Populations of white-tail deer, Odocoileus virginianus, have erupted in response to freedom from natural predators, an abundance of favorable habitat, and protective game laws. In the early 1990's, Maryland's deer population was estimated at 160,000 animals. The density ranged from approximately 25 deer per square mile in the rural regions of the State, to 15 deer per square mile in the suburban areas.
These densities are high compared with the number of deer that most of Maryland can support. Wildlife biologists calculate carrying capacities that indicate the number of deer an area of land can support without affecting the health of the deer and the quality of the plant community.
When there are too many animals for the land to support, the competition for food becomes intense. Nutritious foods become sparse, and without adequate diets, deer are small and unhealthy. While deer are browsers relying primarily on woody plants, they will eat agricultural crops and landscape plants.
In areas heavily browsed by deer the diversity of plants is often dramatically reduced. Many understory plants and tree species are eliminated, including orchid, lily, white ash, yellow-poplar, hemlock, pin cherry, oak, sugar maple, and aspen. Other plant species are adapted to survive repeated browsing. They include black cherry, beech, striped maple, raspberry and blackberry, and wild grape.
Forested areas are difficult to regenerate when deer browsing pressure is high. Recovery from natural disturbances and cutting is slowed. Forests that survive repeated browsing develop slowly with widely spaced trees of low vigor, poor form, and few species.
In 1992, about 107,000 hunters participated in bow, muzzle-loading, and rifle season. About one quarter of these hunters harvested more than one deer each. Additionally, about 50% of the deer harvested were bucks with antlers, 40% were doe, and 10% were young bucks without antlers. In 1994, hunting reduced the number of deer by almost 51,000 animals.