Economy drives some to hunt for things to do

February 21, 2010

How bad is the economy?

Ask the deer.

In the season that just ended, Maryland hunters killed a record 100,663 deer, topping the six-figure mark for the second consecutive season.

"I think it's economy-driven, I really do," says Brian Eyler, the lead deer biologist for the Department of Natural Resources. "Guys were out of work and had the time, and they wanted to put meat in the freezer."

The number of antlered deer dropped slightly to 33,761 while the number of antlerless deer rose slightly to 66,902. That's a good sign for a stable population since it's the girls, not the boys who make the difference.

The total in suburban counties rose about 1 percent to 21,231 deer, good news for folks who like their azaleas with blooms and their cars without major damage.

The two western counties - Region A - saw a decline of about 5 percent.

Eyler says the weather was harsh and after last season's 10 percent increase, the numbers had nowhere to go but down.

Five seasons after Maryland instituted the Telecheck system to replace traditional in-person check stations, Eyler stands by its integrity as an accurate way to count the annual take. But still he has to defend it to people who think phoning it in or tapping away on the computer opens the door to cheaters.

I get the skepticism. I was one of those folks who doubted that a system that relied on wiring and other gadgets could ever replace the eyeballing-it method. I was wrong. The numbers prove it. I hate when that happens.

People write and e-mail me about a friend of a friend of a friend who heard tell of unscrupulous hunters who game the regulations by checking in bucks as does and, as Eyler calls them, the "phantom does"- two nonexistent does phoned in so that the hunter can take a buck with less work.

"If you're going to cheat, you're going to cheat, and no system is going to stop you," Eyler says. "It's an honor system, just like the check stations were. The average guy, if you give him a reasonable system, he's going to comply."

State statistics show that the number of antlered and antlerless deer checked in under each system has maintained a steady and predictable pattern. Hunters are taking more does because DNR allows them to do so under its management plan to control the population.

No spikes, except on young bucks.

Eyler also notes that there haven't been any mad dashes to buy bonus buck tags, which hunters are required to purchase before killing a second buck. If a lot of hunters were poaching deer by checking fake does to get a second buck, the sale of bonus buck tags should be up.

As a matter of fact, state records show sales are down.

Hunters get it.

"We have progressive hunters, compared to some other states," Eyler says. "They've adapted well."

Telecheck has helped on two other fronts: uniform collection of data and faster turnaround of harvest totals at the end of the season.

Instead of relying on handwritten reports from check stations - usually filled out by a clerk at a sporting goods store - that could take weeks to get to DNR, the information can be reviewed by biologists and law enforcement officers within 48 hours.

With few exceptions, hunters I've spoken to appreciate the fact that after a long, and sometimes cold and wet, day of hunting, they don't have to stop first at a check-in station before going to the butcher shop.

Finally, we come back to the economy.

By going electronic, DNR has saved about $250,000 over five years, money that can go to pay for other wildlife management projects.

Fishing license bid revealed
On Thursday, the department unveiled its proposal for a new saltwater fishing license, House Bill 1345. The bill text (the big words) isn't available. There's no fiscal or policy note (the fine print) attached yet. No hearing has been scheduled.

But at least you know it exists and can track it on the General Assembly's Web site.

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