White-tailed deer are key target DNR counts on hunters after abundant return

November 27, 1998|By Peter Baker | Peter Baker,SUN STAFF

At the start of this century, Maryland's population of white-tailed deer was so small that hunting them was prohibited statewide in 1902. As the 21st century approaches, the whitetail is back in such force that the state is counting on hunters more than ever to thin the herd.

"They have come full cycle and way beyond," said Michael E. Slattery, director of the Department of Natural Resources Wildlife and Heritage Division. "It is an interesting success story attributable in many ways to hunters, who way back when were asked to take only bucks to keep the population in proper balance.

"Now, we are doing just the opposite [emphasizing the doe harvest] to try to stem burgeoning populations in many areas of the state."

When the two-week firearms hunting season for deer opens tomorrow, hunters will be regulated by a management plan intended to reduce the white-tailed deer population over the next 10 years to more tolerable levels.

The plan carves the state into four parts, each with a bag limit tailored to the general needs of the region. Only in mountainous areas of Western Maryland are the new regulations aimed at limiting the harvest of antlerless deer.

But in rural areas of the state, deer hunting often is a family affair, and bucks are the traditional target -- and the bigger the rack the better.

Quest for a trophy

"I personally think that most deer hunters still want to kill a trophy. That's their prime concern," said Billy Ozman, who has been hunting since he was 8 years old and, at 38, owns Eastern Shore Outfitters in Trappe in Talbot County. "But I also think people will kill more does because they want another buck, and now you are almost forced to kill a doe."

Under the new regulations in all or parts of 19 counties, hunters can kill one antlered or antlerless deer on their basic licenses and, after purchasing bonus deer stamps, have the option of killing up to three more deer.

The caveat, as Ozman sees it, is that two antlerless deer must be taken before the hunter is eligible for a second antlered deer.

Hunters 'more selective'

Charles Downs Jr., a professional hunter and outfitter for 19 years in Anne Arundel County and on the central Eastern Shore, said he believes the new management plan "will be a big help" in controlling deer populations.

"I have seen people -- I don't want to call them outlaws or poachers -- who I never would have believed would have cooperated that are interested in it," said Downs, who is heavily involved in youth hunting programs. "I think it forces hunters to be more selective. But I am also concerned about overkill in rural areas when the real overpopulation is in [suburban] areas that cannot be hunted."

As Maryland has changed from extensive farming on the Coastal Plain and Piedmont Plateau to the patchwork of suburban sprawl and recreational parks and greenways, wildlife biologists say, the whitetail has adapted and flourished.

The whitetail finds easy browsing on crops, shrubbery, ground growth and understory close to or along the edges of tree lines and wood lots and shelter and safety in the deeper cover.

And while the whitetail population increases, so does its impact in damage and personal injuries from automobile collisions and destruction of crops, gardens and ornamentals.

The number of deer-vehicle collisions has doubled in the past eight years, and related damages are estimated at $9.7 million or more per year, according to DNR. The department also reports the incidence of Lyme disease, spread by deer ticks, is at an all-time high.

A recent University of Maryland study found that 92 percent of Maryland farmers had deer-related crop damage, with total economic loss estimated at $38 million.

Public land managers and ecologists are seeing more native ecosystems damaged by heavy deer browsing that can strip the forest to heights of 5 to 6 feet and leave areas of barren ground unsuitable for small animals or plant life.

Other options of little help

Though many strategies for reducing the population in these areas have been discussed, wildlife managers said only hunting appears to be an efficient management tool.

Trap and removal programs in other states range from $412 to $800 per deer and, Slattery said, there really is nowhere in the state to transplant the deer.

Fencing, repellents and reflectors, he said, are temporary measures at best, and immuno-contraception has not proved to be effective on free-ranging deer.

"We want to work with communities and help them decide what they want to do," said L. Douglas Hotton, DNR's deer program manager and a primary architect of the plan. "But all options involve lethal solutions -- deer are going to die eventually.

"Even with immuno-contraception, if you start with 100 deer, you still have 100 deer until they die of old age, a Buick or disease."

Downs, who as a professional hunter occasionally has been contracted to remove nuisance deer from private properties, said in many areas hunting simply is not an option.

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