Photo by Ron Sinfelt
The 2004-05 hunting season in the Mid-Atlantic turned out to be one of the most interesting in a good many years. Besides the slightly above-average deer hunting, good small-game hunting and sub-par waterfowl seasons, two states (New Jersey and Maryland) had a bear-hunting season up for grabs. Only one state, Maryland, managed to actually conduct a bear season, while New Jersey sportsmen saw politics trump sound wildlife management based on science and biology. Both states had to put up with a flurry of attacks from animal rights zealots and anti-hunting groups, and both states had to deal with legislative interference and court cases.
As a whole, hunting in the Mid-Atlantic states of New Jersey, Delaware and Maryland has remained stable for the last several years. I spoke with representatives of each state’s respective fish and wildlife departments, who all agreed that more and more politics is creeping into wildlife management.
According to waterfowl ecology and management program biologists, the mid-continent breeding populations and habitat conditions in some survey areas were not as good as recent years, but the status of waterfowl and their habitats were sufficient overall to justify a liberal duck-hunting season framework. While mid-continent populations of waterfowl rise and fall relative to the amount of precipitation that falls in wetland habitat, habitat conditions in eastern North America have been comparatively stable in recent years.
For the past several years, hunting regulations in the Atlantic Flyway have been based on an Adaptive Harvest Management (AHM) approach, which is based on the status of eastern mallards. In 2004, 1.1 million mallards were estimated in the eastern survey area, which is consistent with the long-term average. Based on these biological assessments, it was decided that a liberal duck-hunting season in all flyways was consistent with the long-term welfare of North American waterfowl populations.
Deer management in the Mid-Atlantic states has gotten more and more complicated in recent years. With increasing amounts of land and habitat falling to development, deer populations have adapted to urban living, and have grown in leaps and bounds. This has forced states to liberalize their deer regulations, thus giving hunters more hunting opportunities than ever in Maryland, Delaware and New Jersey.
This growth of deer populations in urban areas has also forced wildlife officials to tailor their deer management strategies, especially in urban areas. This has resulted in a big up-swing in the popularity of bowhunting. Bowhunting organizations are working with many communities to manage deer herds in urban areas.
One place where hunters have taken a hit in recent years is with small game. Here, too, as urban sprawl and the development of rural areas become more common, prime habitat is being gobbled up at an alarming rate. This has put more pressure on public lands and has put more reliance on hatchery-raised and stocked birds for pheasant and quail hunters. While there may be plenty of bushytails around, rabbit hunters have been forced to travel farther away from urban areas to pursue their sport.
According to Paul Peditto, Maryland’s director of Fish and Wildlife, the state’s approximately 120,000 hunters enjoyed some very good results this past season. Peditto said habitat loss resulting from land development has had an impact on hunting in the state; however, the diversity of the state’s terrain, which ranges from coastal to mountains, has helped keep the hunting in good shape.
Maryland conducted a black bear hunt, despite plenty of opposition from animal rights activists and anti-hunting groups. In this case, Peditto said science and good sound wildlife management won out. Even though only 20 bears were taken in the one- day hunt, biologists consider it a big success. Just like in other states, bear numbers are on the increase and human-bear problems are also increasing as well. The hunt will allow Maryland’s Division of Fish and Wildlife to keep the bear population in check before it gets out of control, as it has done in some other states.
When it comes to the state’s deer (Maryland has an estimated 260,000 deer), Director Peditto points out that the state has one of the most liberal deer seasons in the country and it has been paying off. Biologists are starting to see a definite shift in the makeup of the deer herd, with bigger and more mature bucks being seen.
Hunters are allowed to harvest 36 deer (30 does and six bucks) in 21 of the state’s 23 counties. Suburban hunters in the Washington/Baltimore area can take an unlimited number of deer. In Allegany and Garrett, which are the state’s two most mountainous counties, hunters are only allowed to take six deer because of the low deer densities in that particular region.
When asked how he rated this past season’s small-game hunting, it was just by coincidence that Peditto was returning from a winter rabbit hunt. He said small-game hunters in general enjoyed some very good days afield, especially in upland terrain where rabbit hunting was very good.
Peditto said rabbit populations have their ups and downs, with the better hunting taking place in the upland areas where habitat and forage are excellent.
Quail hunting was also good. The state does not stock quail or pheasants, and all the populations are wild birds. Coveys of quail throughout the state are in very good shape in their traditional ranges; however, the hunting is a lot spottier in areas where development has impacted on their habitat.
On the flip side of the coin, pheasant hunting is not so topnotch, mainly because more and more farmland is becoming overgrown. The better pheasant hunting takes place in areas where farms are still active and forage is in good supply. There are just fewer than 100 private hunting preserves that routinely stock pheasants. The overflow from these preserves often enriches the public hunting in areas where habitat is good.
Waterfowl hunters in Maryland saw pretty much the same results as the rest of the states along the East Coast. There were plenty of geese to shoot, as native populations are plentiful. The state has a split season that allows for some hunting in October and November, and 30 days of hunting after the firearms deer season into February.
Pat Emory, Delaware’s director of Fish and Wildlife (DFW), said the First State has seen a big growth in the number of deer. Emory took over as director in 2003, after working his way up through the ranks, starting as a conservation officer. His years in the field and experience in the DFW give him an ideal prospective on the state’s wildlife; he said the DFW is exploring all types of ways of managing the state’s deer herd, which is currently estimated at between 30,000 and 40,000 deer.
Like most states, Delaware hunters have seen an increase in the number of deer they are able to take during the season, which has also seen some nine days added to the deer season. Hunters can now take four antlerless deer for their $12.50 license fee (the number of hunters in the state has remained within a few hundred of its average over the last five years); however, hunters have the option of adding another two deer under the state’s trophy buck program for an addition $10.
The DFW opted for the current deer fee structure because it is estimated that there are eight or nine does for every buck. By allowing hunters to shoot four antlerless deer, it is hoped that most of the deer will be does. Delaware’s DFW is planning to update its estimate of the deer herd with aerial surveying in 2005.
Another part of the DFW’s deer management plan is to get farmers to open up more land to hunters. Likewise, hunts in state parks are also being used to cull the deer herds that overpopulate these parks. The state is also looking into creating an expert hunter category. Under this program some of the state’s better hunters, who are willing to take advanced training in deer management, will be listed by the state. Farmers and private landowners could then contact these hunters to help cull the deer on their lands.
How about small-game hunting in Delaware? Director Pat Emory said the state has begun to see some improvement in the quail population; hunters experienced better hunting this past season. He believes that one of the reasons for the increase in quail numbers is that the state has put in place grass buffers along the fields in areas that have good breeding habitat. This has helped improve the survivability of the young birds and increased nesting places.
Rabbit hunters saw an up-and-down season this past year. Cottontail populations have been showing a slight decline in recent years and the state is planning to look into the reasons for the decline. He also mentioned that turkey hunting held its own in the state, with the better hunting being seen in lower Kent and upper Sussex counties.
Delaware’s waterfowl hunters saw a below par season this past year. Director Emory said the sub-par hunting was more a result of timing and weather, in that many of the migratory birds came into Delaware late. Ducks and geese, which are usually plentiful during the fall hunt, did not move into the area in good numbers until the end of the season because of weather patterns that were present along the Atlantic Flyway. This put big numbers of geese and ducks in the state after the season was already over.
After the Garden State got off its first black bear hunt in some 40 years in 2003, politics knocked out what should have been a successful second season. Scott Ellis is chairman of the states Fish and Wildlife Council, which is empowered by the legislature to regulate hunting and fishing in New Jersey. He said that based on scientific data supplied by wildlife biologists from the state’s Division of Fish and Wildlife (DFW), the council voted to hold another hunt in 2004.
But under political pressure from animal rights groups, the commissioner of the Department of Environmental Protection, whose department the division comes under, refused to issue permits for the hunt, as well as refusing to allow the bear hunt to take place on public land. This led to several court cases with the final result being a decision by the state Supreme Court to stop a bear hunt from taking place. Ellis said it is hoped that a 2005 hunt will not meet with the same fate.
New Jersey DFW Director Martin McHugh said the state’s deer hunters enjoyed a very good season, harvesting better than 61,000 deer. While the deer harvest was 13 percent lower then the last several years, the reason for the drop was the adverse weather hunters had to contend with last fall. The state’s deer herd, which is estimated at being between 160,000 and 200,000 deer, is still at record high numbers. The six-day shotgun season, which accounted for 8,100 deer, saw the biggest drop when several days of bad weather kept hunter participation down.
Bowhunting in the state continues to grow in leaps and bounds, McHugh said. Bowhunting is fast becoming the most effective culling method of choice in urban areas and areas where firearms hunting is limited. The United Bowhunters, and other bowhunters’ organizations, saw a big increase in the number of lands that they are allow to hunt under agreements with local municipalities. McHugh said his type of arrangement would continue to be seen in increasing areas in the future.
Like most states along the East Coast, small-game hunters experienced plenty of weather problems in the Garden State last season. Pheasant hunters enjoyed an increase of some 10,000 birds last fall, thanks to the excellent production capabilities and the crew at the Rockport Pheasant Farm. Bird hunters enjoyed outstanding hunting on wildlife management areas (WMAs), thanks to pre-season and in-season releases. Last season proved to be one of the best in recent years.
Quail hunting on the Peaslee and Greenwood Forest WMAs was good; however, a different set of problems is being seen with the quail. The first is that biologists believe that the stockings are interfering with the native coveys that are found in the lower part of the state. Another area of concern has to do with the division’s current money problems. It’s possible (there was no definite decision as of this writing) that the state will not stock quail in the 2005 season, according to Director McHugh.
The state will be embarking on a new initiative in 2005 to help rebuild habitat for grouse and quail. Monies for the project will come from a variety of state and private sources, and the project will come under the auspices of the Farm Bill. The habitat rebuilding efforts will be done in conjunction with Pheasants Forever, the Ruffled Grouse Society, Ducks Unlimited, Quail Unlimited and the Audubon Society.
McHugh said the state is looking into the decline in the state’s rabbit populations and is considering managing several WMAs (that are not stocked with pheasants) for rabbit hunting. Some of the things being looked into as reasons for the decline are loss of habitat and an increase in the number of foxes, due to the lack of trapping in the state. It’s believed that the habitat problem could be partially solved by managing the WMAs for rabbits by improving the habitat in those areas.
In New Jersey, the regular 2004 season for Canada geese (which ran from Sept. 1-30 with a bag limit of eight birds per day) and the special winter Canada goose
season (which went from Jan. 24 to Feb. 15, 2005, in two zones with a bag limit of five Canada geese per day) saw mixed results. Under liberal season frameworks for ducks in the Atlantic Flyway, the season length was 60 days. Thanks to the efforts of former (retired) director Bob McDowell, states with statutory Sunday hunting closures, like New Jersey, got compensatory days for the loss of hunting opportunity on Sundays.
McHugh said Southern Zone sportsmen saw excellent early-season hunting but poor late-season hunting because of late migrations. The hunting in the Southern Zone was further hampered by the oil spill on the Delaware River, which shut down most of the western part of the zone from Thanksgiving on. In the Northern Zone, the fall rains and mild weather saw slow migrations and poor hunting. In the Coastal Zone, hunting during the early part of the season was slow; however, late-season hunting was very good into mid-January when the weather became even colder farther north.
This was the first year that the state held a youth hunt in each zone, which gave young hunters a look at three different types of duck-hunting habitat. There are currently 100,000-plus hunters in the Garden State, of which only 10,000 are waterfowl hunters. Youth hunting days are designed to get more young hunters into the sport.