Taking Aim at the Deer Problem

November 20, 1993

As the start of Maryland's two-week firearms season for deer hunters approaches, state wildlife managers are hoping for a higher kill than last year's record 51,098 total. At least that many deer must be killed for three straight seasons to reduce the statewide herd nearer to a manageable level of 160,000 head, they say.

It's not just the size of the wild herd that can be sustained by available natural resources, without harming other wildlife. Game managers also aim to meet the state's "cultural carrying capacity," measuring the largest number of deer that can be tolerated by most human landowners.

The problem is that the largest numbers of deer will be taken by hunters (firearm, bow and muzzle-loader) in the wildest parts of the state, principally in Western Maryland, which can naturally sustain larger herds. In the more populated areas, where the deer problem of overcrowding and encroaching on humans is the greatest, hunting will make little dint in the increasing herd sizes.

Despite complaints of the deer "menace" in these areas, fewer landowners are allowing hunting on their property. State lands that were once thrown open for hunting with the advent of fall are under greater pressure from non-hunters for recreational use, such as hiking and nature-watching, that cannot co-exist with shooting.

Deer continue to multiply in protected areas, denuding vegetation and threatening other animals' survival, while expanding their predations on cultivated fields and gardens. (Increasing numbers of non-hunters even encourage incursions into these populated areas by feeding them.)

Expanding deer herds near human habitat are a pest problem, albeit one encouraged or tolerated by some residents. But general hunting as a wildlife management tool has limited

effectiveness in these environs because of dangers to humans.

We've supported the use of qualified professional hunters to thin deer herds in nuisance areas, purposely taking the "sport" out of animal control. That proposal has never taken hold, as sport hunters dominate the state's management outlook and pay the bills for most wildlife programs.

One program that has promise is a controlled zoned hunt in areas of runaway deer population, such as those held last year at Gunpowder Falls State Park near Sweet Air and Elk Neck State Park in Cecil County. Hunters using shotguns were selected by lottery, had mandatory orientation and were restricted to a specific post. The limited time, geographic spacing and weapon control minimized endangerment of humans. The harvest rate was satisfactory; nearly 60 percent of hunters got a deer. That's not the best solution, but it does offer some advantages in the ongoing debate over deer hunting and wildlife management.

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