Today's Sportsman: Hunting and conservation

Hunter education students Ryan Francis, Dominick Francis, Cody Nash and Nate Smith, from left to right, listen intently to instructor Larry Smith as he explains how to safely fire a shotgun at the Cold Deer Hunting and Fishing Club gun range. In addition to attending the in-person class and passing a 50-question exam, all students must load, fire and unload a firearm safely in order to successfully complete the Maryland hunter education course.

Cold Deer Hunting and Fishing Club sits near the entrance of the Frederick City Watershed on Mountaindale Road. The rustic log cabin is the quintessential setting for hunter education classes. The interior of the cabin is adorned with vintage game mounts and a gun range in the back propped against a forested mountain backdrop.

William “Bill” Staley began teaching hunter education classes at Cold Deer in the late 1960s, even before the classes were required for all new hunters in Maryland. I joined his teaching team in 1998 and took over his position as chief instructor after his passing in 2009. I look forward to the opportunity to instruct new hunters each fall in memory of Staley, who was all about keeping the American hunting tradition alive.

Hunting has long been a tradition in Maryland from the waterfowl hunting lodges on the Eastern Shore to the forested mountains of western Maryland. In Frederick County, the passion for deer hunting is clearly evident with over 7,000 deer harvested in the 2020-21 deer season, the highest number per county in Maryland.

The hunter’s role in wildlife conservation

Hunting is an effective wildlife management tool. Hunting is used by wildlife managers to help maintain some wildlife populations at lower levels to protect wildlife habitat. Hunters also play an important role by providing information from the field that wildlife managers need.

One only needs to look at the destruction of habitat caused by the burgeoning deer populations in national parks in Frederick County where hunting is not allowed. Catoctin Mountain Park, Monocacy National Battlefield and nearby Antietam National Battlefield in Washington County are all managed by the National Park Service, which employs lethal deer removal methods to control the deer population. Sharpshooters use bait piles and floodlights at night to cull the deer herd in these parks. These methods for culling the deer herd are very costly to the taxpayer and are not akin to regulated hunting that embrace the ethics of fair chase.

The fair chase philosophy reaches to the very foundations of the hunting spirit. Fair chase rules make sure hunters have no unfair advantage over wild game by balancing the skills and equipment of the hunter with the abilities of the animal to escape. The rules of fair chase are defined by law, regional preferences and personal choice. Fair chase emphasizes self-restraint and skills development.

Unfortunately, fewer people are hunting these days. A survey in 2016 by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service indicated that only about 5 percent of Americans, 16 years old and older, actually hunt. That is half of what it was 50 years ago, and the decline is expected to accelerate over the next decade. The average age of active hunters keeps increasing while the numbers of new hunters is declining.

Increased urbanization, restricted access to huntable areas, lack of free time are all factors that are blamed for dropping hunter numbers. Video games and all-consuming youth sports programs have become dominating factors in the lives of our youth.

To some who oppose hunting, that may be good news, but it appears to me to be a crisis in the making.

State wildlife agencies and the country’s wildlife conservation system rely heavily on sportsmen for funding. Money generated from hunting and fishing license fees and the excise taxes placed on guns ammunition and angling equipment provide about 60 percent of the funding for state agencies, which manage most of the wildlife in the United States.

Maryland spends only 2 percent of the $46.6 billion of the 2020 state general fund on protecting our environment and preserving natural resources such as wildlife habitat. Without supplemental funds from the Federal Aid in Wildlife Restoration Act and hunter’s license fees, the state will eventually need to look to other ways to make up for budget shortfalls.

The sale of hunting licenses is a primary funding source for state wildlife agencies to manage game and non-game species. I have doubts as to whether the general public will be willing to pay to protect wildlife. Adding to the state sales tax or shifting money from special funds such as vehicle registrations, gasoline taxes or state property taxes are not popular solutions.

Other wildlife centered activities, like birdwatching, hiking and outdoor photography could be activities that may have user-fees in the future. It will be difficult to legislate taxes on outdoor equipment like sleeping bags, tents and binoculars, but finding other ways for outdoor folks to contribute may be necessary.

The tradition of hunting extends well beyond the pursuit of game; it is an attitude and a way of life based in a deep-seated respect for wildlife and the environment. When I enter the Cold Deer cabin and see the excitement in the faces of the new hunters, it gives me hope.

Contact Dan Neuland at danneuland@verizon.net.

(1) comment

MrSniper

Nature is a cruel mistress. Imagine how animals die in the wild. A deer, for example, could slowly starve, succumb to disease, get hit by a car, be torn apart by predators or be humanely dispatched by an ethical hunters well placed shot. I know if I had to go, I wouldn’t want to see it coming.

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