Maryland deer check stuck in woods

November 17, 2005|By CANDUS THOMSON

For almost every modern convenience, there's a loss of the personal touch.

Twenty-five years ago, town dumps were a great place to meet presidential candidates in New Hampshire. Unless you lived in an apartment, almost everyone hauled their garbage to the dump on Saturdays.

So it was nothing to see Bob Dole or Gary Hart standing by an industrial-size coffee urn, handing out cups of java and doughnuts along with campaign fliers. Weekly newspapers even listed appearances in the same way big-city papers publish a list of nightclub acts.

But New Hampshire dumps aren't what they used to be (neither are presidential candidates). Curbside pickup killed the tradition.

In Maryland this year, we're seeing the end of another tradition: No more taking your deer to a check station.

Following the lead of self-serve gas pumps, you-do-it carwashes and photo kiosks, the Department of Natural Resources is letting hunters use the phone or home computer to document their deer and turkey kills.

It sounds so simple. Bag a buck. Phone it in.

Unfortunately, this year's "Guide to Hunting and Trapping" reads like a set of IKEA instructions. And even if you figure it out, you know there are going to be pieces left over.

Let's say you use the telephone option.

You get up at 5 a.m. You get your deer, field dress your deer, drag it to your vehicle and drive home. Now comes the fun part.

First you call the toll-free number. Then, it's a series of touch-tone tortures, a minimum of 25 button punches in all, to record the land code, county code, date of harvest, type of critter, sex of critter and type of weapon. Get it right and you get a confirmation number to write on your deer tag to make everything legal.

Or maybe not. Try calling in during peak check-in time of 5 p.m. to 8 p.m., and you might get a busy signal. Dollars to doughnuts it happens on Nov. 26, the first Saturday of firearms season, when 75,000 hunters will be in the woods.

"Hunters are asked to wait until later that night to call the telephone check-in line," the hunting guide counsels.

Lovely. And, if you were thinking of going out on Nov. 27 for your one day of Sunday hunting, you're supposed to sleep when?

There's another flaw in the telephone option. The hunter has to have a confirmation number on the field tag before taking the deer to the butcher shop or taxidermist. So, if you don't have a cell phone, you have to drive home, wait until you can enter your information, get the confirmation number and only then haul your carcass and the deer's to the shop.

Do it by cell phone, say the smarty-pants designers of this system. Raise your hand if the land you hunt is a cell phone dead zone.

Ahhh, they counter, go with the computer.

That's fine unless you're part of the 40 percent of Maryland residents who don't have Internet access.

"Dear Santa: I have been good. Please bring me a new deer gun, a pair of LaCrosse boots and a Dell computer with an Intel Pentium 4 Processor, 512MB Dual Channel DDR SDRAM at 400MHz and a 40 GB Ultra ATA/100 7200RPM Hard Drive."

In modernizing its operation, little by little DNR is losing touch with its customer base. I'm not talking about the people who attend the advisory commission meetings and public hearings. I'm talking about the vast majority of sportsmen.

"It's terrible," says Kay Pavon, owner of Vonnie's Sporting Goods in Kent County. "They're showing hunters they don't care, so hunters are saying, `Why should we care?' "

Pavon's store has been a magnet for hunters on opening day since 1975. She eagerly signed up to issue certificates in DNR's new Junior Hunter program. The bulletin board in the store has photos of kids who have participated in the one-day youth waterfowl and deer hunts.

Hunters congregated in her parking lot on opening day the way Ravens fans gather to tailgate, or used to.

"It's a tradition to come in and see what's been weighed and talk about the ones that got away. It's a social event. They get out with their buddies and unwind," Pavon says. "The sad part is, everyone is a number now."

Other shop owners echo what Pavon says.

"We'll miss the camaraderie," says Butch Lefebvre at Sarge's in Cecil County. "We won't see the deer. We won't have the guys coming in to talk."

Lefebvre says he anticipates he won't have as much business, either.

"While they're weighing the deer and doing the paperwork, usually they're looking around and half the time, they buy something," he says. "By not having them come around, that's one less customer."

Larry Pinder at Shore Sportsman in Easton says the owner won't know the economic impact until after the season.

At Annapolis' Angler's Sport Center, one of the state's busiest check stations, owner Charlie Ebers- berger suspects some hunters will still stop by out of habit.

Ebersberger believes that the loss of check station traffic coupled with online sales of fishing and hunting licenses is making it hard for local shops to maintain ties with their customer base.

The possibility of a breakdown at the grassroots level should concern DNR officials. It is, after all, the retail outlets that spread the agency's news and help out with programs such as awarding the Junior Hunter certificates.

Plus, as Pavon points out, when hunters can't phone in or log into the new automated system, they still show up at her shop, looking for assistance.

"We've become information central, with no compensation and no thanks," Pavon says.

Virginia and Delaware have adopted automated systems, but have retained check stations. West Virginia has check stations. In Pennsylvania, a hunter has 10 days to mail back to game officials a report card with harvest information.

Maryland wildlife officials ought to take a step backward to take a step forward and rethink their automation-only policy.

The way things are now is enough to leave you down in the dumps.

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