AKRON — This year, the Ohio Division of Wildlife changed its annual one-day, late-winter open houses at its five district offices to a week-long invitation for sportsmen to visit the offices, meet with staff and discuss wildlife management issues that were on their minds. And while the effectiveness of the change is still open for discussion, the thought process for the "thinking outside the box" change is part of the Division’s new strategy.

"We’re not throwing darts at the wall," said Scott Angelo, the manager of the Division of Wildlife’s District Three office in Akron. "But, we’re trying to think differently. If we don’t, we’re never going to be able to survive."

For decades, state wildlife agencies across America have operated under the seven principles of the North American model of Wildlife Conservation, and will continue to do so. But, it’s growing undeniably clear that the "user pay" aspect of wildlife management is not going to be able to fund wildlife management going forward.

Ohio, and many other states, is constantly looking for ways to generate more money, and more opportunities for all who enjoy the outdoors, not just the hunters and fishermen. Campers, hikers, birders, bikers — and many more — benefit from from conservation practices of the Ohio Department of Natural Resources, and to that end, the state is looking for ways to encourage them to help foot the bill.

"Every wildlife agency across the country is trying to be relevant in this society," said Angelo. "People who hunt and fish know what we’re doing, and who we are. But, there are 9 1/2 million people in the (Ohio) who don’t know who we are."

To that end, the Ohio Division of Wildlife is reaching out to groups who "believe in conservation" in an effort to partner with them. In fact, during the Christmas Bird Count, Ohio Division of Wildlife staff tried to attend as many of the birding events as possible throughout the state as an opening gesture. Even Gov. Mike DeWine will be doing his part this spring as he will be attending a migration event.

"Our mission is to conserve and improve wildlife resources for ALL Ohioans," said Angelo. "We need to get support from people other than hunters and fishermen."

Right here in our own backyard is a perfect example of just what Angelo is talking about. The Killbuck Marsh Wildlife Area is not only public land available for hunting and fishing managed by the Division of Wildlife, but is one of the premier birding spots in Ohio, and the country. In fact, this past fall when nearly 500 sandhill cranes called the marsh home, the Division of Wildlife posted it on social media, and birders flocked in locally — and from surrounding states — to see the phenomenon.

"For the past six years, we’ve been seeing the sandhill crane numbers build," said Dennis Solon, manager of the KMWA. "To see that many fly in was really spectacular."

Solon, his staff and the Division of Wildlife have been working on a major spring project on the marsh, and the warm water that now flows from the spring creates sort of a delta, which is the perfect habitat for sandhill cranes to roost at.

"The changes we’ve made at the refuge, where there’s minimal disturbance, has made it a great place for sandhill cranes, tundra swans and trumpeter swans," said Solon.

Let’s not forget that there are several ways to support the ODNR without buying a hunting or fishing license, including purchasing a Wildlife Legacy Stamp, making a donation on your Ohio Income Tax form, or purchasing a wildlife license plate. There are seven different license plate themes (Sportsman, Conservation, Lake Erie, Forestry, Scenic River, Natural Areas and State Parks), and 11 plates to chose from, where $15 of your purchase goes directly to that program. Historically, though, those monies add up to just a small piece of the pie when it comes to the ODNR budget.

OPEN HOUSE BURNING ISSUES — The top topic at the District Three Open House as of Thursday morning was the proposed changes to coyote hunting and trapping, which Angelo said had already been pulled and will not be sent to the Ohio Wildlife Council for consideration.

One proposal that did get some discussion was the change to allowing small game hunting during the deer gun season. It’s already allowed during the bonus gun season. The key component of the proposal is more opportunity for the small game hunter.

And finally, the proposal to open the 2021 spring wild turkey season on a Saturday instead of a Monday is another attempt at giving the hunter more opportunities.

DEER SEASON — Proposed deer bag limits remain the same in Ashland, Holmes and Wayne counties, but will drop from 3 to 2 in Belmont, Gallia, Harrison, Hocking, Jackson, Lawrence, Monroe, Muskingum, Perry, Vinton and Washington; from 2 to 1 in Clinton, Fayette and Pickaway; and jump from 2 to 3 in Butler, Defiance, Erie, Fulton, Hancock, Henry, Montgomery, Ottawa, Paulding, Sandusky, Williams and Wood.

Outdoor correspondent Art Holden can be reached at aholden@the-daily-record.com