Maryland deer hunting is suddenly wide-open Regulations eased as herd proliferates

November 22, 1992|By Peter Baker | Peter Baker,Staff Writer

In Maryland, 120,000 deer hunters will take part in the bow, firearms and muzzleloader seasons this fall and winter. Along the way, they will drop well in excess of $50 million into the state economy.

And perhaps neither the days in the field nor the dollars spent will result in a deer kill that will meet the overriding need of the state's wildlife managers -- the reduction and stabilization of the deer herd.

On Saturday, Maryland opens a two-week firearms season for white-tailed deer with regulations that encourage hunters to take antlerless deer.

Both the length of the season and the aim the Department of Natural Resources would prefer hunters to take would have been unheard of 40 years ago. But back then there were few deer in Maryland. Now there are too many.

Many people from the edges of the metropolitan areas to the wooded tracts that border farmlands across the state often refer to the white-tail as a problem. Deer in the rose bushes, the orchard, the corn or the beans -- a nuisance.

"I would like to think of the situation more as an opportunity," said Josh Sandt, director of DNR's Wildlife Division, "an opportunity to have more hours of recreation, to pump a few more dollars into the economy and to be able to manage the species through sport hunting."

It is an opportunity that the hunters in this state are fortunate to have, because it was not always so.

"What most people don't realize with the deer herd is that it has only been in recent years that we have seen this phenomenal growth," Sandt said. "And you can ask why, why do we have this big change in the whole biology of deer?

"I am not sure that we really know the answers."

But Sandt and Ed Golden, forest wildlife program manager, agree that the evolution of the situation is as follows:

After the end of World War II, in the late 1940s or early 1950s, Maryland moved a few dozen deer off Aberdeen Proving Ground and began restocking the state with white-tails, all of which apparently were the product of five deer that had been brought to the military base from a game farm in Pennsylvania.

Initially, as with any genetically closed population, the new deer were small in stature, light in weight and their reproductive rate was less than optimal -- although apparently the deer weren't lacking in initiative.

In the years since, Maryland's deer have adapted well, and from those few dozen has grown a herd that numbers between 160,000 and 200,000.

"Our deer mixed with Delaware deer, mixed with Virginia deer, mixed with Pennsylvania deer," Sandt said, "and just all up and down the East Coast you had this genetic mixing, which gives them what we call hybrid vigor. . . . the addition of some new genetic material that made them more adaptable to the situations they were facing."

At the same time, farming methods changed over the past few decades. Fields and pastures no longer were burned off to clear them for new growth. Instead, agriculture was intensively managed by lime and fertilizer.

The changes resulted in the deer getting a jump start on their growth patterns, because there was a continual supply of food rather than a period when the fields were in transition and barren.

"So, the females were in better shape," Sandt said, "and being in better shape were able to produce twins. . . . Rather than the singles we had 20 or 30 years ago.

"Today, twins are the rule, triplets aren't that uncommon and we have even seen quadruplets. Nutrition is that good."

According to DNR check station surveys, 80- and 90-pound button bucks are common, and if the young bucks are that big, then the does of similar age are 60 or 70 pounds and able to breed.

DNR wildlife biologists say that, in fact, 50 percent or more of the fawns in Maryland breed.

"So we are seeing a deer population today which, if we look at the male-female ratios, can double in a year," Sandt said. "And that is just about what you have seen over the past 10 years.

"From the population that we have in, say, February or March, when they drop that crop of fawns we will have doubled the population."

The female-male ratio, Golden figures, is as high as 4 to 1 in many parts of the state and even greater in a few areas.

The reason for the unusual ratio is a preference among hunters for antlered deer, a tendency that has been dominant since the early years of restocking. The breeding stock was protected by bucks-only hunting seasons so that the herd would build and eventually thrive.

"Now we need to increase the antlerless harvest in order to be able to control the population," Sandt said. "But our early strategies were against that and there are still a lot of people out there who think that shooting a buck is the only way to go."

An antlerless permit system was the first counter-measure strategy employed. Then hunting either sex was allowed in annually expanding zones, and this season there are provisions that allow hunters to take two deer in one day in many areas of the state.

The current goal of the DNR's management plan is to hold the deer population to its levels of 1990.

"We are anticipating a kill of 46,000 to 50,000 [for all three seasons]," said Golden. "But the first day of firearms is when we get our [heaviest] deer kill."

In 1989, for instance, 52 percent of the deer kill was on the first day of firearms season. But in 1990 the percentage fell to 47 percent and last year it dropped to 40 percent.

The first day of firearms season always is a Saturday, but with the two-week season in place, hunters will have three Saturdays in which to be afield.

Game managers expect that will get more hunters out and help offset the warm and wet weather that was present on opening day the past two years.

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