ANNAPOLIS -- The four public hearings held last week on proposed hunting and trapping regulations for 1992-1993 were attended by perhaps more than 900 interested citizens, which is an astounding number.
But at three of the Department of Natural Resources hearings, those in attendance experienced something that may have been more astounding: A work-group process that ensured that everyone who showed up got to express their views for the record.
In previous years, the hearing process has been a series of hit-or-miss affairs where proposed regulations, bag limits and season dates were read off and followed by a period for public comment. During the comment period, those among the 30 or 35 hunters or non-hunters in attendance with the loudest voices and longest speeches often were the only ones heard.
At Loch Raven High School in Towson (225-250 people in attendance), the District Court Multi-Purpose Center in Salisbury (235-250) and the Tawes State Office Building here (110-125) last week, this new work-group process proved to be effective and expedient.
The Western Maryland meeting in Savage drew from 250 to 300, but DNR officials said the proceedings became chaotic before work-group sessions could be started.
The cause of the interest and unrest was a list of possible options for increasing Maryland's deer kill, including an expanded, two-week firearms season, a two-day hunt in January for antlerless deer in select regions, or an early muzzleloader season on private lands for antlerless deer.
Eight work groups were selected randomly, as each person was assigned a number from one to eight on arrival.
Each work group discussed the options, voted on how to rank them as priorities, selected a spokesman or spokeswoman and made a report to the full meeting.
During the discussion period, each member of each group was required to speak, even if only to say that they did not wish to say anything.
Wildlife Division biologists were available to each group to answer questions and to stimulate discussion.
In effect, these work groups were an orderly way to get complete comment, a chance for every citizen -- hunter, non-hunter, anti-hunter -- to speak out, which they did.
Four of the groups in the Annapolis hearing, for example, favored the two-day January season; three favored the two-week firearms season; and one favored the early muzzleloader season.
Wildlife Division officials who attended all four meetings said that, in the three with work groups, the two-day January season and the two-week firearms season are clearly the people's choices, but too close at this point to determine which is favored. The early muzzleloader season lags far behind.
According to work-group leaders, there are three major problems with an early muzzleloader season: It would be in direct conflict with the height of the bow season; it might result in a dramatic increase in muzzleloader hunters and in effect become an early firearms season; and increased hunting activity so close to the rut might change the pattern of deer through the rest of the seasons.
The advantage of the two-day January hunt, group leaders said, is that it would come after all but the tail end of bow season and presumably after the bulk of the deer kill had been made, allowing for a clear evaluation of hunters' impact on the deer population.
A January hunt also could be tailored to regions where the harvest did not reach a quota.
The two-week firearms season would offer more hunting opportunity for the largest segment of the state's 120,000 or so licensed deer hunters. If the two-week season were implemented, it would include three Saturdays, when most people are off from work.
There is a possibility that more than one of the options might be implemented this year.
"We are almost mandated to put in one or two of these options this year," said Joshua Sandt, director of the Wildlife Division.
In Western Maryland, Sandt said, the hearing was so chaotic that no clear preference could be established -- except that perhaps people in that part of the state wanted no change at all.
The contention of a Western Maryland contingent at the Annapolis meeting is that Garrett County in particular is not overrun with deer, as is the case in much of the rest of the state.
Sandt said that the assessment by Garrett County hunters is not without merit.
"What we have probably done a little quicker in Western Maryland than we have in the rest of the state is brought the population down," Sandt said. "So they [the hunters] have seen the response and they are attributing a decline in the population to eliminating the population."