This deer season is a little different from the past dozen or so.
Doug Hotton has left the building.
Hotton, the affable, folksy leader of the Department of Natural Resources deer management team, has boxed up his belongings and gone home.
"My wife retired two years ago and I want to have some of the fun she's having," said Hotton, 58. "I feel you need to walk away when you can still hit 'em in the gap and get on base."
He leaves behind the legacy of having shepherded Maryland's first deer management plan into place 10 years ago and has helped his replacements, biologists Brian Eyler and George Timko, prepare the next edition, which will take effect for the 2008-09 season.
It is amazing how deer management has changed since the late 1980s, when suburbanites begged state and local politicians and wildlife officials, "Don't kill Bambi."
As those officials struggled with what to do next, the burgeoning deer population made its presence known, eating shrubs, stripping fragile forest fringe areas of vegetation and tangling unsuccessfully with cars and trucks.
But before Odocoileus virginianus could demand voting rights, the DNR decided to regain the upper hand. Wildlife biologists devised a plan to reduce the herd by persuading hunters, who traditionally targeted bucks, to concentrate on killing does. In 1997, the last year before the plan took effect, hunters bagged 31,405 antlerless deer (does and button bucks). In 2006, that total jumped to 57,926 antlerless deer.
"Twenty years ago, it would have been a good punch line to suggest hunters would embrace a model where they kill more antlerless deer than bucks. ... The changes that took place under Doug's leadership have made that 'joke' today's accepted reality," said Paul Peditto, director of the Wildlife and Heritage Service and Hotton's boss.
There were other changes, too.
To simplify regulations, Maryland went from having four deer management regions to two, increased bag limits, allowed crossbows and green-lighted Sunday hunting on private land in counties that approved it.
The agency also beefed up its deer management team, going from a single biologist to three.
Knowing that hunters would be able to kill more deer than they needed, the state worked with the nonprofit organization Farmers and Hunters Feeding the Hungry to get deer meat to food pantries and other programs for the needy. Last year, Maryland deer hunters donated more than 61 tons of venison.
As a result of the 10-year plan, the deer population in many areas of Maryland is near or below the levels in 1997. The state's deer population before the start of last season was estimated at 234,000, a 13 percent decline over the 2005-06 estimate. Deer hunting ended in January with a total take of 91,930 deer.
One of the remaining challenges is reducing the number of deer in dense suburban areas, where hunting is not an option.
"Doug is fond of saying that deer management is not a sprint but a marathon. Fortunately for us, his leadership took us to Mile 20 and left many of the steep grades behind us," Peditto said.
Another challenge is keeping close tabs on the herd.
Last season, biologists examined 4,771 deer carcasses during early muzzleloader and firearms seasons to gather information about the age and health of the population.
Hotton said field studies are vital in developing bag limits and watching for fatal illnesses such as chronic wasting disease. But declining DNR manpower makes it difficult to put sufficient numbers of boots on the ground.
"It's a struggle," Hotton said. "We're using all sorts of folks who never figured they would be spending so much time gathering data. If you don't collect the data, animal rights groups will sit up and take notice, because without the science, you're managing blind."
Saving yellow perch
While nothing is sculpted in stone yet, it appears DNR's Fisheries Service is inching toward a plan to protect yellow perch and comply with the wishes of the Legislature.
The proposal, presented last week before a joint meeting of the Sport Fish and Tidal Fish advisory Commissions, would ban commercial fishermen from catching yellow perch from Jan. 1 through March 15, the height of yellow perch spawning season.
Last year, DNR's Fisheries Service suggested lifting an 18-year moratorium on commercial fishing of yellow perch in the Choptank and the Nanticoke rivers on the Eastern Shore. The howls of protest from the recreational community, led by Coastal Conservation Association Maryland, prompted the Legislature to pass a bill requiring a management plan and a more equitable distribution of the annual catch between recreational anglers and watermen.
DNR's proposal would set aside the Northeast River at the top end of the Chesapeake Bay and McIntosh Run in Southern Maryland as model restoration systems with distinct yellow perch regulations. In addition, the plan would restrict the use of fyke nets before March 1.
Although it doesn't spell out who gets what, it is expected that the restrictions on watermen will naturally cause a shift of allocation - a nice soft shoe around a sticking point by Fisheries chief Howard King.
There's still time before the publication of the proposal next week for watermen to lobby DNR to cut them some more slack. But frankly, the proposal is a lot less severe than the original bill last session. Unless watermen want to tangle with lawmakers again, they would be wise to let this one go.