By Doug Graves
COLUMBUS, Ohio – In 2014, the Kentucky General Assembly passed House Bill 448, an act relating to destruction of crops on farms by wildlife. The chief culprit in this case is deer.
This bill allowed landowners, their spouses, dependent children, or their designees to kill or trap on their lands any wildlife causing damage to their lands without a tag.
All this came to pass because of the enormous losses farmers were incurring due to wildlife damage to their crops, particularly from deer but other animals as well such as turkey, raccoons and occasionally bears. The battle against deer and other animals is ongoing.
Regardless of what animal is causing damages, farmers lose money each year from these wildlife damages.
Kentucky Farm Bureau President Mark Haney said he thinks some crop damage is inevitable due to these animals looking for food sources, but striking a balance between wildlife habitat and agricultural production could be key to helping to ease some of these issues.
“As an orchard owner, we are constantly seeing damage to our crops caused by wildlife and to an extent we have accepted some of this,” Haney said. “But, due to increases in wildlife populations that have become more accustomed to being around humans, we need to continually look for ways to help our farm families alleviate some of this damage.”
Kevin Smith, a corn and soybean producer from Shelby County in Kentucky, farms acreage in multiple counties including his family’s farm in Franklin County. He has long had issues with wildlife damage to his crops, some of which are in areas close to subdivisions.
Knowing that hunting in some of these places may be difficult, he turned to some old school technology to help ward off the deer which have turned portions of his crops into dinner buffets. He used scarecrows in certain areas to scare the deer away, but with deer populations so big his efforts were futile. He even tried attaching dryer sheets to the scarecrows, hoping the deer would avoid the scent.
Last year he suffered about $50,000 in crop revenue due to the damage by the deer. This year may be no different.
In Ohio, authorities blame the loss of crops to an over-abundance of deer and not enough hunters to control the population. In short, a familiar trend is redeveloping. Damage to crops, landscapes and native plants, deer-vehicle accidents and even the spread of Lyme disease are likely to escalate each year unless deer numbers can be kept in check.
“It’s likely we’ll see a harvest of deer about 5 to 10 percent higher than last year,” said Mike Tonkovich, longtime whitetail specialist with the Ohio Division of Wildlife.
Hunters in Ohio checked 210,977 deer during the archery, youth, gun and muzzleloader seasons a year ago. That marked the first time since 2012 hunters delivered a count surpassing 200,000.
In Ohio, farmers have looked for help from their local wildlife officers who grant control permits to assist with this problem.
“I hear more and more people complain about deer damage,” said Thomas Harker, research assistant at the Ohio State University South Centers office in Piketon, Ohio. “I would say the deer pressure in the ag community has increased greatly. Many Ohio farmers have erected seven-foot high fences around their crops just to keep the deer out of the crops. I can tell you that the outer fringe of our corn research crops down here in Piketon have been picked clean by the deer.”
Farmers at Valley View Turkey Farm in Butler County make use of sound cannons to scare away predators.
“Those tactics are typically used in berry crops to keep birds away,” Harker said. “But eventually, like most tactics, the animals get used to it. We’ve had some farmers who use certain scents that they can spray on the ground, hoping that will deter the deer. But with the first rain it’s gone and they’re back to square one.”
Tonkovich said damage control permits were up more than 35 percent.
Les Seiler, who in a partnership farms 1,650 acres of soybeans, corn, wheat, barley for malt and alfalfa in Fayette County, Ohio, believes another component has exacerbated deer problems for farmers.
“We’ve always had deer damage, but the level is more extreme this year, and I believe it’s because of the loss of 1,000 acres to a fenced-in solar array that took their habitat away,” Seiler said. “I’m not against solar or green energy, but this project seemed to be rushed through without regard for long-term consequences.”
The 134-megawatt solar farm is just west of Toledo.
Ohio had a total of 289,000 licensed hunters in 2022, 71,000 fewer than in 2011. The numbers of hunters in Indiana and Kentucky are down from five years ago.
“We’re going to have to make some radical changes if we don’t start making some adjustments to the way we approach deer and deer management,” Tonkovich said. “We’ve got a lot of things working against successful deer management right now. It’s rather bleak. It’s nothing short of a crisis unfolding, and we have legitimate concern.”
And those in the Hoosier State are not immune to deer damage. Deer are a common sight in Indiana, but that used to not be the case.
According to the Indiana Department of Natural Resources (DNR), the last reported wild deer in Indiana died in 1893, leaving deer essentially extirpated in Indiana at the time.
Joe Caudell, a state deer biologist with the DNR, said the Indiana deer population became virtually nonexistent due to unregulated hunting.
“At one point, there were no limitations on how many deer a person could take,” Caudell said.
The lack of deer in Indiana became normal until the DNR purchased deer from other states to release into the wild during the 1930s and early 1940s. According to the DNR, by 1943, there was an estimated 900 wild deer in Indiana.
In 1951, the DNR held the first deer hunting season in Indiana in 58 years, and the DNR continued to release and relocate deer across the state in order to increase the natural population.
The deer population started to bloom in the 1970s and 1980s, with the annual deer harvest jumping from nearly 9,000 to over 32,000 from 1975 to 1985.
“Species like deer grow very slowly for a few years to start with, and their populations then grow a nearly exponential rate for a short amount of time, and then they will plateau again,” Caudell said.
Beginning in the early 1990s, the DNR worked to limit deer populations in certain counties due to concerns about crop damage and deer-vehicle collisions.
Caudell said that while Indiana has a supply of deer that is “far more” than the current demand from hunters, he also stressed that there is not an overabundance of deer in Indiana, despite what some Hoosiers may think.
“Deer will only grow to the population size that they can fit within a habitat, and so people may think we have too many deer,” Caudell said.