Deer damage a ‘major, major issue’
ANNAPOLIS, Md. — Regions of the state may have too many deer, but Maryland’s total population has been stable for nearly two decades, a state wildlife official said last week, addressing claims that a dramatic increase in deer numbers is driving crop losses and other issues.
Following a fast rise in the 1990s that peaked at nearly 300,000 in 2002, Maryland’s white-tailed deer population has mostly hovered between 200,000 and 250,000, said Brian Eyler, associate director of the Wildlife & Heritage Service at the department of natural resources.
Eyler spoke at a summit held by the department of agriculture on May 11 to address deer overpopulation. For skeptics, he said that state data is backed up by State Farm Insurance, which keeps a yearly tally of its customers’ auto collisions with deer in the state. The number of deer collisions has hovered between 30,000 and 35,000 since 2007 no matter the total number of customer miles driven, which, save for the pandemic, has been similarly stable. A dramatic rise in deer populations would naturally lead to an increase in auto collisions, he said.
“I’m not saying we don’t have too many deer in some areas,” Eyler said. “We know we do, but sometimes we hear this, ‘Oh, this (deer) increase is out of control.’ Well, that’s not what our data says.”
The last time the USDA surveyed Maryland farmers regarding crop damage in 2011, deer were responsible for 77 percent of it, said Colby Ferguson, government relations director at the Maryland Farm Bureau. Based on discussions with farmers statewide, Maryland Farm Bureau estimates that average deer damage by acre is about $50 per year, he said. Considering Maryland’s more than 1.1 million crop acres, deer could be causing as much as $60 million in damage yearly.
“It’s really become a major, major issue,” he said.
Ferguson touted recent legislation approved by Gov. Wes Moore that will create and fund a cost-share program for farmers to plant forage crops on private farmland that would divert deer from growers’ actual crops.
He also advocated for the creation of a landowner ombudsman in the department of natural resources to focus on wildlife management on private lands and urged the state to allow farmers to sell venison from certified processors commercially.
The state needs to increase hunting access and improve the effectiveness of hunters as well, Eyler said. Nearly 10,000 deer were harvested over the last year.
“There’s a lot of land out there that either isn’t hunted or isn’t hunted enough,” he said.
Hunters also need to focus their attention on antlerless deer.
“If you’re a landowner, and you’ve got hunting going on, you need to make sure you’re harvesting antlerless deer or female deer,” he said. “Shooting bucks does not control the population.”
Non-lethal means of deer management, such as mechanical fencing and diversionary crops, need more support in the state, Eyler said, and more counties need to embrace Sunday hunting as well.
“Any more opportunity, especially weekend opportunity, increases the chances that a hunter is going to harvest a deer,” he said.
Farmers & Hunters Feeding the Hungry is a popular program based in Washington County that accepts donated deer and processes them and distributes the meat to food banks, soup kitchens and homeless shelters. Josh Wilson, the organization’s executive director, said the number of donated Maryland deer fell from 4,300 processed by 41 butchers in 2013 to just 1,100 at 23 butchers last year.
Previous grant funding boosted deer donation numbers, and fewer butchers work with the program now, some due to retirement. Hunters are also increasingly keeping their larger deer as the average meat yield per deer has fallen from 50 pounds to between 30 and 40, Wilson said.