Photo Caption: This photo, submitted by an Athens NEWS reader, is of a deer in a backyard of an East State Street residence.
The white-tailed deer is a creature of incredible beauty. But it can also be destructive, and most local farmers are in no mood to celebrate the deer as Ohio's state animal.
Last year, 13 Athens County residents who filed deer-related complaints were granted deer-damage permits, which gave them permission to kill the animals on their land. Among those who filed complaints were farmers, as well as orchard and residential property owners.
For some, the deer problem is seasonal; for others, it's year-round.
Geoff Westerfield, a graduate student at the University of Wisconsin-Steven's Point, is trying to collect information from this Athens County group and other state permit holders in order to conduct a survey. Westerfield also is an assistant wildlife management supervisor at the Ohio Division of Wildlife, which, together with the Ohio Farm Bureau, is supporting his project.
Westerfield believes an update is needed because the last survey was taken in 2000. His survey will include non-farmers for the first time.
He said that in the past almost all deer-damage permits were issued to farmers who complained about harm to their crops. But with Ohio becoming more urbanized and the deer population continuing to grow, more non-farmers, park districts and cities have been applying for the permits because of destruction to landscaping and gardens, and loss of biodiversity.
"Wildlife damage management is a complicated balancing act between sportsmen, farmers, those that only like watching wildlife, and those living in residential areas," Westerfield said. "This is even more complicated by Ohio's varying landscapes ranging from the heavy agricultural areas of western Ohio to the hill country of southeastern Ohio and everything in between including large metropolitan areas."
The key question is, at what point do deer become a problem? Westerfield's goal is to determine if the Division of Wildlife should make any changes to the way it handles deer-damage complaints.
"The Division of Wildlife promotes non-lethal control of deer damage," said Susie Vance, a spokeswoman for the Ohio Department of Natural Resources. But "lethal removal of deer from a problem area" is allowed under certain circumstances.
When it does occur, hunting may be limited to certain hours and weapons – bow and arrow, for example.
Non-lethal control methods include repellants and fencing, as well as alternative-landscape plantings and harassment, such as the use of a barking dog.
The first step is for landowners to contact their county wildlife officer or the nearest ODNR district office. The officer or a wildlife specialist will go to the property to inspect the damage and offer assistance.
If needed, permits that allow "out-of-season culling of a limited number of deer" will be issued, according to Vance.
LENNY HANING HAS HAD PERMITS since 1999. Haning has a farm on Pleasanton Road near Athens, where he grows corn, alfalfa hay and wheat.
The deer invasion can be massive. Once, 65 animals reportedly were observed in one field.
"(The deer) take the best part of the (alfalfa) plant," Haning said. He estimated his crop losses at $20,000 each year.
Another area farmer, who preferred not to be named, said "it's almost impossible to get a good seeding" because of his deer problem.
He also expressed concern about deer passing along disease to his cattle, and pointed out that deer are a traffic hazard, causing many accidents, some of them fatal.
These two farmers have a lot of company, according to David Bright, president of the Ohio Farm Bureau in Athens County.
"I have seen smaller tracts (of corn, wheat and soybeans) in favorable habitat for deer, which reduced production in excess of 50 percent of their normal yield," Bright said.
Haning, who said the ODNR is responsible for letting the deer population get so high, was planning to fill out one of Westerfield's surveys.
Westerfield said his research "will help in better understanding the attitudes toward deer and deer-damage management throughout all of Ohio to allow the Division of Wildlife to provide the best assistance."
The surveys were mailed out at the beginning of the month. Westerfield plans to have the project completed early next year.