YOUNGSTOWN, Ohio (WKBN) – If you think you’ve been seeing more deer over the last several years, you would be right. The deer population in Ohio is growing and we are seeing it here in Northeast Ohio.
What is considered overpopulated changes by county, according to the Ohio Department of Natural Resources, and some areas are worse than others.
According to the National Parks Service and Cuyahoga Valley National Park, we went from deer almost disappearing from Ohio in the early 1900s to reestablishment in the 1930s and then an overpopulation by the 1960s that is still happening today.
Assistant Wildlife Management Supervisor Geoffrey Westerfield with the Ohio Department of Natural Resources said “social tolerance” is really the agency’s barometer on whether the deer population is a nuisance or an asset. It comes down to residents, farmers and hunters.
“How we manage is through social tolerances. That’s our primary driver. We take a look at surveying the hunters and what the hunters are saying on the landscape. And in general, hunters would like to see more deer, but not always. Periodically, that can change. On the flip side, we survey farmers to take a look at what they feel like the deer population is. In general, farmers would like to see less deer, but that’s not always the case. A lot of farmers will hunt or have people on their property that hunt and will have more tolerance with the number of deer in their area. We take a look at those two things, and we try to balance those two items out,” Westerfield said.
Social tolerance, impact on the forest and damage are the three considerations. It’s something Mill Creek Park is looking at right now. Its deer population is exploding. Mill Creek MetroParks average 387 deer per square mile. Those numbers are staggering and the solution is not easy. One answer is culling or killing the deer. It’s a conversation that’s happening now between park officials and the public it serves.
“We see all these park districts, and it’s interesting with Mill Creek going down this path, now. They are one of the few park districts that don’t manage deer. A lot of other park districts have gone down this path, and people within that particular county have understood that yeah, we probably need to do something and that the park district is doing it in the best interest. It’s not just to simply kill deer. They are doing it for a reason because deer are having impacts,” Westerfield said.
Mill Creek has been talking with ODNR for the past couple of years. It’s something that’s been on its radar for a while. Research has shown that deer begin to adversely affect their natural surroundings at 10 to 20 deer per square mile. Westerfield said a good number for them is 20.
“We are looking at that social tolerance level not necessarily density. Density gives us a rough guess of where we want to be,” he said. “The deer population has been increasing slowly over the past several years. We continue to modify our regulations to keep it at that social tolerance mark, but sometimes we do better in some counties than others with that goal. In general, the population has been going up and we would like to see that come down a little bit.”
Parma Heights is tackling its deer problem. According to our sister station WJW, the police department formed its own deer culling unit. A couple of sharpshooting hunters on the force go out at night and harvest the deer. They are looking to take 55 deer this year, and there is a list of 300 people who have signed up to take the carcasses for processing.
Those deer culling programs are regulated by the Ohio Department of Natural Resources Division of Wildlife through a special permit called “deer damage permitting.” ODNR does not participate in animal culling but only provides the regulatory permitting to allow it. So an entity or land owner would need to arrange that service on their own. The USDA can help with that or other personnel approved by ODNR.
The deer numbers managed by ODNR are mostly compiled by hunting statistics. Westerfield said hunters bag 170,000 to 200,000 deer every year. Trumbull County is among the top spots for hunters.
You can track the deer population numbers by the bag limit. That limit in Trumbull, Mahoning and Columbiana counties is three. The highest allowed is four, and that is in Franklin, Hamilton, Lucas, Cuyahoga and Summit counties, according to 2023-2024 deer hunting regulations proposed by ODNR. Hunters can go from county to county, but they can only bag a total of six.
The top 10 counties for deer harvested during the 2021-2022 deer season include:
- Coshocton (7,144)
- Tuscarawas (6,303)
- Muskingum (5,331)
- Knox (5,290)
- Licking (5,244)
- Ashtabula (5,193)
- Guernsey (5,104)
- Holmes (4,905)
- Carroll (4,197)
- Trumbull (3,994)
ODNR wants to up the bag limit from two to three for the 2023-2024 season for the following counties:
ODNR also wants to reduce the bag limit from three to two in Butler County. So you can see how the hunting season and social tolerance play a significant role in how ODNR counts and manages the state’s deer population.
Hunters are critical, but Westerfield acknowledges that the sport is trending down. It shows in the declining number of hunting licenses that are issued year after year. Deer permit sales for 2020-2021 were down more than 34% from a peak in 2009.
Jeff Murray is the president of the Trumbull County Rod and Gun Club. He has also seen waning interest in hunting by young people. He blames the culture.
“Kids nowadays seem to be more in-house. When I was a kid on weekends, my parents would say go outside. Now, it’s go to your room and play video games. They aren’t outside and doing things,” Murray said.
The club sponsors several free programs every year that involve hunting and fishing with kids. It also offers a free hunter education class. Murray said the kids love it, but he would like to see more participation.
The interest in hunting isn’t the only problem. Murray said that the land hunters use is being taken away in large parcels, and that’s impacting the sport.
“A lot stems from hunting access. More farmers, more private land owners not letting people hunt. Developers buying up woodlands where people used to hunt, and now they can’t,” he said.
If the hunters are gone, who will thin the herd?
“At some point, we all agree there is going to be a plateau. Where that is is yet to be seen. We haven’t got to that point. Who knows what the future holds,” Westerfield said.
Murray and his gun club are willing to help. He said they would be happy to help out a farmer or a park manage its population.
“Anything we can do to help. If you help the farmers, they help you. By all means, our club would be happy to help and donate the meat,” Murray said.