Hunt debate drowns out habitat talk

Hunters and hunting often are largely misunderstood, mostly by those of us who live in Maryland's growing urban and suburban sprawl east of Frederick and west of Easton.

Take the brouhaha caused by creation of a bow hunt for deer at Sandy Point State Park near Annapolis.


At the outset, the Department of Natural Resources proposed a hunt that would allow seven qualified adult-youth teams on a previously unhunted tract of 150 acres toward the northwest border of the park -- a maximum of 14 hunters per day through the end of bow season Jan. 31.

After two public meetings and an anti-hunting demonstration near the statehouse in Annapolis, DNR curtailed the hunt, limiting it to five qualified hunters per day -- which, under state hunting regulations, could include licensed junior hunters.


The hunt also has been limited to Monday through Friday for the balance of the bow season to eliminate conflict with other activities at the park on weekends. The hunt will open Wednesday.

At the first public information meeting more than two weeks ago, some three dozen people showed up, almost all to protest what was believed to be the potential slaughter of whitetail deer by children.

At the second information meeting, attendance had swelled to more than 300 -- including some 120 to 150 hunters and family members of hunters who arrived to defend their sport and their privilege to hunt on designated areas of public lands.

The meeting last Wednesday night was heated, and hunters and hunting opponents yelled insults and slogans across an overcrowded pavilion.

"Teach compassion not killing."

"Eighty-one percent of Americans support hunting."

"Aim cameras, not arrows."

"If you eat meat, you are killing something, somewhere."


"It's our tax money, too. Stop the hunt."

"Taxes don't pay for hunting. Hunters do."

Amid the tumult, biologists, foresters and park rangers attempted to explain the necessity of the hunt, the concern for public safety and the frailty of the park habitat for all species that live there.

And at times, neither side seemed to do much listening. Impassioned pleas were metamorphosing to outrage.

But while the public outcry was unusual, the hunt that will go on at Sandy Point is not vastly different from hunts at several other state parks facing similar wildlife problems, because, oddly enough, the edges of populated areas are the locales that present the most difficult problems for wildlife managers.

According to biologists, whitetail deer thrive where there are multiple edges of wood lots, from which they emerge to feed on the ground vegetation and the lower levels of brush and trees.


DNR officials estimate there are 250,000 whitetail deer in Maryland, "probably more than in colonial times when the state was being settled," said Thomas Matthews, program manager for DNR's Wildlife Division.

In parts of Anne Arundel County, Matthews said, a recent study using airborne infrared cameras that mark the heat signatures of individual deer showed that there are as many as 80 deer per square mile -- four times the acceptable level.

"Why do we have to control the population?" Matthews said. "No. 1 is the animal itself. More deer mean a higher chance of widespread disease. Two is the impact larger numbers can have on the crops of farmers and orchardists, and three is maintaining the viability of the habitat of other species. We must look at the other resources of the land."

Matthews said the one management "option that has worked throughout North America is hunting."

Contraception, he said, is not yet feasible because individual deer must be treated with a series of shots, and with free-roaming deer, the manpower and expense of doing so is prohibitive.

Trapping and transplanting deer simply takes one area's problems and dumps them on another area.


Frank Branchini, executive director of the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals in Anne Arundel County, led the opposition to the hunt at Sandy Point, "because bow hunting is violent and it is cruel to animals."

Branchini said he has 18 studies showing that bow hunters maim more animals than they kill, and the injured are left to die slowly from their wounds.

A state-of-the-art wounding study carried out recently in Minnesota, said Matthews, showed through infrared surveys that 87 percent of the deer hit by arrows in the study area were recovered and taken home by hunters.

Like it or not, bow hunting is the preferred method in areas that are unsuited for firearms hunts because of population density or open topography.

Among the public lands that use bow hunting to control increasing deer populations are Patapsco Valley State Park, Susquehanna State Park, Rocks State Park, Gunpowder Falls State Park and the watersheds of Liberty and Prettyboy reservoirs. In all areas, there often are non-hunting activities in progress simultaneously with bow hunting seasons, but according to Natural Resources Police statistics, no accident involving a non-hunter has ever been recorded.

"The reason [bow hunting] can co-exist is that the very nature of the sport makes it safe. Accidents just don't happen," said park ranger Chris Bushman. "Bow hunting [from tree stands] is a very close-range activity with a long range of sight and a steep angle [of the arrow] into the ground."


Perhaps the most misunderstood facet of hunting is that hunters fund virtually all Wildlife Division operations for game species in the state -- and fund it willingly, for the most part, so that wildlife will exist in sufficient numbers for future generations.

According to Joshua Sandt, director of DNR's Wildlife and Heritage Division, virtually all of his $6 million budget for the fiscal year comes from sales of licenses or permits to hunters or through reimbursements to the state from an 11 percent federal excise tax on sporting arms and ammunition.

The Federal Aid to Wildlife Restoration Act, popularly known as the Pittman-Robertson Act, has raised millions of dollars for state and federal wildlife programs since 1937.

"We are not funded by General Assembly dollars," said Sandt, an avid hunter, "although the public sometimes thinks we are."

The state tax dollars that the Wildlife Division does benefit from are about $250,000 a year from a voluntary income tax checkoff, Sandt said, and approximately $4 million for land acquisition under Program Open Space, which draws its funds from real estate sales across the state.

Pub Date: 11/10/96