Is Ohio's Big Buck Potential Decreasing?
The number of record bucks per harvest is decreasing. I regularly follow the state's announcements and studies that are released as they monitor and make changes to hunting or fishing and this one stood out. I was surprised to see that the deer management strategies were focused around economic and social roots rather than biological ones. Here's the quote:
...social tolerances for deer, rather than biological considerations have largely driven individual county deer population goals. However, our deer program goal was written when Ohio’s deer herd was small and high quality habitat was everywhere.
As a biology educator I'm going to break down their findings and try to present them, heres the link if you want to skip to the actual study. Quality Vs. Quantity: A Closer Look at Deer Herd conditions in Ohio.
A Healthy Herd
The study analyzed several bits of data, one of interest to me was the population fitness. In biology a population's fitness level is how capable the females (does) are at reproducing. The state established the data above by counting roadkill does and tallying pregnant does as well as examining the reproductive health of pregnant and non-pregnant samples. The correlation found is that as far as pregnancy rates go the northwest portion of the state (lowest population, highest amount of farmland) exceeded by nearly double the amount of those found in the hills of the southern portion of the state. This is probably based on easy to find forage (farming fields) and better, less crowded habitat, the reproductive advantage goes to the northwest portion of Ohio.
The healthy herd includes a wide range of genetic diversity and high biomass. Full coats and advanced body growth only happen when resources are met, getting high nutrition plentiful food is the best way to keep the herd local and body size growing.
Looking at the extended data below, you can still see these changes but note the timelines of sampling. The impact was much more subtle which is why it's commonly overlooked.
I'm not one to say that our white tail population is anywhere near low, we're over populated and it's population ecology 101.
The immense population is strained due to a lack of resources. The lack of forage and good habitat causes the population to make changes as the carrying capacity is reached. The double edged sword for the whitetail is also one of it's best attributes. They've adapted well to urbanization. Instead of lacking resources and simply not surviving like a cold water trout colony the whitetail population bends and adapts to the resources at hand which includes smaller biomass, browsing the suburban backyards, and existing in urban settings. The whitetail deer is a resilient bunch...
What it Means for Trophy Hunters
In the body, any nutrients consumed first go to the most important bodily functions; antler growth isn't one of the top functions. For deer to reach their potential they need to forage on high nutritional resources. Keep in mind the northwest portion of the state is sparsely populated and contains much of the state's agricultural fields. Since 1973 yearling antler growth has only slightly declined in Ohio northwest areas whereas other quadrants of Ohio have seen a larger decline. This is in part to growing cities and urbanization as well as a growing deer population.
One last bit of data and to me probably speaks volumes over the topic is the frequency of record bucks taken here in Ohio; as you can probably guess those numbers have vastly diminished partly due to over population as well as hunter bias. In the early 70's and through the 90's trophy hunting was popular and since the resources and habitat were abundant we couldn't take mounters fast enough, but I believe we may have passed that point. Take a look below.
This chart should alarm you somewhat. It basically reads that though population has doubled the frequency of record book bucks have declined by nearly half. It's somewhat misleading because we still produce the same amount and average size records but on a much lower frequency. As written above a large portion of that is due to over-population on limited and shrinking resources, but the other half is hunter bias. As we deliberately pass on smaller bucks and harvest larger ones we are narrowing the gene pool, but in the wrong direction. Hunting smaller bucks and "managing" herds have become popular but the rate of population growth and habitat decline is accelerating much faster than making management harvests. A lot of guys like me have to hunt the public lands so it's an "every man for himself" philosophy, if you get a chance at a mounter most take it.
Everyone wants to harvest the big buck. I can't say I'm any different. But maybe it's time to stop ignoring biological data and make room for long term improvement. I know I'll never forget the morning the tall 10 point bucked walked out, and our grandchildren need to experience that as well. Everyone needs at least one mounter but maybe we should congratulate the larger doe's a bit more and graciously pass the torch to a younger generation.
If you really want the full picture check out the link to the actual article published by clicking here.