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Volume 15, Issue 47 ~ November 22 - November 28, 2007

What’s Good for the Deer
is Good for the Doe

There’s no gender bias among deer hunters

Thanks to Walt Disney, hunters refer to it as the Bambi Syndrome. Ever since the popular flick featuring the hardships of a motherless fawn, the big sorrowful eyes of Hollywood’s Bambi are fixed in the minds of non-hunters.

Chances are, after the announcement of the planned hunt on the ’morrow, the first thing the hunter or huntress will hear is How can you?

I’ve been to parties when the distressed person wondering How can you? has abruptly wheeled and headed to the farthest side of the room as if I had a live cobra on my shoulders — or, worse still, was about to present a fawn’s eyeball on a toothpick.

The Cult of the Antlered Deer

Many old-time hunters wouldn’t be caught dead checking in an antlerless deer or one with spikes or just several points. One such deer wouldn’t impress anyone back in camp — even if used as table fare for the remainder of the hunt.

Like everything else, deer hunting has changed dramatically in the past half century. I was in my 20s before shooting antlerless deer was even suggested; the hunter who’d listen to such trash ended up the club’s dishwasher. The rallying cry among the opponents of doe shooting was How can we continue to have deer hunting if we start killing all the mothers?

if You Can’t Beat ’em, Join ’em

With hunting restricted to bucks with antlers of three inches or more, deer herds were getting out of whack. The number of unmolested does — vulnerable only to poaching, disease and starvation — shifted support in favor of easing laws and regulations based on gender. Deer managers and the rest of the scientific community saw the handwriting on the wall.

At the same time, development was making big strides, and wildlife habitat turning into houses, businesses, highways and such. Creatures theretofore considered of the deep woodlands suddenly did a curious thing: They decided if you can’t beat ’em, join ’em.

Deer, turkeys, bear and other wildlife became neighbors with humans, who at first were pleased. They’d never thought that from their windows they would see such wildlife. It was new and exciting. But only for a while.

That view changed when ornamental trees and shrubs, along with backyard garden vegetables, ended up in the bellies of deer.

Many does birthed two and three offspring with much greater chances of survival, and the does among them contributed more to the overall deer herd. This couldn’t go on forever.

Shortsighted hunters and anti-hunter extremists were the last to hold out; killing mothers still made no sense as a tool to bring about a healthier and more abundant herd. I recall, after checking out the theories of deer managers, I spoke at a Bennington, Vt., rod and gun club to outline the thinking of wildlife managers. The audience was silent, shocked. Being an outdoor columnist, I was supposed to be on their side.

I didn’t get home until after midnight; when the meeting was over nearly everyone at the clubhouse buttonholed me. How could I? More than a few threatened to stop reading my column — though I told them that at the time I wasn’t fully convinced, had just tried to air the other side of controversy.

Then they turned to the last big argument of those opposing antlerless deer hunting: There will be black wreaths on the doors of hunters’ houses everywhere. Meaning that hunters would be killed because their comrades afield would no longer have to hold fire until they checked for antlers on their target.

That wasn’t nonsense. Sound shots — fired by an anxious hunter at any noise thought to be a deer — have killed many hunters. So there was a tad of justification in opposing a rule that required a hunter to positively identify the target.

The Just Balance

But in the end, science ruled. Antlerless hunting has become the norm. In most states, it is encouraged to control the growth of deer herds. Maryland is among states that encourage a bigger antlerless bag by lessening restrictions on them. But we still have too many deer in all but Western Maryland.

When I came to Maryland 51 years ago, deer hunting was strictly antlered bucks only. In the late 1950s a few antlerless hunts were tried in lower Eastern Shore counties — and no black wreaths adorned the doors of hunters’ homes. Since then, antlerless hunting has taken over in all counties and with the approval of most hunters and citizens — with the exception of some in the far west of the state.

Today, Marylanders have the best deer hunting ever, better than even in fabled Maine. We have more deer than when the Indians occupied our space. The herd has probably quadrupled since I arrived in ’56. Long ago, I became an ardent booster of antlerless hunting. But I must admit I got a hard lump in my stomach when I witnessed a hunter check in a true Bambi in Dorchester County several years ago.

He carried it in his arms at the checking station. It wasn’t much bigger than his beagle that trotted behind. There are times when common sense should rule — and this was one of them. Enough said.

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