Archers in Maryland, New Jersey and Delaware continue to reap the rewards of earlier seasons and more access near suburban sprawl.
While hunting license sales continue to decline nationwide, white-tailed deer harvests have demonstrated dramatic increases throughout their range. In fact, current population trends indicate that herd sizes could possibly double within the next decade, particularly in urban locations where hunting is either not practical, or as is the case in a growing number of sites, prohibited altogether. And in many of these problem areas, deer have outstripped the environment's ability to support their burgeoning population densities.
Compounding the explosive whitetail population problem are significant losses of available hunting lands. This is particularly true in the private sector where urban sprawl is gobbling up massive areas of farmland to create tract housing, shopping malls and industrial complexes.
Some state parks that were once open to hunting now prohibit most hunting activities, particularly if it involves the use of firearms. Fortunately, some locations remain open to bowhunters, but many of the parks only permit this activity in very small, remote segments of a particular park, thus the problem of overpopulation and environmental destruction by marauding herds of whitetails is not addressed.
Crop damage permits are now being issued routinely to farmers who experience financial losses from deer depredation. Ironically, homeowners who experience huge financial losses because of deer damage on very expensive shrubs, exotic trees and ornamental plants cannot obtain depredation permits.
"You must be a farmer who sells your crops in order to obtain a deer damage permit from Maryland's Department of Natural Resources (DNR)," said Ron Norris at the Bel Air regional office of Maryland's Wildlife Service. "There are no provisions for homeowners to obtain deer damage permits."
A representative from the DNR's Wildlife Service has been meeting with homeowners trying to convince them to permit hunting on their lands, but again, this does not fully address the deer overpopulation problem. Even if the homeowners permitted access to their property, sportsmen will still be limited to the regular seasons and bag limits. This limited hunting access often will not cull herd density enough to bring about sufficient decreases in overall deer population numbers.
Essentially, the only method of controlling each jurisdiction's whitetail population is through recreational hunting. As the number of hunters and available lands slowly decline, wildlife managers have attempted to offset this by increasing the seasons and bag limits. To some degree, this has been effective, but naturally, this only applies to areas where hunting is still permitted. Consequently, if you have access to lands adjacent to closed areas, there's an excellent chance you will be able to bag a deer because of the spillover effect.
A case in point, the Aberdeen Proving Grounds, a federal reservation located in Harford County, Maryland, is approximately 30 miles northeast of metropolitan Baltimore. Since the deadly September 11 terrorist attack on New York's World Trade Center and the Pentagon in Washington, D.C., most federal reservations have been subject to heightened alert status, thereby making access very restrictive at best.
Consequently, those military bases that at one time permitted limited civilian access for hunting now only allow base employees and service personnel this option. This decrease in hunting pressure led to huge increases in herd densities that were already well beyond the land's carrying capacity. This population density is forcing deer to leave the base in order to find sufficient food to survive. Hunters who were able to find suitable hunting sites within a mile or two of Aberdeen Proving Grounds and the Edgewood Arsenal went from spotting a few deer daily, to seeing dozens every time they ventured into the woods.
In Baltimore County, the Hammerman Area of Gunpowder State Park has a whitetail population that boggles the mind. Latest herd density estimates ranged from 210 to 240 deer per square mile. So it's no surprise that this herd has consumed every living plant from the forest floor to a height of 6 feet.
During the summer months, picnickers and hikers encounter deer that are now so hungry that they've taken to panhandling for food. Some individuals talked about young fawns walking up to their picnic tables and trying to grab a piece of food directly from the table. However, when it was suggested that this area be opened to limited numbers of hunters, the major opposition came from Maryland's own Park Service, claiming they didn't see the deer as being a problem. Later that same year, signs were posted at the park warning people not to feed the deer.
While a managed deer hunt was conducted at the Hammerman Area last fall, it was limited to a small area adjacent to the old marina where very little browse remained. Thus, the number of deer bagged was not nearly what wildlife managers had hoped for. If locations closer to Dundee Creek Marina and the Hammerman park section allowed hunting, the harvest would have been considerably higher. Another very limited hunt has been planned for the same area again this fall, and wildlife managers anticipate the harvest will be similar to last season's.
What do bowhunters in the Mid-Atlantic region have in store for them during the upcoming archery seasons? If current whitetail population trends continue, bagging six or more deer during the fall and winter bow seasons would not be out of the realm of possibility.
MARYLAND DEER HUNTING
"I'm seeing a half-dozen deer every day while out walking my dog," said Forest Hill resident Walt Young. "They're bedding down just inside the edge of the woods behind my house, and sometimes there are a couple of does bedded down underneath the neighbor's spruce trees that are 20 feet from the street. At night, when I'm coming home from work, it's not unusual to see 25 to 30 or more deer standing in one small field at the end of my road. I've never seen this many deer in more than 30 years of hunting in Maryland."
Young has been hunting a small patch of woods directly behind his Harford County home. During the past decade, he annually bagged an average of seven to eight deer. More often than not, he'll bag a big doe on opening day of bow season, which he says puts fresh venison steaks in the freezer. Then he gets a bit more serious and selective, looking for that big 12-pointer that during the past two years has been tearing up his vegetable garden at night. "Maybe I'll get a clean shot with the bow this fall when the deer begin to go into rut. If not, there's always shotgun season."
Harford County hunters only bagged 885 whitetails during the 2004-05 archery season, the total number of deer does not often reflect hunter success rates. High deer herd densities, particularly in small wood lots, often produce overall hunter success rates approaching 100 percent. While in western Maryland's Washington County where 1,307 deer were harvested during the same period, the overall hunter success rate may only be 60 percent.
The top county in Maryland for the past few years has been Baltimore County, which currently is undergoing dramatic changes because of urban sprawl. Huge housing developments have replaced most of the county's small to midsized agricultural operations, and fields that once grew corn are now sprouting huge homes.
The woodlands that remain are overrun with massive herds of white-tailed deer, animals that take refuge in 5 to 15 acres of dense woods during the day and prowl residential neighborhoods for food at night. Bowhunters bagged 2,057 whitetails in Baltimore County during all of the last seasons. The majority of these deer were antlerless. Of the total, 782 were bucks, which represents a 13 percent decrease in the number of bucks taken when compared to the previous season.
Washington County, which experienced a 13.4 percent increase in overall harvest, had a total of 1,482 deer taken by bowhunters. Ironically, there were 23.1 percent fewer bucks harvested, which translates to an 82 percent increase in antlerless deer harvest.
Maryland DNR Director Mike Slattery said, "We're to the point now where we've achieved a good, overall whitetail herd balance in the state's western zone, and the harvest ratio seems to be right about where we had hoped. We still have many problem areas in the eastern zone, but we're doing our best to address those by adjusting bag limits and season lengths."
The number of hunters in most western Maryland counties is considerably higher than the number of hunters found in the state's eastern zone. Much of this can be readily attributed to the amount of public lands open to hunting, particularly in many of the mountainous regions where some state parks and WMAs cover thousands of acres.
Some state parks that were once open to hunting now prohibit most hunting activities, particularly if it involves the use of firearms.
Frederick County, which is just over an hour's drive from metropolitan Baltimore, provides hunters with vast tracts of hardwood-covered mountains, all of which hold good to excellent populations of deer. Last season, bowhunters bagged 1,301 deer from both private and public lands, which translates into a decrease of 12.6 percent in the overall bow harvest for that county. However, there was a 13.9 percent increase in antlerless harvest to help offset the 30.8 percent decrease in the number of bucks taken. In both Washington and Frederick counties, hunter success ratios during bow season were estimated at 60 to 75 percent on average, and higher in some isolated locations.
NEW JERSEY DEER
New Jersey's overall whitetail harvest fell by more than 10,000 deer during the 2004-05 combined seasons; however, this does reflect a change in the state's deer population. Deer hunters and wildlife biologists alike are confident that the state's deer herds are stable in the western zones, while in central and eastern zones their population continues to rise.
Last year's weather significantly impacted the overall deer harvest, particularly during the permit and winter bow seasons. When it wasn't pouring, temperatures quickly dropped and the passage of cold fronts produced high winds, snow squalls and freezing rain conditions, which are unsuitable for even the most ardent hunter.
Similar to Maryland, the largest number of whitetails was bagged in the state's northwest sector, which is also where the largest tracts of public lands are open to hunters. Zone 8, located partly in Hunterdon, Morris and Warren counties, traditionally provides the high number of deer for bowhunters during the permit bow season. This was again the case last year when nearly 900 whitetails were bagged during the permit season. Yet, when the weather turned nasty later in the year, only 60 deer were taken during the winter bow season.
Just a short distance to the south of Zone 8, Zone 12 hunters enjoyed a similar permit bow season with slightly over 800 whitetails bagged in the rolling foothills and mountains of Hunterdon and Somerset counties. Again, when winter bow season arrived, the weather was about as bad as anyone could imagine, with much freezing rain. Consequently, the harvest fell to just over 50 animals.
Zone 5, situated high in the mountains of Warren and Sussex counties, consistently provides hunters with numerous hunting opportunities, particularly during the permit bow season. Last season's harvest was obviously off a bit with just under 500 deer. Even so, some of the state's largest bucks came from this region's vast public-land acreage. Only 25 deer were taken from the rugged peaks during the winter bow season, which is understandable when weather conditions are taken into consideration.
Ironically, New Jersey's problem counties when it comes to herd density are within zones where human populations are among the lowest. Zones 10 and 11, along the shores of the Delaware River in Hunterdon County, have experienced explosive growth in the number of whitetails. In some locations, the herd density well exceeds 70 deer per square mile. Granted, Garden State herd densities are nowhere near Maryland's problem sections, but the land's ability to support the population is already being stressed to the breaking point. Therefore, when it comes down to where Garden State hunters will find the best bowhunting success, they'll see more deer in zones situated along the Delaware River's upper reaches than any other part of the state.
Delaware's deer hunters were deluged with torrential rains throughout most of the entire season last year. These conditions kept many hunters out of the woods. Interestingly, though, this did not adversely impact the state's overall whitetail harvest. One reason is the First State's whitetail populations continue to increase by leaps and bounds, especially in urban sprawl problem areas. Consequently, hunter success rates follow the same trend, especially at locations where hunters can gain access to small, isolated wood lots relatively close to development areas.
Delaware's deer hunters were deluged with torrential rains throughout most of the entire season last year. These conditions kept many hunters out of the woods.
According to Ken Reynolds, Delaware DNR's leading wildlife biologist, most of the deer bagged during all seasons combined are taken from the state's central and southern regions, with the largest numbers coming from within Sussex County. This is also where most of the state's farming operations and wildlife management areas are situated, thereby providing hun
ters with lots of room to roam and find that big buck.
"We had a record harvest for both bow and firearms hunters," Reynolds said. "Our hunter success rates are approaching 50 to 60 percent for bowhunters, and of course it's much higher for firearms hunters. During the 2004-05 archery season, bowhunters bagged 1,563 whitetails, which is the highest ever recorded. Our previous record was 1,284 deer during the same period."
Reynolds said First State sportsmen can probably expect to enjoy continuing increases in overall hunter success in the ensuing years. And at the current rate the whitetail population is increasing, he anticipates many calls from irate landowners pertaining to marauding herds of deer eating everything in sight.
Similar to Maryland and New Jersey, Delaware is experiencing the problems associated with urban sprawl, and those problems are slowly but surely migrating south. A growing number of small farms near metropolitan Salisbury, Maryland, which is just a few miles from the Delaware state line, have given way to the bulldozer and tract housing. Deer have to live somewhere -- and I bet we can all guess where some of these places are. Access is the key to effective deer management in many areas of each state.