Three years ago, realizing that hunters were not effectively controlling the numbers of deer in many areas of the state, the Department of Natural Resources started looking hard for hunting solutions to population control.
Among the options were an early black powder season, an additional January season for modern firearms or an extension of the traditional one-week firearms season that starts in November.
Two years ago, the traditional season for modern firearms was extended to two weeks, and now, with the deer population still expanding in all but the western counties, it is possible that DNR will move quickly toward a black powder season Oct. 20-22.
An early black powder season causes some concern among modern firearms hunters and bow hunters. Could this new season have an adverse impact on opening day for modern firearms a month later, or would the new, three-day season take unduly from the bowhunters, who prize the days from late October until the first Saturday after Thanksgiving?
In both cases, the modern firearms hunter and the bow hunter probably stand to lose some ground.
But the two more important questions are whether the deer management program needs more hunting pressure and whether licensed Maryland hunters want that increase in pressure to be in the form of an early muzzleloader season.
DNR's Wildlife Division obviously believes that more hunting pressure is necessary except perhaps in the mountainous regions of the western counties, where the deer population has been stabilized.
To determine what hunters want, last autumn DNR paiResponsive Management, a national public survey organization, to survey licensed hunters in Maryland because public meetings during the past few years had sent mixed messages to game managers.
"Although public information meetings are a good way to get an idea of how people feel, I usually feel that at those meetings those who are either very supportive or adamantly against those proposals are usually the ones we hear from," said Joshua Sandt, director of DNR's Wildlife Division. "We don't hear from that 'silent majority' out there."
Enter Responsive Management, which, during the past 10 years, has completed more than 50 surveys for 40 wildlife or environmental organizations from the Canadian Wildlife Service to the Florida Fish and Game Commission and is a consultant to Gallup for similar surveys.
The goals set for Responsive Management by DNR were:
* To seek advice from and understand hunters' perceptions and opinions of current deer hunting seasons in the state.
* To seek support from an advisory groups representing bow hunters, black powder hunters and modern firearms hunters on questions and methods to be used to survey hunters.
* To conduct a scientifically and politically acceptable random sample telephone survey to better understand and define hunters' opinions, knowledge and attitudes toward the season structures.
* To assist DNR in developing acceptable and equitable seasons for all user groups.
Mark Duda, executive director of Responsive Management, said recently, "There are three phases to wildlife management -- first is wildlife population, second is wildlife habitat and the third is human population."
Departments of natural resources everywhere spend large sums for improved wildlife populations and premium habitat and base their spendings largely on scientific method.
"But when it comes to that third element, people, the human dimension, we sort of guess a lot of the time," Duda said. "[But] we can study people in the same deliberate and scientific way that we study wildlife species and habitat."
To study the hunting public, Duda said, one must first understand that there is "no such thing as the general public" or even a general hunter.
People who live in rural areas think differently about wildlife thado people in urban or suburban areas. Older citizens think
differently about wildlife than do people who are 25 to 40 years old. Women think differently about wildlife than do men.
There are meat hunters, trophy hunters and those who hunt for what Duda calls "the naturalistic experience."
"And we can verify that through surveys," Duda said. "That it is not this one sort of homogeneous public out there."
While the survey of licensed hunters looked at many issues, the "heart of the questionnaire," Duda said, was the matter of an early black powder season, its length, its placement in the hunting calendar and whether both antlered and antlerless deer should be hunted.
Hunters surveyed were selected by going through file cabinets at DNR that were filled with copies of current hunting licenses and pulling every 60th name for a potential sample pool of 1,820 hunters. After a postcard mailing to that sample pool and a follow-up mailing, 633 hunters met the requirements as part of a telephone survey.
"Every single licensed hunter in the state had an equal probability to be asked these questions," Duda said, noting that the telephone survey is subject to a plus or minus four percent variance. "That is the first half of a scientifically designed survey. The second half of the survey is the questions."
Concerned that hunters in general would believe that DNR or Responsive Management would create questions that would provide the answers DNR wanted, Sandt solicited from hunting groups in the state nominations for two bow hunters, two black powder hunters and two modern firearms hunters to help design the questionnaire.
"We [DNR] were not part of the survey," Sandt said. "We asked these six people to sit with [Responsive Management] and develop the survey. So that way each one of the groups had ownership of the survey and bow hunters couldn't accuse muzzleloader hunters of stacking the deck, and vice versa."
The six members of the advisory group discussed issues that DNR wanted to address and had to agree on the form of each question to be asked would provide an unbiased answer.
On the issue of whether there should be an early black powder season, 42 percent of respondents strongly supported the idea, 15 precent moderately supported it, 10 percent neither supported nor opposed, 9 percent were moderately opposed, 24 percent were strongly opposed and 1 percent did not know.
On the question of when the season should be held, which was asked of those in support of the season, 9 percent said it should be held in late September, 16 percent said early October, 37 percent said late October, 28 percent said early November, 6 percent said late November and 4 percent said they had no opinion.
A three-day season was favored by 82 percent of the respondents.
Of those who were opposed to an early black powder season, if the survey showed enough support for the early season, then 14 percent preferred it in late September, 10 percent said early October, 16 percent said late October, 12 percent said early November, 10 percent said late November and 8 percent said they had no opinion. Thirty percent said they wanted no season at all.
On the question of antlered or antlerless deer being taken during an early season, 53 percent were in favor of hunting either sex.
SURVEY AT A GLANCE
The Wildlife Division of Maryland's Department of Natural Resources recently completed a random survey of 633 licensed Maryland deer hunters on a number of issues. Here are a select number of results:
* What is your general opinion of the overall performance of DNR?
No opinion 2%
* How satisfied were you with your deer hunting experience in Maryland last year?
Very satisfied 43%
Very dissatisfied 3%
* How satisfied are you with the order of the current deer seasons?
Very satisfied 35%
Very dissatisfied 4%
* What is your opinion of the idea of a muzzleloader season prior
Strongly oppose 24%
Moderately oppose 9%
Moderately support 15%
Strongly support 42%
* What is your opinion of early muzzleloader season by first weapon preference (bow, modern firearms or muzzleloader)?
Modern firearms 23%
Modern firearms 55%
* What is your opinion of early muzzleloader season by region?
Note: Numbers may not add up to 100 because of rounding.