State's master plan for deer control is unveiled

On The Outdoors

March 15, 1998|By Peter Baker | Peter Baker,SUN STAFF

Maryland's Department of Natural Resources has released its proposed 10-year deer management plan, a series of strategies aimed at controlling white-tailed deer populations that are increasing rapidly in most areas of the state.

"Deer populations are at an all-time high, and there is a deer-human conflict being brought to our attention," said Michael Slattery, director of DNR's Wildlife and Heritage Division. "We want to address that problem, so our management program will be in line with the different needs in different areas of the state."

While hunting will continue to be the primary population control tool, Slattery said DNR will work closely with the public to "tailor deer management to the needs of local communities."

In formulating the plan, DNR drew on the expertise of its wildlife management staff and the Wildlife Advisory Commission, paid for a statewide random telephone survey of 900 hunters, farmers and non-hunters in October 1996, and, in January 1997, held seven workshops across the state that drew more than 3,500 participants.

DNR officials say the broad focus of the plan represents all interest groups -- homeowners, farmers, animal rights advocates, hunters, naturalists and state and county officials.

White-tailed deer in Maryland number more than 250,000, with a stable population only in the far western counties. Elsewhere in the state, especially in outer suburban areas, deer numbers are higher than at any time in history.

And as deer populations continue to increase, so does "deer-human conflict." Some examples in the DNR report:

Deer-auto collisions have doubled in the past eight years and property damage from reported collisions is estimated to be more than $9.7 million annually.

In the past 10 years, the number of Lyme's disease cases reported in Maryland has risen from 12 to 423. Deer are one of the hosts for the ticks that spread the disease.

A recent University of Maryland study found that 92 percent of farmers in the state experienced deer-related crop damage in 1996, with a total economic loss estimated at $38 million.

Browsing deer also destroy landscaping plants, natural stands of forest and can have "devastating effects upon the few examples of undisturbed native ecosystems in the state."

But while deer-auto collisions, incidences of Lyme's disease and crop and ecosystem damage increase annually, DNR's research shows public attitudes vary greatly on the extent of the problems related to rising numbers of deer.

The plan summarizes its goals as the maintenance of healthy deer populations as a valuable component of Maryland's ecosystem, stabilization of numbers statewide and the gradual adjustment of deer populations until levels are acceptable for the social and environmental conditions of individual communities.

Under the plan, management would shift from the previous county-based system to communities or areas with similar conditions and needs, but perhaps with various control techniques.

Population control would be achieved using five strategies: Target populations for given areas and control methods would be determined after consultation with local citizens and decision-makers. Controls could include traditional regulated hunting, lethal methods other than regulated hunting and non-lethal methods that modify reproduction or behavior of deer in a given area.

Community groups would be encouraged to learn more about deer biology and habitat and the impact deer have on people and landscapes. DNR, the University of Maryland Cooperative Extension Service and other state and local agencies all have publications and videos on deer problems and solutions.

The plan proposes to support research and expanded application of non-lethal control methods, including birth control, behavior modification tools such as highway reflectors, fencing and repellents, and trap-and-transferring projects to relocate deer from crowded areas to less densely populated areas.

According to the plan, trap-and-transfer is expensive and the state has no suitable areas in which deer could be relocated; repellants and fencing are cost-effective only in small areas, and, while technology is rapidly advancing, contraceptives are still suited only to smaller, isolated herds of deer.

Maryland's hunting laws could be changed to give DNR more flexibility in increasing bag limits, especially for antlerless deer. The removal of antlerless deer is the most efficient way to reduce overall deer populations.

DNR is seeking to change statutes to allow larger bag limits, increase the number of bonus tags available to bow, firearms and muzzleloader hunters and establish annual harvest quotas for each deer management unit, with an emphasis on antlerless deer.

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