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Whitetail population rises with winter temperatures


The first Saturday after Thanksgiving is traditionally opening day for Maryland's whitetail deer hunting season. However, 1992's regular firearms season will differ substantially from those of the past.

Five years of unusually mild winters, combined with various environmental changes, caused whitetail deer populations to explode to alarming proportions.

Commuters traveling between Bel Air and Baltimore constantly are looking out for herds of whitetails crossing busy U.S. 1 during early-morning rush hour, and local farmers say huge numbers of deer make nightly raids on corn and soybean crops.

To stabilize the burgeoning deer population, the Maryland Department of Natural Resources expanded the 1992 regular firearms season for whitetail deer to two weeks. Additionally, bonus deer stamps will be issued, allowing hunters to bag a second deer during the 13-day period.

Individual county restrictions dictate that bonus deer taken in Harford must be antlerless. Biologists claim this expanded season will not double the harvest, however, it should slow the population growth to a manageable level.

Four decades ago, Maryland's deer population was estimated at fewer than 5,000. In Harford County, deer sightings made front-page headlines in local newspapers because of their rarity.

During the 1976 firearms season, fewer than 50 whitetails were registered at the Forest Hill Deer Checking Station.

Last season, the checking station at FTS Taxidermy Studio, one of three such facilities in the county, checked in 539 deer during the firearms season alone, while the combined firearms, archery and muzzleloader harvest was a record 2,260. Of those, many were huge bucks sporting exceptionally large antlers.

What's your chance of bagging a trophy-sized whitetail during the 1992 season? "Pretty good," said DNR biologist Josh Sandt, director of the state's wildlife management programs.

"We refer to some areas of Harford County as sleepers. Hunters overlook farms situated close to population centers, believing deer can't exist close to people. Ironically, every year someone bags a big buck within sight of I-95 or just a few blocks from one of the county's major shopping centers."

Sandt added, "We're now seeing yearling doe give birth to single fawns during their first year of life. By the time they reach 2 years of age, they're having twins. The reasons behind this explosive population increase are not at all complex."

Weather plays a large role.

"First, you have to look at weather conditions for the past five years," said Sandt. "We've had extremely mild winters, early springs and relatively dry summers.

"Large, healthy doe produce large, healthy fawns, which also have an excellent chance for survival. If food is abundant, the newborns will quickly put on substantial amounts of weight, and by the time fall rolls around the yearlings will weigh 60 to 80 pounds or more."

DNR Police Capt. Peter Albertsen, commander of Maryland's northern region, said, "We're always getting calls about deer browsing in someone's back yard and eating expensive shrubbery. In many instances, deer walk across busy highways, totally ignoring traffic or people. Incidents such as these frequently take place in broad daylight, but the vast majority occur just after sunset.

"When the calls come in, we tell the folks calling that we'll be happy to send someone out to shoot the deer. Their response is usually one of shock or disbelief. Property owners want DNR police to either scare the deer away or trap and transport them to another area of the state.

"Unfortunately, we don't have any place to put them. Every county in Maryland has more deer than you can imagine and we're not the only state with this problem."

Although the 1991 regular firearms season's deer harvest decreased slightly over the previous year, archery and muzzleloader season kills increased by a significant degree in Harford, Baltimore, Carroll and Anne Arundel counties.

The increase was due in part to weather conditions, but it's mainly a reflection of the overall herd's condition. Deer seemed larger, antler size and point count improved and nearly every hunter reported seeing several deer during last year's six-day season.

Shortly after the Jan. 4 closure of muzzleloader season, deer herds were observed browsing in fields just outside Baltimore's Beltway. Many outsized bucks, sporting wide-beamed, thick-based antlers, were reported feeding in small patches of brush near major housing developments adjacent to city-owned reservoirs.

DNR wildlife biologists say state parks, such as Susquehanna, which currently prohibit hunting, are overpopulated with whitetails.

If the weather remains relatively mild, biologists claim there's an even chance that several huge bucks will be taken from the suburbs of Harford County. Who knows, a 300-pound, 12-point buck might be enjoying a leisurely life in the woods behind Harford Mall.

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