Deer Hunting: An Effective Management Tool

The Maryland Department of Natural Resources (DNR) is responsible for the conservation and management of the state's native white-tailed deer population. The department's primary deer conservation goals are to ensure the well-being of the species and its habitat while maintaining populations at levels compatible with human activity, land use, and natural communities. While there are both lethal and non-lethal methods for managing deer, regulated hunting remains the most effective tool for maintaining deer populations at appropriate levels, both in Maryland and throughout North America.

Hunting as a management tool — how does it work?

Through the early and mid-1900s, when native white-tailed deer populations were being restored in Maryland (having been severely depleted by settlers and habitat destruction during the preceding two centuries), regulations restricted the taking of female deer to allow relocated populations to proliferate and expand into vacant habitat. Since a single male deer can breed with multiple does, removing bucks does not affect overall populations; however, if enough does are removed, the number of fawns born is lowered and overall numbers are affected.

By the early 1960s, through relocation efforts of wildlife agencies and cooperating sportsmen, deer populations occupied all available deer habitat. As these new populations thrived with enhanced food and cover that occurred during their earlier period of decline, it became necessary to alter regulations and encourage the harvest of female deer.

Hunting regulations that encourage the taking of antlerless deer — does and young bucks without antlers — increases the harvest of female deer and helps quell reproduction. As result, areas in Maryland managed with deer hunting have lower deer densities than areas where hunting is prohibited.

In suburban areas — where deer populations above the cultural carrying capacity are responsible for thousands of deer-vehicle collisions and damaging natural and ornamental vegetation — special managed hunts (restricting harvests to antlerless deer or requiring an antlerless deer be taken before an antlered deer may be pursued) help prevent the increased reproduction that would occur in a non-hunted population.

Does hunting cause deer to flee their home range?

Contrary to what some may believe, deer will not often leave their home ranges in response to hunting. As a prey species, they have adapted to predation by man, wolves and mountain lions over thousands of years. So, while deer may run from predators, or seek out thick cover and remain motionless to avoid them, they will remain within their home range. Female white-tailed deer have home ranges of about one square mile, while adult males can have ranges of five miles or greater.

Is there a connection between fall hunting season and a simultaneous increase in deer-vehicle collisions?

The short answer is no. Deer move about more during the fall due to reproductive behavior. The vast majority of white-tailed deer in Maryland breed the first two weeks of November. It is this breeding activity, that starts increasing in October, that significantly increases the movement of deer and brings them into contact with roadways more often. Likewise, the vast majority of fawns are born in late May and early June, and female deer increase movements prior to fawning as they increase food intake in preparation for nursing.

Seasonally, yearling bucks may disperse many miles as natural behavior that reduces the chance of a young male interbreeding with his dam or female siblings. At about six months, bucks experience initial separations from their dams and begin to explore new habitats. These behaviors can also cause more deer-vehicle collisions.

Why are deer numbers higher in suburban and urban areas than in rural areas of Maryland?

Deer thrive and find abundant food in habitats where woodlands are interspersed with open areas. When wooded areas become housing developments, some sections are cleared for roads and home sites, while with others remain forested; new homeowners then plant ornamental shrubs and seed the yard. When open farmland is developed, new residents plant trees in addition to shrubs and seeded lawns. Both of these types of development actually improve habitat for deer. At the same time, hunting within the forested or agricultural landscapes is either eliminated or restricted, affording deer both improved habitat with reduced mortality, resulting in elevated deer populations.

Why aren't deer numbers naturally controlled by nature?

Today, in Maryland, man — an integral part of nature and the food chain — is the only remaining effective deer predator. While black bears, coyotes, and bobcats do catch and consume white-tailed deer, they primarily only focus on fawns for a short period in the spring, and their actions do not significantly alter deer populations. These predators rarely predate adult deer, and often when they do, it is because the deer is sick or otherwise unhealthy.

Man has been an effective predator of deer for thousands of years. In more modern times, Spanish explorer Hernando de Soto documented the use of venison and deer hides by Native Americans in southeastern North America during the early 1500s. In 1634, Roman Catholic priest Father Andrew White, an early settler in Maryland, wrote that the bountiful white-tailed deer were "...rather an annoyance than an advantage."

Native Americans hunted deer year round across Maryland, using fires to drive deer which ultimately helped provide excellent habitat. When Europeans arrived on North America's shores, they learned to hunt deer from the Native Americans. Early colonists used the venison to feed their families and the hides for clothing. As the settlers' populations increased, the demand for white-tailed deer rose above its reproductive potential and the habitat's carrying capacity. The science of conservation with hunting seasons and bag limits did not exist.

Man also destroyed much of the white-tailed deer's habitat through the removal of trees when wood products were required for homes and heat sources. At that time, new trees were not planted to replace those harvested as practiced in modern forestry science. Interestingly enough, most humans can be classified as predators or scavengers through their food habits. When people purchase meat at a grocery store, they function ecologically as scavengers; someone else has taken and processed a live animal. When an individual fishes for rockfish or crabs in the Chesapeake Bay, or hunts for deer in Maryland's woodlands, he or she is functioning ecologically as a predator.

What about the dangers involved with deer hunting?

While all outdoor activities carry the risk of personal injury, hunting ranks very low when compared with other popular pursuits. Swimming, fishing, water skiing, bicycling, basketball and baseball all have higher injury rates than hunting. Likewise, hunting injuries are almost always self-inflicted or to another member of a hunting party. It is extremely rare for a non-hunting member of the public to be injured by a hunter.

Most hunting accidents do not involve the discharge of a bow or firearm. The vast majority of injuries and fatalities associated with hunting today are related to falling from tree stands while deer hunting. As a result, DNR specifically addresses this topic in various education and outreach materials.

To be sure that hunting remains a safe sport, all states require hunters to take a hunter safety course. In Maryland, the Natural Resource Police coordinate firearm and hunter safety instruction. Additionally, many managed deer hunts require that hunters can demonstrate that they are safe hunters through tests and shooter qualifications.

How do citizens feel about hunting as a method to control deer populations?

While only small percentage of Marylanders hunt (2 – 3%), the majority of citizens recognize the value of deer hunting as a management tool and support its use. A 2018 public opinion survey​ by Responsive Management found that 41 percent of the Maryland general public were strongly in favor of deer hunting, 26 percent were somewhat in favor, 16 percent were neutral or had no opinion, seven percent were somewhat opposed to deer hunting and 10 percent were strongly opposed. Similarly, 77 percent of the general public agreed or strongly agreed that deer should be hunted to maintain a healthy population. The survey found that population control and for the food (venison) were the most important reasons for deer hunting.

Do hunters pursue deer primarily as trophies?

No. Responsive Management (2018) reported that only two percent of Maryland deer hunters responded that taking a trophy was the most important reason for deer hunting. Hunting for the meat was the most important reason for deer hunting (42%), followed by recreation (15%), camaraderie (14%), and deer population control (13%).

What qualifies DNR professionals as wildlife biologists or to manage deer and other species?

Maryland's wildlife biologists possess degrees from many of the colleges and universities that teach wildlife management and biology. These degrees require coursework in zoology, botany, and wildlife management. In addition, coursework in agronomy, chemistry, physics, calculus, statistics, technical writing and public speaking is often required of undergraduates. Many wildlife biologists hold master's degrees that require planning, implementing, and publishing original wildlife research projects.

Some professionals are Certified Wildlife Biologists with The Wildlife Society, publisher of the Journal of Wildlife Management, Wildlife Monographs and the Wildlife Society Bulletin. These publications contain peer reviewed papers regarding wildlife management issues including deer management.

Maryland's DNR wildlife biologists continue their educations by reviewing current, relevant published research and by regularly attending conferences relating to their specialties. Biologists from around the country and Canada meet annually to exchange information regarding deer biology and management.

What are the sources of funds used by DNR to conserve Maryland's white-tailed deer? Approximately 95 percent of funding for all of Maryland's wildlife programs (including deer) comes from the sale of hunting and trapping licenses and from matching Pittman-Robertson federal excise tax funds generated from the sale of sport hunting devices and ammunition. Less than 1% of funding for Maryland’s Wildlife programs comes from the State of Maryland’s general fund.

Literature Cited

Responsive Management, Inc. 2018. Maryland residents’, landowners’, and hunters’ attitudes toward deer hunting and deer management. Harrisonburg, VA. Funded by the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, Wildlife and Sport Fish Restoration Program, Grant No. W-61-R-29, Job No. 354.

Contact: Brian Eyler
Deer Project Biologist
Wildlife & Heritage Service
Phone: 301-842-0332​​