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Pandemic brought out the hunters in 2020

ST. CLAIRSVILLE — The area has seen a rise in the popularity of hunting despite the COVID-19 pandemic.

Sgt. Tom DeVaul of the Belmont County Sheriff’s Department generally handles hunting and wildlife-related calls and took note of activities during 2020’s closing months. Youth deer gun season was held in November, followed by the regular week-long gun season that ended in early December. An extra weekend of gun hunting was held Dec. 19-20, and 2021 kicked off with the statewide muzzleloader season Jan. 2-5.

Archery season continues through Feb. 7.

According to Lindsay Rist, wildlife communications specialist with ODNR, 71,650 deer were harvested statewide during regular gun season; the three-year average was 65,500. In Belmont County, 1,237 deer were harvested compared to a three-year average of 1,169.

“We won’t have a projection for 2021 until this season is over and the harvest data can be compiled. But by looking at the harvest from the last three years and the current harvest numbers, things have been pretty consistent in Belmont County,” Rist said in an email.

DeVaul said the muzzleloader hunting period is traditionally a quieter part of the hunting season.

“Muzzleloader is kind of a down time. A lot of people, they bow hunt or they hunt during gun season. We really hadn’t handled anything,” he said. “ODNR was out in full force. You still have bow season going on for a few more weeks, and you have various small game hunting going on primarily ’til the end of February. That’s a good time, especially with youth.”

In addition, the weather has been largely decent for hunting.

“There’s plenty of opportunities still out there,” he said.

Active resident adult hunting license sales are up 6 percent compared to 2019 and resident deer permits are up 1 percent, while youth permits increased 7 percent and youth licenses 10 percent.

Everyone who buys a hunting license must provide proof of passing a hunter education course. While many in-person courses have been canceled, an online option is available through ODNR at ohiodnr.gov/wps/portal/gov/odnr/.

Another option is to buy an apprentice license and be accompanied by a licensed hunter who is 21 years old or older. The licensed hunter may not accompany more than two apprentices at the same time.

The public is also reminded to exercise proper hunter’s etiquette and abide by the law. DeVaul said his office was active responding to callers with wildlife complaints.

“We assist ODNR with backup and we will answer calls if they are unavailable. This covers a wide variety of wildlife offenses,” he said.

Primarily, these include calls of people hunting on private property without written permission, trespassing and hunting from a vehicle using a searchlight, as well as hunting deer, turkey and other game without tags.

DeVaul said the volume of calls is unchanged.

“It’s been about an average year,” he said. “To my knowledge, we had no one who was injured while hunting or anything like that, as far as I know, ODNR here in our county didn’t handle anything separate from what we would assist them with.”

“I’ve noticed on my professional and personal level, I don’t see a lot of new people coming into it this year. There are some, but it seemed like everyone had more time to do it this year. People were not working, or there’s not a lot of things to do this year.”

He said people were spending more time spent outdoors, particularly with children during youth season.

“There was definitely more time and effort put into everyone’s hunting this year,” he said.

DeVaul said deer harvest numbers seemed consistent with those of past years. He is optimistic about what hunting in 2021 will bring. He said while the spring turkey populations are down, other game are plentiful.

“Deer populations are booming. We’ve made a rebound from a few years ago when we had that (chronic wasting) disease that eliminated a good bit of the population in some areas,” he said. “Everything is looking really good for 2021.”

DeVaul has led a hunter safety course that could not go forward in 2020 because of the pandemic, but he intends to bring the course back this year if possible.

“As soon as ODNR allows the instructors to teach, we are going to be having another hunter’s ed class, and we’ve had a very large demand with our class, so it’s possible we may do two classes as soon as we’re allowed,” he said. “It’s a great class. The big thing is there are organizations out there that will help you if you have any questions.”

He mentioned the National Wild Turkey Foundation, Ducks Unlimited, Whitetails Unlimited as examples.

“They all have youth and mentoring programs, and even for adults. If someone wants to pick up on it and try it, you can come to our class or go through those organizations. There’s a wealth of information to be given out,” he noted.

ODNR Wildlife Officer Brian Postlewait is also happy with the turnout.

“We had an increase in participation, an increase in fishing and hunting this year. Being outdoors was pretty much encouraged from the start of the COVID,” he said. “Getting outside and being socially distant, and it seemed people took advantage of that opportunity, whether it was they weren’t working or they had more time off work or if they just wanted to get out of the house. We saw families out. In spite of all the bad stuff going on it was nice to see people taking advantage of going outdoors.”

He hopes the trend will continue as families may choose to remain involved in outdoor activities.

“Our wildlife populations are very good in our area,” Postlewait noted.

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