Volume XI, Issue 49 ~ December 4-10, 2003

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Burton on the Bay

Predator Balances Prey
Food for thought as deer hunters take to the fields

The woods were made for hunters of dreams,
The brooks for the fishers of song;
To the hunters who hunt for gunless game
The streams and the woods belong.
—Sam Walter Foss (1858-1911): The Bloodiest Sportsman

Maybe the woods were made for hunters of dreams at one time, but of late there are many across this state as well as the nation who try to make hunting a nightmare for hunters.

Back in the old days when I was a kid, the lady of the house rooted for the hunter. If he came home, his game bag empty, the stew would be watery: little more than parsnips, potatoes and onions. That was during the Great Depression, probably the last era in which the nimrod was depended on to put food on the table.

With few exceptions, things are different now; society is more affluent, at least not as poor. Thus not infrequently, the lady of the house today roots for the deer and other wildlife. Likewise with the kids.

Yet hunting is an American tradition; it became so out of necessity. Colonists with their primitive black-powder blunderbusses were depended on for protein in the family diet, and over the years thereafter, men and boys with guns helped the family budget by bringing home the game, which made for healthy eating, too.

Wildlife doesn’t have an easy life; there are no couch potatoes out there in the woods and fields, or on the marshes. Everything from squirrels to whitetail deer gets lots of exercise in their hunt for food; thus they carry little if any fat on their bodies. This, of course, means less fat and cholesterol intake for those of us who feast on them.

In addition, many hunters get much exercise in their quest to enrich the family larder; not all lounge in a stand high in the trees waiting for venison on the hoof to come to them. No sir, many hoof it themselves, miles upon miles in a day. And, if the trophy is a big buck, dragging it to the vehicle prompts more exercise than does a month of workouts in a fitness club.

This gets me to thinking. Is there any association between the lessening number of hunters and the increase in overweight men and boys in these times? On Saturdays in the old days, men and boys went hunting. Now their exercise is changing channels with remotes as they check the different college football games. All the exercise modern golfers get is stepping in and out of their carts.

Hunters’ Bounty
The Maryland modern firearms season for deer opened last Saturday, and by the time it closes more than a week hence, 75,000 hunters will have gone afield. Probably 60,000 whitetails and sikas will have been harvested. In this hunt alone, that means 3,750,000 pounds of healthy, practically fat-free tasty venison of some sort or other.

Much will end up in family freezers, but hundreds of thousands of pounds will be donated for a program called Farmers & Hunters Feeding the Hungry. In the program, more than a few nimrods donate a whole deer to the less fortunate who appreciate delicious protein on their table.

In addition, other than the food the hunter puts on his own table, that of neighbors and friends, and the needy, the hunter gets outdoors and gets some exercise. Not to be overlooked, he also is doing much of the suburban and rural citizenry a favor by removing some of the excessive deer from the highly overpopulated herds across the state.

Even those who do their utmost to stop the sport of hunting profit from the endeavors of the successful hunter. Each deer taken — and in this firearms season a hunter often gets more than one — means one less to eat ornamental shrubbery in their yards, the vegetation in their gardens, the fruit on their trees.

Also, they can drive more safely with fewer deer around to leap in front of their vehicles. The unlucky are injured as vehicles crash while trying to avoid deer; every year or two there is a fatality among those in the vehicles.

Maryland’s Deer Boom
The deer herd today in Maryland probably numbers 300,000, which is too much for the available habitat. Whitetails are browsers. They feed on vegetation, saplings, nuts and other mast, buds, tender new growth on trees and bushes, sometimes flowers, leaves and bark. In satisfying their appetites, too many deer not only eat things needed by other wildlife (and some people, primarily farmers) but also reduce habitat for other wildlife.

Small critters lose cover needed to protect them from the weather and from predators; the same for gamebirds and songbirds. We see evidence of it everywhere.

Yet last year in our state we harvested 94,114 deer: 51,290 by modern firearms hunters, 19,088 by bowhunters and 23,736 by muzzleloader hunters.

That’s not far from removing from the herd one in every three deer. I wonder: Do those who would put a stop to hunting ever consider the calamities on the home front (lawns and shrubbery), in the fields of farmers, on the highways and in the patches of wildlife habitat were it not for the nearly 100,000 deer removed by hunters each year?

In the first deer season of modern times in Maryland (1931), hunters took 32 whitetails. Deer were scarce; hunting was allowed only in Garrett and Allegany counties. Anyone who even saw a deer had something to talk about. Deer were primarily animals of the deep woods, marshes and swamps, sometimes venturing into the fields of farmers and orchardists.

A decade later, only five counties were opened to deer hunting, and Maryland’s harvest was 296. Another 10 years later, it was only 1,152 in 10 counties. When I arrived in Maryland in 1956, the kill was only 2,739. Keep in mind that the harvest is a reflection of deer numbers.

Anne Arundel County wasn’t opened until 1959 when only nine deer were taken. When Calvert County opened five years earlier, the bag was 10.

In the ’60s, development began big time. Traditional deer habitat began to fall to developers, but deer weren’t about to be squeezed out. Like wild turkeys and bears to follow, they learned to coexist with humankind and development. Tree clearing prompted regrowth. Where deer found new growth to eat, they lost some of their fear of humans, and they prospered. That prosperity accelerated. By 1981, everywhere there were signs of too many whitetails. Hunters were culling more than 15,000 annually, but that wasn’t enough. Not nearly enough.

Another decade later, the harvest had skyrocketed to 46,623, yet numbers still on the hoof were more than ever, much more than before Europeans settled here. To make matters worse, deer lost much of their fear; more than a few became bold enough to feed on decorative shrubs under the kitchen window. Think by comparison of what they were doing to their own habitat and that which they shared in the wild with other wildlife.

You might say by now they’re eating themselves out of house and home.

As hunters are afield, there are many others who wish they weren’t. No reasonable person likes killing, but there comes the time when it becomes necessary, and with deer that time is now.

We must preserve deer, and the best way to do it is to cull the herd. Doing so also preserves other wildlife whose habitat is threatened.

Crops, shrubbery, lawns, yes and even motorists and the fenders of their vehicles: All this is being saved at no costs to us thanks to hunters. They deserve a thank you, not scorn. Enough said …

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Last updated December 4, 2003 @ 1:35am.