Today's Sportsman: Deer management plan

Regulated deer hunting is an effective and economical management strategy for controlling Maryland’s expanding white-tailed deer population.

Managing the white-tailed deer population in Maryland is a challenge that seeks a balance between maintaining healthy deer populations with cultural, recreational, environmental and economic concerns. Although not an easy task, the key to a successful deer management program begins with education. To that end, the Maryland Department of Natural Resources employs wildlife biologists who closely monitor white-tailed deer population trends and their positive and negative impacts on the environment and our Maryland community. These game managers follow a deer management plan with specific goals and outcomes.

A new management plan is currently being developed with input from a variety of stakeholders comprised of 27 different deer special-interest groups representing animal welfare, equestrian, farming, forestry, government (county, state, federal), native plant protection, outdoor recreation, sportsmen and university scholars. In addition, a number of public meetings are held and online communications and surveys are utilized to gather public comments and opinions.

New plan takes a look back

A draft of the 2020-2034 Maryland white-tailed deer management plan is available for review and public comment until Nov. 27, 2020. The 95-page document produced by the Maryland DNR begins with a summary of the five management goals — population, education, recreation, damage and operational resources. These goals are designed to effectively address the diverse requirements of managing deer in Maryland. The new plan is a continuation of Maryland’s 2009, 10-year white-tailed deer management plan as many of the key elements remain largely unchanged from the previous plan.

The draft contains the history of white-tailed deer management from colonial times to the current status. A quick look at the colonial era describes the early exploitation of deer for their meat and hides as well as early conservation efforts. The modern era of deer conservation begins with the statewide closing of deer hunting in 1902 as deer at that time survived only in remote sections of western Maryland counties. The report goes on to describe how management efforts combined with effective law enforcement has led to an overabundance of deer.

In the mid-1980s, the expanding deer population generated a growing number of conflicts between deer and humans. Lyme disease, vehicle collisions and crop damage remain serious problems today due to high deer densities in suburban areas. Excessive deer numbers also led to negative ecological impacts such as over-browsing of the forest understory that has significantly impacted plant diversity and degrades habitats for other species of wildlife.

Other factors that contributed to expanding deer numbers included the change in modern farming practices resulting in agricultural crop increases. At the same time more agricultural and forest lands were eliminated while residential housing grew in its place. As a result, white-tailed deer population growth accelerated as hunting opportunities were eliminated or became more difficult.

In response to these issues, the first comprehensive Maryland deer management plan was created in 1998. That plan as well as the currently proposed plan takes an in-depth review of possible solutions and the obstacles facing game managers. Most importantly, the data provided is very inclusive and encompasses almost 100 years of deer population and harvest statistics and cites the declining number of hunting licenses sales in more recent years.

Hunting is the key management tool

It should be no surprise that the annual deer harvest is described as the cornerstone of the Maryland deer management program. As stated on page 27, “No other management strategy for regulating deer populations is as effective or as economical as deer hunting. Deer hunting is necessary to keep deer populations from growing beyond their biological carrying capacity (McCullough 1979).”

It is also important to note that a majority of Marylander’s support deer hunting and recognizes its importance as an efficient and cost-effective management strategy. Responsive Management (2018) reported that 67 percent of Maryland residents were strongly or somewhat in favor of deer hunting and 77 percent agreed or strongly agreed that deer should be hunted to maintain a healthy deer population. According to the data, these attitudes have not changed during the past decade and prove that an educated public is very important for support of sound deer management.

The plan provides plenty of interesting reading, and I highly encourage everyone to take time to read through the plan and share your thoughts through the online public comment feature.

Contact Dan Neuland at danneuland@verizon.net.

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