As an agency we’re going to form a committee on how to go down this path,” Reynolds said as how the Wildlife Division will formulate, refine and adopt a long-term deer-management strategy that will carry the program through 2030.
“We want to develop ‘adaptive harvest strategies,’ ” Reynolds said also.
Yet none of this can be accomplished without hearing from the Wildlife Division’s constituency groups, among them being the state’s farmers and who once were the only ones the agency surveyed.
Excluded were Ohio’s deer hunters but not anymore.
However, the silence on the part of these deer hunters has largely proven deafening. While the agency’s deer management policy and strategy survey of farmers has experienced a very good return rate the same cannot be said of those forms sent to hunters and then subsequently returned to the Wildlife Division.
“It’s been only 14 percent; that’s not very good,” Reynolds said in an understatement. “We need to hear from you (the hunters.)”
To which Petering agreed.
“Communication is vital and it needs to be on-going and two-way,” Petering said in a conversation before the summit session began. “We need to learn to understand each other, and that the information presented in such a way that the process is better stretched out so that we as an agency and hunters as our constituency have time to absorb the information and have input into the process.”
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.