Record numbers of deer major control challenge

ON THE OUTDOORS

February 09, 1997|By Peter Baker | Peter Baker,SUN STAFF

According to state wildlife managers, there are more deer in Maryland now than at any other time in history, with population estimates ranging from 250,000 to more than 300,000 -- and unless a more effective deer management plan is implemented soon, those numbers likely will increase dramatically.

The Department of Natural Resources completed a series of public meetings last week in which possible revisions to the management plan were discussed and public suggestions for improvements were invited.

By early summer, DNR expects to have completed a draft of a new management plan aimed at effectively dealing with varied habitats and burgeoning numbers of deer in certain parts of the state.

"The most basic management decision is whether to control deer numbers at all," Tom Mathews, game program supervisor for DNR, said at the recent public meeting in Annapolis.

However, without some form of population control, wildlife biologists say, whitetail deer will outstrip their habitats and, in the process, damage, or in some cases destroy, habitat vital to other animal and plant communities.

"Regulated hunting is the most efficient and least expensive method, and wildlife managers see it as the only viable method of regional population control," Mathews said.

To keep the population stable, Mathews said, "It is generally necessary to remove 30 to 40 percent [of the population] annually."

In 1995, Maryland hunters killed 61,949 deer, less than 25 percent of the conservative estimate of 250,000 deer in the state.

As the deer population has increased, so have related problems such as crop damage, habitat destruction and deer-car collisions. According to DNR, for example, deer-vehicle collisions have doubled in the past eight years, and the number of permits issued to farmers to kill deer causing crop damage has increased 182 percent between 1988 and 1996.

Eric Schwab, director of DNR's Forest and Parks Service, said land development over the past 50 years has created "edge habitat replete with food sources deer like," and when that coincides with a reduction in hunting pressure in suburban areas, the result is a population explosion.

In good habitat, according to wildlife biologists, whitetail deer have the potential to double their numbers every one to two years.

The aim of wildlife managers is to formulate a management plan that can deal effectively with all areas of the state. Strategies that keep the herd stable in Western Maryland, for example, are not suitable for the developed counties of central Maryland or the agricultural tracts of the Eastern Shore.

"What we envision is taking taking advantage of our current [management] tool and new tools that might be suggested to us and to use them in a manner that will be effective in changing areas of the state," said Schwab.

Mathews said areas that include national parks, county parks and tracts of land where there is no hunting are in need of special attention.

Though hunting is the most widely accepted management tool, Mathews listed several other possibilities, ranging from birth control to simply letting nature take its course.

Birth control, said Mathews, is not yet practical with free-ranging deer, which must be individually injected with a vaccine. "Recent research shows promise," Mathews said. "But much more work is needed to develop this process, and it likely would be cost-prohibitive."

Sharpshooting, in which shooters are hired to kill deer, has worked to remove deer from urban areas in Wisconsin at a cost of $74 per animal. But on a tract of Navy property in Maryland, Mathews said, the cost to bait, shoot, and remove 12 deer cost approximately $150 per animal.

Trap and transfer programs, in which nuisance deer are caught and moved to other areas, probably are not feasible in Maryland because large, sparsely populated tracts of land are not available in the state. Trap and transfer costs in Wisconsin ranged from $113 to $570 per deer. Costs for similar urban programs in Connecticut, New Hampshire and California ranged from $431 to $800 per deer.

Fencing and repellents are an expensive option for large tracts, with spray applications running about $70 per acre annually and fencing ranging from $18 to $60 per acre annually.

The re-introduction of natural predators, such as mountain lions or wolves, would pose a danger to farm animals and people as well as deer. Even if they were re-introduced, Mathews said, the predator-prey relationship probably would be too inconsistent to control the increasing deer population.

He said if nature were allowed to run its course in Maryland, where in certain areas there are already too many deer, the outlook could be dismal.

"Deer herds at the upper limits consist of numbers of deer in poor health," said Mathews "and when they are in that condition they are susceptible to death and disease."

Deer harvest

Preliminary estimates from the Department of Natural Resources indicate that 2,257 antlerless deer were taken during the special two-day extension of the firearms hunting season Jan. 10-11. The special season was held in 18 of the state's 23 counties.

County ............. Number

Allegany ........... closed

Anne Arundel ....... 99

Baltimore .......... 156

Calvert ............ 90

Caroline ........... 72

Carroll ............ closed

Cecil .............. 145

Charles ............ 156

Dorchester ......... 206

Frederick .......... closed

Garrett ............ closed

Harford ............ 73

Howard ............. 98

Kent ............... 190

Montgomery ......... 167

Prince George's .... 82

Queen Anne's ....... 146

St. Mary's ......... 106

Somerset ........... 76

Talbot ............. 130

Washington ......... closed

Wicomico ........... 134

Worcester .......... 131

Total .............. 2,257

Pub Date: 2/09/97

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