Cpl. Paul Brown of the Department of Natural Resources Police expects to be working overtime for the next few weeks, patrolling Harford County's back roads. He'll be looking for the tell-tale sign of a spotlight playing across an open field -- an illegal activity in most Maryland counties.
Brown will coordinate his effort with a half-dozenadditional DNR officers patrolling the area. Another team will patrol the county in a light plane.
Why are DNR police concerned about lights shining on open fields at night?
The answer is jacklighting, or illegally hunting deer atnight with the aid of lights.
DNR police say they've had a substantial increase in complaints of jacklighting, a serious offense with stiff penalties. According to a recent state report, more than 135 cases were reported statewide last year, and the number is rapidly increasing. Under current law, it is illegal to cast rays of artificial light on woods, fields and orchards in most counties.
In Harford, aperson may cast rays of artificial light until 9 p.m. solely for thepurpose of observing or photographing wildlife. However, it is illegal to be in the possession of any weapon while engaged in those activities.
Someone convicted of jacklighting is subject to a fine of $2,000 or less, or imprisonment for not more than six months, or both.Those convicted lose their hunting licenses for a period of two to five years.
Spotlights, firearms and vehicles used in the offense may be confiscated and, on conviction, disposed of by the state.
Jacklighting is a serious problem that has increased dramatically in Harford County over the past year, says Brown.
"I've had more calls this year than I can ever recall," said the 25-year DNR veteran.
Brown attributes much of the illegal deer hunting to problems with thelocal and national economy.
"Whenever the economy gets tight, deer represents extra meat illegal hunters can put on the table or extramoney they can make by selling the meat," he said.
Brown said Harford County's deer herd seems to be growing, despite the illegal hunting.
"The first year (1966) I worked for DNR, 33 deer were checkedat Harford County weighing stations," recalls Brown. "Harford's essentially a bedroom county. People figure in order to go hunting, you must travel to Western Maryland or the Eastern Shore -- anywhere but right in their own back yard."
Hunters bagged 34,200 white-tailed deer during Maryland's 1989-1990 regular firearms season, exceeding the previous year's record by nearly 10,000 deer.
Record harvest levels were also noted during archery and special muzzle-loader seasons.Although there was a substantial increase, DNR biologists felt this will not have an adverse effect on the overall population during the 1991-1992 seasons.
In Harford County, 1,851 whitetails were baggedlast year. However, it's possible another 500 deer were illegally taken by county jacklighters, says Brown.
Harford and neighboring Baltimore County deer populations more than doubled in the last decade.In some regions, deer are considered too numerous and are frequentlyblamed for extensive crop depredation.
DNR biologist Josh Sandt estimates that 35 percent to 40 percent of Maryland's 150,000 deer must be harvested annually to maintain a stable population. Sandt said that this year, hunters could possibly see a small decrease in the number of bucks and a slight increase in the number of does.
"I thinkmost large deer in both Harford and Baltimore County are a product of mild winters, low hunting pressure, decreased animal stress and excellent nutrition. The deer usually come through the winter in excellent condition. Therefore, they don't have to go through a body rebuilding process in the spring. Consequently, their body can devote 100 percent of its energy into antler development and reproduction," said Sandt.
"The entire nutritional plane of deer improved substantiallyover the past decade. We've seen this in reproduction more than anything else. We're to the point where more than half of the fawns now breed. That's the reason we're seeing a tremendous increase in deer populations. More than 50 percent of the deer are fawns, and half are females."
In the past, he notes, they didn't reproduce until the following year. However, because of increased nutrition, most fawns weigh 70 to 80 pounds. By fall, the end of their first year, they're giving birth to single fawns.
Changes in agricultural practice by local farmers also play an important role in the overall health and development of the deer herds. Ten years ago, farmers burned off pasturesand didn't lime or fertilize in a systematic way. "They added a little of this and that, if the crops looked as though they needed it," said Sandt.
Now, the biologist says, farmers sample the vegetation and quickly determine what type of nutrients are needed. Everything the deer consume is highly nutritious. Deer are going to be in better shape because of improvements in agriculture.
Deer eat and enjoy just about anything farmers grow, notes Sandt.
If you suspect someone is poaching or spotlighting deer or other wild game, call the DNR police "Catch a Poacher" hot line at (800) 635-6124, 24 hours a day.