Michael A. Sawyers
At this rate, a box of rubber gloves is going to last a long time.
Let's talk deer. Let's talk deer hunting. More specifically, let's talk deer and deer hunting in Allegany County, Maryland.
I'm going to rattle off some stuff, but please feel free to jump in at any time. You don't even have to raise your hand.
OK. Let's get started.
Here in this one county of Almost Maryland - Garrett being the other - we like deer. We like watching and photographing them all year long. We like hunting them with bows, muzzleloaders and centerfire rifles from September through January. If we have success, we like having our photographs taken with them. We like eating them.
The only thing we don’t like about deer is hitting them with our vehicles.
As I heard one hunter tell an anti-hunter in Annapolis years ago, "Hunters love deer, too. They're delicious."
But this isn't about anti-hunters. This is about hunters. This is about us.
I have written many columns full of deer harvest numbers and I realize that the adding and subtracting of numbers from this year or that year can get in a reader's way, kind of like a leafy branch across the torso of a deer when a bowhunter has drawn back.
Here are the only two numbers I’m going to toss out in what I expect to be a lengthy column.
In Allegany County in 2001 there were 4,443 bucks killed during the various deer hunting seasons.
In 2010 (a banner acorn year, by the way), 1,854 bucks were killed in Allegany County via bow, muzzleloader and modern firearm. That is a decline of 60 percent.
The buck kill in the county had not been that low since 1987.
In 2011, there was a little bump up in the buck harvest from 2010. This year, though, it looks like we are shooting for a buck harvest similar to the 2010 tally.
Why has the harvest dropped off to that degree?
WEATHER AND FOOD
I have hunted on Dan’s Mountain since 1988, shortly after our family returned to the Appalachians from the Rockies.
I have hunted in hot weather, cold weather, wet weather, snowy weather, windy weather and various combinations of all of the above.
I have hunted when there were a lot of acorns and when there were almost no acorns.
During any of those conditions, until recently, I saw deer, a substantial amount of deer including bucks, and sometimes tagged those antlered animals.
There is more to the drop in harvest than weather and food, but what are those other contributors?
Coyotes and bears kill deer. However, nobody has any real grasp of the level of that mortality. Certainly, though, common sense tells us that predation is a contributor. A deer killed and eaten by a predator is a deer that will not reproduce or be tagged by a hunter.
This past February I discovered a male-of-the-year deer still warm, but torn asunder by fang and claw. The blood had not yet congealed and it was a typical February morning.
The West Virginia Division of Natural Resources has a study under way with West Virginia University that looks at coyote stomachs and tries to determine what they are eating. Maybe we will find something out.
Several years ago, the bag limit for deer in Allegany County was restricted. For a long time we could kill two bow deer, two muzzleloader deer and two rifle deer. The thing is, that bag limit of six could be made up of all bucks, all does or any combination thereof.
Now, we can still take six deer in the two-two-two fashion, but from each type of hunting one deer has to be a buck and one deer has to be without antlers.
The number of hunters taking more than one buck is not all that high, so I don’t think that regulation changes are needed.
Anyway, the dwindling buck harvest success is not just a Maryland phenomenon. West Virginia is seeing the same trend and regulations there are much different than in Allegany County.
Let me pause to say that I trust deer management as it is being applied by the Maryland Wildlife & Heritage Service. However, how much management does an agency like that do other than set regulations? Some on-the-dirt management can take place on public lands, such as access creation and habitat manipulation. But the bulk of the harvest in the county comes from private lands.
In essence, we are the managers of the deer herds.
The flavor of the decade in deer hunting is to require hunters to shoot only bucks that have a minimum number of points. Usually the restriction is described as “three points on at least one side.”
That’s fine. I’m for it as long as it is voluntary and not required by the state. I’ll bet that the private lands in the county that have such rules outnumber the private lands that do not.
I believe that this trend does not get enough recognition for its contribution to the decline in the buck harvest.
I’ll bet you are like me in that you know five or 10 hunters who could have shot bucks with lesser antlers, but kept their safeties on, either out of personal choice or because their club or lease had a point restriction rule.
Start adding up those hunters across the county and you are looking at ... what ... 100, 200, 300 bucks that did not get killed? Maybe more?
Most hunting nowadays is by way of sit and wait, often in a location where bait will attract deer, at least on private lands.
Sure there are still those hunters who move all day through the woods, but not as many as in past years. I am even hearing complaints from people who hunt public lands such as the Green Ridge State Forest who say there are not enough hunters to move the deer around.
Deer that move die. Deer that bed down live.
There seems to be a general belief among county hunters that there are fewer nimrods than before. It’s observational, not scientific, but I agree with it.
Also, even in this rural county, hunting land is being lost; some to development and some to posting for a variety of reasons.
Brian Eyler, who leads the deer management program for Maryland, says he isn’t worried, so I’m not worried.
Eyler said the buck harvest in the county is likely to bounce right back in 2013. He said that variations of 10 percent in the kill are not a reason for angst.
And I think that when you are talking 10 percent up in one year and 10 percent down in another year, I would agree. But when you are talking 60 percent down from 2001, that’s another thing all together.
During the 1990s and the early part of the 2000s, there is a repeating scene from the opening day of rifle season that has stuck in my mind.
It was usually late morning when it happened. You would be in a ground blind or a treestand or just sitting on a stump.
From the left would come a group of does, maybe five or six. From the right would come another group of does, maybe eight or nine. They would cross each others’ paths and the body language was unmistakable. They had no idea where they could go to get away from orange. Sometimes they just plopped down on the open forest floor and waited to see what happened next.
Eyler has said in the past that the state does not want to return to the days when that many whitetails roamed the woods of Almost Maryland.
I was right. This is a lengthy column.
Contact Outdoor Editor Mike Sawyers at email@example.com.