Friday, September 12, 2008

Maryland Whitetails

These two deer (a 9-point and a doe) were having a snack in the 100' wide shrub buffer inbetween my office and the highway. Apparently honeysuckle is DELICIOUS!

Where we grew up in southeastern Virginia (1970s through early 1990s), there were very few deer. The deer we did see we were very unhealthy. 15 years later in the Mid-Atlantic states, the deer population has exploded, causing outbreaks of disease, destruction to habitat, and roadkill fatalities to humans....all at a disturbing scale. So how did this happen?

As you may have heard me theorize before, at the end of the last ice age 10,000 years ago, white-tailed deer composed only a minor portion of the large grazing animals in the Mid-Atlantic. Elk and "wood bison" ruled the day. As climates and hunting continued to affect the bison and elk unfavorably, deer became more prominent on the landscape. Unlike elk and bison, deer are able to exist quite happily in a human-modified agricultural landscape.

Fast forward to the 1970s. In the Mid-Atlantic, deer hunting was still a very popular pasttime, but farms were being abandoned and/or developed into subdivisions at a very quick pace. Deer populations initially did not respond well to these new "habitats." However, as these patterns continued, deer populations exploded for a few reasons:

1) firearms regulations prohibiting hunting in many suburban counties
2) failure to recruit new/young deer hunters as hunters aged
3) failure of state wildlife agencies to encourage proper deer harvest management

So what do all those things mean? The first one is pretty self-explanatory. As one of the early forms of gun control, many counties with urban centers passed unilateral "discharge ordinances." These laws state that while you may own as many guns as you like, you may not discharge a firearm within that county. Some of you guys out west must be thinking, "That's impossible!" Trust me, it's our life out here, and it's why bow hunting has regained such popularity. There's simply less acreage to hunt, and that acreage decreases yearly.

Second is also key. Fewer people are pursuing deer. Why? First, older hunters are dying, or getting out of hunting due to age/illness. Second, hunter education is no longer taught in schools. Not even after school. In the words of Maryland's deposed idiot governor Glendenning, "Hunter Education puts guns in the hands of children." Of course, a minor nuance is that Americans who complete hunter education are about 500% less likely to die of a firearm injury than the general population (OK, I have no data to back that up). It's getting harder and harder to recruit new hunters into the fold, partly because hunting access is on a severe decline (see #1 above).

Third....ahhh.....this is where I bless the Quality Deer Management Association, who advocate deer management strategies designed to grow a healthy herd and large, old, healthy bucks. So many folks, until the last 5 years, have REFUSED to get involved with proper deer management. How can you have a healthy herd, or trophy bucks, if you harvest no does, and harvest every 1.5 year old deer that walks by? Unfortunately, a huge sector of hunters (until recently) honestly believed that they were doing a favor to the deer herd by shooting small bucks. What the hell kind of sense does that make? None. Only in the last several years have state DNRs started to advocate "managed trophy hunts" and extensive doe harvests. For instance, I live in a "unlimited antlerless deer" county because the density is so high. I can harvest does all winter if I prefer. The only thing stopping me is my distinct lack of skill.

All over the mid-atlantic, deer densities are at record highs. The deer are all over the highways, in peoples' yards, and are putting a real dent in ecological succession of "natural" woods.

I hope to get out next week to get one. Wish me luck!


The Downeast Duck Hunter said...

I did enjoy your article and there's no doubt that the deer population is very sensitive to a variety of factors... What I have found in my area with the lack of doe permits is a serious overbalance and some inbreeding (I live on a small island) that has produced some interesting bucks... Of particular note, imagine a two hundred pound buck that sports a tiny mushroom on his left side and maybe a one inch spike on the other... I have seen him three times in my hunting career and once found myself drawing him in with doe scent while another 8 point buck was grunting near by... I managed to spend the next few minutes exchanging heated grunts and when the 8 pointer sprang out, it went straight for the "morph"... This was in 2003, and I have seen it in 2002 passing through a shooting lane and also in 2006... That deer was the largest deer I have ever seen including the 200 lb. ten pointer I took in 1993... Unfortunately, there exists other bucks in the area with irregular racks... So I feel that rather than wait for the healthy 8 pointer, I have tagged out on younger bucks that have some indications of inbreeding... Because no doe permits exist for my island, the does continue to thrive and I know the imbalance is causing some "issues"

tugboatdude said...

Only recently has the state of Virginia East of I-95 allowed crossbow and some rifle hunting.I completely understand why a .306 doesnt need to be fired 50 yards from a residence,however if it's private property why does it matter?Also Virginia has what they label "either sex days" and yes they are a joke.There are only 2-3 a year and what usually happens is joe redneck decides he is going to shoot the first thing that walks in front of him.Very few of the hunt clubs have a deer harvest program in effect which also cuases problems.Good article!

Swamp Thing said...

All the things you guys mention DEFINE the need for deer management plans! DEDH - is there enough high quality food to support a herd in that area - I'm not a deer biologist but I know that antler growth, esp. base girth & rack width (life-long, not per season) is highly dependent upon nutrition. It's still hilarious to me that states (like VA) with deer overpopulation problems have "doe permits." In very few areas down here do we have ANY chance of exterminating the herd - "doe permits" are typical 1950s wildlife management tactics.

TBD- Crossbow hunting is expanding in Maryland too. I hate the lack of nuance in laws - if they are afraid of high power rifles, they should say, "you must use a caliber between .237 and .270, no magnums, and bolt action only." Most assault rifles are .273, I think, so that would solve a lot of problems.

PA has a bolt-action only clause in their regs.

Bow season opens on monday, wish me luck.

The Downeast Duck Hunter said...

Our food base is much different than other areas in the country, we have no acorn producing trees only fruit bearing and cedar in the swamps... The island is give or take 4,000 acres total and there have been large deer taken... The antler growth isn't quite as rapid as other areas of the country, but a mature whitetail in downeast maine will support around a two foot spread and score anywhere between 100 and 150 B&C... My father took a 9 pointer in 2000 from the same area I took the 10 pointer, the weight of that deer was 187 pounds... I do know that there are super quality bucks on the island, but there have been instances of good mature bucks lacking in antler development and actually have non-typical antlers... I have always studied that a better doe to buck ratio would be very beneficial... That's why I wonder about the lack of doe permits in coastal Maine...