Low deer harvest doesn't reflect population figures

OUTDOORS

February 06, 1994|By GARY DIAMOND

Although preliminary figures from Maryland's Department of Natural Resources show a decrease in Harford's whitetail deer harvest of nearly 22 percent, the numbers don't really portray a true picture.

This particularly holds true for counties west of the Chesapeake Bay. Statewide, harvest figures are relatively close to those of 1992.

Opening day of 1993's regular firearms deer season was a bust in many counties. Torrential rains, coupled with falling temperatures kept most hunters from venturing outdoors on a day when nearly half the season's deer are bagged.

Streams rose over their banks, roads flooded and in some areas, dense fog made any form of hunting almost impossible. However, in Harford County, despite less than favorable weather, opening day's harvest was only four deer fewer than that of the previous year.

"We anticipated a drop in some Western Maryland counties due to a 25 percent reduction in antlerless deer permits issued," said Josh Sandt, director of DNR's Wildlife Division. "The big drop in some urban counties, such as Harford and Baltimore, can mainly be attributed to weather conditions -- not the overall health of the herd."

Sandt said Harford and Baltimore County's deer herds continue to grow in size; however, the rate of growth has diminished somewhat since deer season was lengthened to two weeks and the annual harvest increased.

DNR wildlife biologists will continue to monitor not only the number of deer, but additionally, the age, sex ratio, distribution, average weight and quality of habitat constantly are being evaluated. The data is used to determine the number of antlerless permits and season length in four separate regions.

During the past month, citizens throughout Maryland have called DNR regional offices, asking if deer are starving because of the prolonged winter weather.

Although this year's ice and snow has adversely affected people, deer can go several weeks without eating and still display no harmful consequences. In fact, the only problems deer encounter during the worst winter is when people intervene.

Several people called the DNR to ask if they should feed deer hay. Although hay is quite nutritious for various types of livestock, during the dead of winter it can prove fatal to foraging deer.

A deer's diet varies from season to season, mainly consisting of soft, tender grasses and various grain crops when the weather's warm. When winter arrives, this particular food source becomes depleted, thereby causing the animal to switch to natural forage available in its immediate area.

Acorns and beechnuts usually are consumed in huge quantities while the ground remains free of snow and ice. Both provide enormous levels of nutrients, which are converted to a layer of thick body fat.

When the forest floor is covered with winter snow, fat reserves are converted to energy, thereby keeping the animal in good physical condition.

As winter progress and food supplies diminish, deer modify their diet to include the ends of tree branches and various forms of scrub brush. However, in order to digest this tough, fibrous food, significant changes in the animal's digestive system must take place.

Its gastric acids become extremely strong, capable of extracting nutrients from certain types of tree bark and even small branches. In some areas, deer have been known to eat small pine cones, but this only happens in extreme cases.

Because the digestive system of deer is geared toward consuming materials difficult to digest, hay, alfalfa and other livestock foods cause deer to develop a severe case of diarrhea.

The onset of the disease then draws heavily on the animals' fat reserves, eventually stressing it to the point where it can no longer survive.

DNR wildlife technicians and biologists said if the herd of whitetail deer on your property is relatively healthy when winter first arrives, it'll likely have no trouble making it through the winter. The best advice they can offer is let nature take its course.

6* The deer will take care of themselves.

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