Tuesday, December 12, 2006

OHIO NEWS: Farmers Call for 50% Reduction in Deer Population


Even after hunters killed about 112,000 deer during a full week of gun season, it’s not enough for the Ohio Farm Bureau Federation.

The group that represents Ohio farm interests plans to push state officials to cut the current deer herd of about 500,000 in half, the level of about two decades ago.

Because deer damage crops and cause hundreds of crashes on the state’s roadways, the farm bureau wants the herd to number no more than 250,000, said Keith Stimpert, the bureau’s senior vice president of public policy.

"It’s what we will work toward in the coming year by working with the (Ohio) Division of Wildlife, legislators and others," Stimpert said.

The proposal came during the bureau’s recent annual meeting in Columbus and signals an increasing frustration among its 225,000 members, 55,000 of whom are farmers. "I have met with farmers, and they sometimes have severe damage," said Dave Risley, the wildlife division’s executive administrator of wildlife management and research.

A Cornell University report says deer damage to crops and motor vehicles annually exceeds $2 billion, including $1.1 billion in damage to crops, timber and landscape plantings. In 2005, crashes involving deer killed nine people and injured 941 others on state roads, the State Highway Patrol reported this year.

The state has maintained a pre-hunting-season herd of about 600,000 for the past several years. A significant reduction in the herd won’t sit well with some wildlife enthusiasts, especially some hunters.

"We would not support" the farm bureau proposal, said Larry Mitchell Sr., a deer hunter and president of the League of Ohio Sportsmen, an umbrella organization for scores of hunting, fishing and conservation groups.

Not only would reducing the herd by such proportions be difficult, it also isn’t likely to solve many farmers’ troubles, which are local, Risley said.

"One of the problems is, (the farm bureau) gets too hung up on statewide population numbers," Risley said. "We don’t really have a statewide population policy. We adjust by county."

Deer-hunting regulations divide the state into zones. As many as three deer may be taken each season in deer-heavy counties, and additional deer may be taken in certain urban areas, including Franklin and southern Delaware counties.

Maryland has tried to deal with an increasing deer population by increasing the bag limit. Hunters there are allowed to kill more of the animals than ever before — up to three dozen apiece.

Ohio regulations encourage the killing of does, a strategy to keep the deer population in check. Further, the wildlife division issues special permits that allow landowners to eradicate nuisance deer outside the hunting season.

As the deer population in Ohio has grown from a relative handful of animals 60 years ago, bag limits have been liberalized and seasons extended to allow more hunting, but nothing like in Maryland.

Farm bureau members aren’t satisfied.

"We’re not sure we have it under control," Stimpert said. "What is the right number of deer needs to be determined." Yet the state’s sportsmen seem unlikely to agree that 250,000 is the right number.

About 500,000 hunters, an increasing number of whom come from other states, are expected to take about 210,000 deer this year. The state extended shotgun hunting by two days this year — this Saturday and Sunday. The statewide muzzleloader season will be Dec. 27-30, and archery season remains open until Feb. 4.

Cutting the herd in half likely would discourage hunters or send them elsewhere as they vie for fewer deer. In recent years, one deer has been harvested for about every 2 1 /2 permits sold, a ratio that has been improving steadily for hunters since the lean times of 1965, when one in 31 hunters was successful.

The wildlife division estimates that deer hunting generates $266 million annually. Stimpert said he is aware that deer attract hunters and their dollars.

"The question is, what is the population level that can still attract hunters?" he said. "How can we grow that side of it and yet have some control of the population? "

Risley said the division looks for ways to minimize damage by wildlife, particularly by deer, because they are large, hungry and numerous in some areas. But changing land use in the state since World War II has helped create prime deer habitat.

The proliferation of small parcels developed for housing and off limits to both hunting and agriculture create deer nurseries. About 250,000 Ohioans live on or own 10 acres or less within the state’s forested deer country, Risley said. Farmers with deer problems could be helped significantly if such land, often posted with no-hunting or notrespassing signs, could be made accessible to hunters with guns or bows.

Mike Budzik, a former wildlife chief who lobbies for sportsmen’s issues, said it’s unclear whether a solution will be found, but he noted that the farm bureau and the wildlife division have worked out compromises before. It appears that the bureau is sending a "friendly shot across the bow," he said, indicating it might be time to revisit the deer issue. And the bureau is too influential to ignore, he said.

"They are the E.F. Hutton of lobby groups in Ohio," he said. "When the farm bureau speaks, legislators listen."

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