Tomorrow marks the start of the deer hunting season in Maryland. This year, the firearms season is doubled to two weeks to encourage hunters to reduce a deer population that threatens to mushroom out of control. The total kill is expected to reach nearly 50,000 whitetail -- out of a statewide herd of some 200,000.
Yet even a longer hunting season with more liberal bag limits this year will not achieve the major goal of game managers -- stabilizing the deer population to pre-1990 levels.
The problem is the astounding fecundity of females, who outnumber male deer by a whopping 4-1 margin and commonly give birth to twins and triplets. According to wildlife experts, without human intervention, the herd size could double in a single year.
Another obstacle to controlling the deer herd is that nuisance deer -- the ones that ravage crops and gardens, play chicken with autos and crash through glass windows -- live too close to people to be safely hunted. They will continue to multiply because they have ready access to abundant food sources from human neighbors, while their kin in the wilds are reduced by hunting. Their numbers may shrink this winter, but will increase again by the spring. The hunting season isn't working.
Yet this ritualistic sport is big business, with an estimated $75 million impact on Maryland's economy. It is a sport enjoyed by 120,000 license holders. But it is not the most effective means of managing natural deer herd populations.
In an increasingly urbanized environment, should this sport continue? In shrinking recreation wildlands frequented by nonhunters, is deer hunting a growing danger? Increasing complaints from farmers and householders about trespass, property damage and endangerment of life from hot-blooded hunters add to questions about the viability of deer hunting in this region.
We are on record in favor of giving licenses to professional hunters to selectively cull state deer herds, killing target animals. We believe that many bow or firearm marksmen would pay to qualify for such selection and would eagerly take the advanced training to ensure an effective hunt.
Surely, this would not establish a perfect balance of nature, since that remains highly capricious. But selective culling certainly would provide a more sensible biological tool than Maryland's amateur open season that now passes for wildlife management.