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.

Hunting remains the primary method for maintaining deer populations at appropriate levels, both in Maryland and throughout North America, despite vocal and visible protests of animal rights organizations.

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 biologists and 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.

Regulations that encourage the taking of antlerless deer — does and young bucks without antlers — selectively remove females and help quell reproduction. And studies have proven what common sense dictates: areas in Maryland with deer hunting have fewer deer than sections where hunting is prohibited.

In suburban areas — where deer populations above the cultural carrying capacity are increasingly involved in vehicle collisions and damaging vegetation — special managed hunts (restricting harvests to antlerless deer or requiring an antlerless deer be taken before an antlered deer may be pursued) prevent the increased reproduction that would occur in a non-hunted population. In Seneca Creek State Park, for example, the section closed to hunting is home to approximately five times as many deer as the area where hunting is permitted.

Does hunting cause deer to flee their home range?

Contrary to what some may believe, deer will not 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.

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

The short answer is no. Deer move about more during the fall due to reproductive behavior. Seasonally, yearling bucks may travel many miles in a natural dispersal that reduces the chance of a young male interbreeding with his mother or female siblings. At about six months, bucks experience initial separations from their mothers and begin to explore new habitats. Mature bucks and does increase movement in order to find breeding partners.

Deer/vehicle accidents declined by more than one half as a result of managed hunting programs in sections of Montgomery County. Lethal deer control in Lynchburg, Virginia and at the United States Air Force Academy in Colorado also reduced 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. 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.

Many hunting accidents do not involve the discharge of a bow or firearm. Of the 10 hunting accidents recorded in Maryland during the 2005 -2006 season, 6 resulted from falls out of tree stands. Maryland's Natural Resource Police coordinate firearm and hunter safety instruction. Many special managed deer hunts require certification of this instruction in addition to a special qualification test.

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

A survey by C. Mason Ross Associates, Inc. of Annapolis found that the majority of Marylanders - 67 percent of Western Maryland citizens, 58 percent of central Maryland citizens and 7 out of 10 Eastern Shore residents — support deer hunting for deer population control.

A recent survey by the Howard County Deer Task Force verified citizen support for regulated deer hunting. Citizens rated various deer management strategies on a scale from not acceptable (0) to most acceptable (5), and each strategy was given a total average score. Regulated hunting (3.05) and experimental deer contraception (3.14) topped the list of all potential strategies. A 2003 survey by Responsive Management regarding Maryland citizen’s hunting attitudes also found broad-based support for all legal hunting, with 78 percent of Maryland citizens approving of legal hunting.

Do hunters pursue deer primarily as trophies?

C. Mason Ross Associates' survey reported that less than 4 percent of Maryland deer hunters considered taking a trophy as the most important reason for deer hunting. Deer population control, recreation and food topped the list as the three most important reasons for deer hunting.

Responsive Management's national survey found that 43 percent of hunters hunt for recreation, 25 percent hunt for meat and 21 percent hunt to be close to nature.

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

Maryland's wildlife biologists possess degrees from many of the 43 universities that teach wildlife management and biology. Each graduate must complete numerous courses in zoology, botany and wildlife management.In addition course work in agronomy, chemistry, physics, calculus, statistics, technical writing and public speaking is 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?

About 73 percent of funding for all of Maryland's wildlife programs (including deer) comes from the sale of hunting and trapping licenses and fees from the Pittman-Robertson federal excise tax on sport hunting devices and ammunition. Less than 1% of funding for Maryland’s Wildlife programs comes from the State of Maryland’s general fund.

- L. Douglas Hotton, author
Contact: Brian Eyler
Deer Project Biologist
Wildlife & Heritage Service
Phone: 301-842-0332