Tweaking Maryland's Deer Harvest

Tweaking Maryland's Deer Harvest

New regulations, new methods of hunting and more land open to deer hunters all add up to more whitetails being harvested in the Free State these days.

Photo by Jerry Amos

By Gary Diamond

While at press time Maryland had not finished tallying the state's total deer harvest, preliminary figures revealed a modest increase in the total number of deer bagged. While some counties experienced significant decreases, others had sharp increases, but these changes in harvest statistics may not reflect the overall status of the state's whitetail population.

From all outward appearances, and after more than two decades of adjusting the seasons and bag limits, wildlife biologists from the Maryland Department of Natural Resources (DNR) feel our state's whitetail population may have finally stabilized. This is based not on total harvest figures, but instead on the number of bucks harvested from various counties and smaller regions.

"Our deer population is very close to being stable," said deer biologist Doug Hotton. "The rule of thumb in deer management is if you don't change the opportunities for hunters to kill bucks, over time you'll see an increase in the number of bucks harvested and your total deer population will climb.

"If the number of bucks being harvested remains the same, that means the population is stable. On the other hand, if the number of bucks killed seems to be declining, that means the overall deer population is also declining. That's one of the best rules of deer management. Keep in mind, however, that in order to use these rules, you must keep the opportunities to kill bucks stable as well, and we've done this since 1998," Hotton continued.

"Prior to the mid-1990s, we had almost exponential growth in buck kill in Maryland. That meant that from the late 1970s through the early 1990s, our deer herds were growing rapidly. But since we began making those major changes during the mid- 1990s, we've seen the buck harvest figures go nearly unchanged. We're (DNR) really happy with what we've been able to achieve."

Naturally, there are areas where herd growth is completely out of control. These sites include state and municipal parks where hunting is either not permitted, or locations where there is little or no access and the wood lots have become isolated. Some progress has been noted in a few confined locations. In these instances, special hunts were put in place at some small segments of state parks where exploding whitetail populations had consumed nearly the entire forest understory.

Many federal lands that were closed to hunting after September 11, 2001, have now reopened to hunters; however, the activities are limited to only a few select locations for security reasons. The same is true of certain watershed properties and parklands surrounding the Washington, D.C., metropolitan area.

A good example of how quickly deer numbers can go awry was seen at two Washington Suburban Sanitary Commission watershed properties, Triadelphia and Rocky Gorge reservoirs. Prior to September 11, 2001, the watersheds were open to a limited number of hunters, who by and large kept the herd's growth at reasonable levels. But once these watersheds were closed to hunting, the ability to control deer numbers through hunting programs became nonexistent. Within two years, the watershed's herd was again out of control, and deer were consuming the forest understory at an alarming rate.

The watershed was again opened to limited numbers of hunters during January 2004, the final segment of Maryland's archery season. During this brief period, hunters managed to bag enormous numbers of deer. However, in areas where hunting is still not permitted, particularly near Brighton Dam, the deer are so numerous that you almost have to be a stunt driver to drive through the area after sundown. Local hunting organizations are trying to open more areas of the watershed to hunting during the upcoming seasons by applying political pressure on local officials.

No form of hunting is currently permitted at Loch Raven Reservoir and a large segment of Susquehanna State Park.

"We're making some progress in areas where hunting is permitted, but outside of those areas, especially lands surrounding the reservoirs, sportsmen would have to take a lot of deer each and every year just to stay even," said biologist Hotton.

In the small area of Susquehanna State Park, where hunting is now permitted through the managed hunt program, whitetail herds have decreased dramatically over the past three years. However, in the same park, particularly in the tract north of Deer Creek, there is no understory vegetation at all. Two decades ago, this location was completely overgrown with lush vegetation that was so dense you could not see more than a few feet.

Eric Cook, a DNR naturalist at Susquehanna and Rocks state parks, says the Park Service cannot open the segment of park north of Deer Creek, which is where much of the deer damage currently takes place.

"Though we manage the land along the old railroad tracks north of Deer Creek, it's just a narrow strip along the hiking trail. The surrounding land is actually owned by both Philadelphia Electric Company and a few private landholders. Consequently, we can't manage properties that we do not own or have management authority over. We have recently opened a new area to deer hunters at the top of the hill near the Stepping Stone Museum. That, added to our existing area, has almost doubled the acreage now open for managed hunts."

One of the real problem areas near metropolitan Baltimore is the Hammerman Area of Gunpowder State Park. It is a location where deer are so plentiful that speed limits have been lowered not only by the posting of signs, but also by the number of deer standing along both sides of the park's narrow roadways.

Every evening during the warmer months, hundreds of deer line the roadway and forage on roadside grasses and shrubs. During winter, when the ground is snow covered, the deer consume various tree branches, then switch to consuming bark from some of the softwoods found throughout the area.

While managed hunts have met with resistance here in the past, this particular location may soon be opened to limited numbers of hunters during the last month of Maryland's archery season. The problem here is somewhat complex, especially during the earlier seasons when the park still enjoys lots of visitors pursuing various forms of recreational activities.

The park bustles with recreational boating, crabbing and fishing, plus there are always picnics, family cookouts and a host of other activities taking place daily until well after Thanksgiving. There are even a few Christmas programs taking place in some of the

park's shelters. Consequently, this severely limits the time when hunting can take place safely.

Unfortunately, the deer population in this area of Gunpowder State Park is well beyond the land's carrying capacity. Some estimates put the number as high as 200 or more animals per square mile, and this was during a time when only a few whitetails congregated along the roadsides. Now, the deer make a daily sojourn to the roads to look for a handout from passing motorists. Some individuals have been cited for feeding the deer such things as doughnuts, French fries and old bread. Since then, signs have been posted that warn park visitors not to feed any of the park's animals. Hopefully, this will be the year managed hunts are permitted in this section of the park, and some local hunting organizations are taking steps to try to make this a reality for the 2004-05 late bow season.

Biologist Hotton says the increase in harvest during the 2003-04 regular firearm seasons was a modest 1.7 percent, during which time hunters bagged approximately 42,166 whitetails. It is estimated that each hunter spends about five days in the woods through the two-week firearms season.

"We're still crunching the numbers, and early indications are that Sunday hunting did have a significant impact on this year's harvest in counties where it was permitted," said Hotton. "Keep in mind that opening day's weather was abysmal this past year, and between the high winds, rain and cold, it's a wonder that anyone managed to bag a deer. It appeared that the 12 counties that did permit Sunday hunting made up for the opening day shortfalls statewide. We are very excited about this. Like any new program, sometimes it takes a while to catch on, but in this particular situation, I believe it will catch on pretty quickly. My prediction is that some of the counties that don't allow Sunday hunting will take a good look at the numbers and probably request Sunday hunting this coming season. Of course, this is out of the DNR's hands and must be approved by the state legislature in order for the program to be put in place."

Currently, more than half the state's 23 counties permit Sunday hunting, and at press time there was talk of legislation being introduced to open several more.

Hotton says Free State hunters can anticipate continuing to enjoy good to excellent whitetail hunting opportunities and success statewide, even in some of the urban and suburban areas where development has fragmented woodlands. Additionally, he says the county-by-county harvest figures can be somewhat misleading, especially since hunters were permitted to check in deer anywhere in the state instead of checking them in at a check station in the county where they were killed. "You have to look at both the zone and statewide harvest figures. We found out that when we tally the actual numbers in the computer, everything seems to balance out. Every year there are counties that seem like they've gone sky high, or dropped right down to the bottom, but what that is reflects more of where that hunter lives, which is often in an adjacent county. Sometimes the check station might be right on the county line, and a lot of hunters may just opt to go to the one closest to home," said Hotton.

One of the newest programs involves the use of crossbows for hunting during two 2-week periods, one in October and another in January. Hotton says while he believes the overall impact of crossbows on deer hunting will be minimal on a statewide basis, but on a local level, this highly accurate device will likely provide hunters with improved hunting opportunities at locations previous closed to deer hunting.

"We have lots of areas in suburban counties where the discharge of firearms is prohibited, but folks in those counties may permit the use of a crossbow because of its limited range capability. Once again, this will probably not be an overnight success, but it is a good tool in the deer management arsenal."

As for the introduction of new deer management programs, 2004 is when proposals for these programs will be put forth. The programs will run for the ensuing two years, then be re-evaluated at the end of that period. The proposals will be submitted for public scrutiny early in the year. Hotton says he's not expecting many changes during the upcoming seasons; however, there could be some counties added to the list of those allowing Sunday hunting.

In order to be involved in the managed hunt program, hunters must apply to the Maryland Department of Natural Resources for a managed hunt permit. Hunts will be conducted at the following sites:

Fair Hill Natural Resources Management Area (Cecil County, Region D), 376 Fair Hill Drive, Elkton, MD 21921 (will limit out at 240 hunters); for more info, call (410) 398-1246.

Gunpowder Falls State Park - Sweet Air and Pleasantville areas (Baltimore and Harford counties, regions C and D), P.O. Box 480, Kingsville, MD 21087 (limit 110 hunters); for more info, call (410) 592-2897.

Seneca Creek State Park - Clopper Area (Montgomery County, Region C), 11950 Clopper Road, Gaithersburg, MD 20878 (limit of 125 hunters); for more info, call (301) 924-2127.

Fort Frederick State Park - (Washington County, Region A) 11100 Fort Frederick Road, Big Pool, MD 21711 (limit of 50 hunters); for more info, call (301) 842-2155.

A $5 fee is required to hunt the above areas.

Those who wish to hunt the watershed properties at Triadelphia and Rocky Gorge reservoirs must pay a $30 fee; however, the seasons are considerably longer and there are lots of opportunities for those hunting on weekdays. Completed applications should be returned to the Gwynnbrook Wildlife Management Area, 3740 Gwynnbrook Ave., Owings Mills, MD 21117. Hunters may also receive an application by sending a self-addressed stamped envelope to the Gwynnbrook WMA address above. Hunters may also stop by the Gwynnbrook office between the hours of 1 p.m. to 4 p.m. to pick up and turn in applications. Incomplete applications will not be included in the lottery.

Applications can be found on the Internet at huntersguide/manhuntapps.html. Application deadlines and hunting dates vary from one location to another. For those who are not on-line and wish additional information, you can also contact the DNR's Wildlife Service in Annapolis, Maryland.

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