As tens of thousands of deer hunters prepare for the busiest part of the season Saturday, it's hard to believe there was a time during the early days of the last century when deer were nearly extinct in Maryland and hunting them was banned.
It also might be hard to believe that the population explosion started in the 1930s, when six deer were released by state wildlife managers at Aberdeen Proving Ground.
"There is no other native species in North America that's demonstrated this kind of decline and recovery," said Paul Peditto, head of the Department of Natural Resources Wildlife and Heritage Service. "How did it happen? Part of it is good science, but part of it is the animals' ability to adapt to the suburban landscape. It has learned to replace soybeans and corn with hosta and azaleas."
The state puts the census at 230,000, down from a high of 300,000 a decade ago. Expanded seasons, managed hunts and Sunday hunting helped lower the total. DNR urged hunters to take does first instead of bucks because one buck is capable of mating with many does. In most areas of the state, it takes a 35 percent to 40 percent reduction in the number of does to stabilize the population, according to a University of Maryland study.
Last year, hunters bagged 100,437 deer - a 9 percent increase over the previous season - with slightly more than half of them taken during the two-week firearms season that begins every year the Saturday after Thanksgiving. The remainder of the annual harvest comes from hunters who use bows and arrows or muzzleloaders.
Although the number of hunters has declined in Maryland and nationwide, some say there's a new urgency to hunt: the economy.
"With a lot of blue-collar workers idle, they're returning to their roots to fill their freezers," Peditto said. "Deer hunting is a pretty efficient way to offset lost income, especially when you have an abundant deer population."
Hagerstown-based Farmers and Hunters Feeding the Hungry gives deer butchers $50 to process each animal donated by hunters.
Josh Wilson, operations director for FHFH, said that in previous economic downturns, there has been a slight dropoff in donations in some areas of the state.
"In less populated areas where there's more of a social connection, hunters reach out directly to neighbors in need," Wilson said. "There's that sense of community."
Still, last year FHFH received 2,489 donated deer, which were processed into 124,450 pounds of ground and cubed venison for 497,800 meal-sized servings. The meat was distributed to places such as the Maryland Food Bank and pantries such as Beans and Bread in Fells Point and Christian Farmers Outreach in Carroll County.
After early growing pains when FHFH ran out of cash and had to halt deer donations, Wilson said each butcher now receives a quota at the beginning of the season and cash donations get shifted to ensure the maximum number of deer get processed.
"We haven't had a time yet that we get to January and we find that we don't have enough money to cover our quota. We've learned to manage," said Wilson, whose father started the program 12 years ago.
Management also became the watchword of state wildlife biologists, who coaxed the population back to life after decades of tree cutting and overhunting left the state with too few deer to count. A hunting ban was instituted in 1902 and lifted in 1931, when hunters shot 32 deer.
The Aberdeen animals multiplied rapidly and were reintroduced in every county. Fifty years after the first modern hunt, the harvest rose to 15,323. Hunters took 46,623 deer in 1991 and 83,790 in 2001.
But despite increased hunting, the herd continued to grow.
State wildlife managers are looking for ways to control the herd in densely populated suburbs, where traditional hunting isn't an option. Costly sharpshooters have been used in some places, and the federal government just approved the use of a deer contraceptive, GonaCon, which requires capturing and vaccinating each animal. But even birth control "cannot reduce overabundant deer populations to healthy levels," the U.S. Department of Agriculture Wildlife Services warned.
"In Anne Arundel County, almost every community that has a 10-acre common area with trees has a deer problem, and almost none of them know what to do," Peditto said. "Now, we're going to have to be hyper-creative, and that involves lethal and non-lethal methods. The one thing we know for sure is that those deer aren't going anywhere."
On the rise
Year Deer harvested
Maryland Department of Natural Resources