Hunting may be best deer solution

Kai Hagen

November 29, 2002

The day after Thanksgiving may be the busiest shopping day of the year, but for many in Maryland it is more noteworthy as the beginning of the white-tailed deer firearms season.

While others are spending the day in stores and malls, a few thousand hunters have been out in the woods and fields around the county, many before the sun came up.

Deer hunters are determined folks, not easily deterred by inclement weather. But rain, fog, wind and unusually warm temperatures contributed to a 13 percent decline in Maryland's firearm season's harvest numbers last year. Maryland's bow and muzzleloader hunters made up the difference, however, with record deer harvests. Altogether, Frederick County hunters took 8,054 deer, more than any other county in the state.

Numbers like that make it hard to believe there was a time when the near complete clearing of Maryland's original forest and the unrestricted killing of deer led to their elimination from all but the most remote areas of far western Maryland.

Imagine that. No deer in Frederick County.

There weren't a lot of people here then. But there weren't a lot of trees, either. And things were seriously out of balance.

Today there are a lot more people in Frederick County. And trees. And, of course, a lot more deer. Too many deer. Things are still out of balance.

The deer population in Maryland has been growing for decades, reaching about 150,000 in 1991, and roughly 250,000 today. Incredibly, some projections suggest it could reach 500,000 before long if nothing is done to control the rate of growth.

You don't have to be a wildlife biologist to understand how this has happened. The recipe we've used for cooking up a landscape to suit our needs and desires contains all the ingredients necessary to support far more deer than nature intended.

Most significantly, our suburban neighborhoods, pastoral farmland, woodlots and fragmented forests do not support either solitary mountain lions or packs of wolves. More than anything else, these predators kept the deer population in check, maintaining a healthy balance for millennia.

As if removing the large predators wasn't enough, we've also been kind enough to provide ample cover and an abundance of nutritious food. Deer may be fearful and skittish creatures, but the benefits of living near people clearly outweigh the drawbacks.

The white tailed deer is a graceful and beautiful animal, one of the few large mammals that still thrives in Maryland. Without an effective way to reduce the population, however, it won't be long before they are primarily seen as unwelcome pests.

The burgeoning deer population is having a growing impact on the people of Maryland. Vehicle collisions continue to increase, with thousands of deer being struck each year. Farmers are experiencing more crop damage throughout the state. Orchard and nursery owners constantly battle to reduce damage from browsing and rubbing. Homeowners are experiencing damage to their vegetable gardens, flowerbeds and landscape plantings. Lyme disease, which is spread by ticks found on deer, is increasing.

Any one or two of those problems is enough to convince many people that we have to do more to reduce the number of deer.

For others, the most convincing reason to take more aggressive action is that our seriously out of balance deer population is having a disastrous effect on the health and diversity of our remaining forests and other ecosystems. Hungry deer are eating the food and shelter that a great many other animals depend on.

Too many deer doesn't just mean sick and hungry deer. It means greatly impoverished forests and reduced biological diversity.

It is a problem of our own making. And it is our responsibility to deal with it. There are all sorts of problems affecting our environment that have nothing to do with deer, of course. But reducing the number of deer is one solution we can't afford to ignore. Without natural predators, regulated hunting is the only realistic way to achieve this goal in many areas.

In our changing social climate, however, hunting is becoming less acceptable. More people are resisting hunting on the grounds that it is unnecessary, or that it is morally wrong. The number of hunters is in steady and serious decline. And the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service recently reported a seven percent decline in the number of American hunters over a five year period.

As population growth and suburban sprawl continue to make hunting impractical or impossible in many areas, other measures may be required. There are other options available, such as relocation, contraception, repellants, and fencing, but they are all much more costly and generally less efficient.

In contrast, hunters pay for the privilege of hunting and trapping by purchasing licenses from the state and federal government. The use of hunters and trappers to harvest animals is often the most cost-effective way to manage wildlife populations. Spending substantial tax dollars to do the job less effectively doesn't make much sense.

It is true that some land management practices and hunting regulations have contributed to our deer problem, prioritizing the maintenance of an unnaturally high population for the benefit of hunters. But that has been changing. Hunters are allowed, even encouraged, to take more does, for example. Hunting seasons have been expanded. It probably isn't enough. But it's a start.

I wish them good hunting.

To get in touch, e-mail Kai Hagen at