Doe Harvest Challenge returning
A popular farmer-led program to manage the overpopulation of deer on the Lower Eastern Shore is returning after a two-year hiatus due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
The Doe Harvest Challenge also is expanding to include Dorchester County and entices hunters to enter drawings totaling $12,000 when they bring deer they kill during the January firearm deer season to designated check in points.
As in past years, the challenge is free to enter. Three tickets each from Worcester, Wicomico, Somerset and Dorchester counties will be drawn after the Jan. 6-8 season, with winning ticketholders receiving $1,000 each.
More information on the challenge, including check-in times and sites — two for each county — is available on americanfarm.com.
Challenge organizers said targeting the three-day January season adds incentive to hunt outside of the more popular times in November and December.
The challenge started in 2019 and the number of antlerless deer killed in the three-day season saw a big jump in its first year. In 2018, the January firearm season yielded 393 antlerless deer in Wicomico, Somerset and Worchester counties, according to Maryland Department of Natural Resources data.
The following year, hunters killed 745 deer and 364 were entered in the challenge drawing. The following year had 315 deer checked into the drawing with 649 antlerless deer taken in total for the January season.
“We felt like it was being effective in that late season. Definitely more deer were hunted,” said Lee Richardson, a farmer in Wicomico County who is involved in the challenge.
The challenge was suspended for 2021 and 2022, but deer harvest numbers for those years stayed well above that of the 2018 figure. In the 2021 January firearm season, 814 antlerless deer were killed in the three Lower Shore counties and in 2022, 760 antlerless deer were killed.
Farmers involved in bringing back the challenge said crop damage from deer remains a significant threat to their farm operations and anything that can safely bring down deer numbers should be considered.
“It’s the worst we’ve ever had,” Steve Hurley, a Wicomico County farmer and coordinator for the challenge said of crop damage this year.
On his farm, he estimated a total loss on 250 acres of soybeans and severe damage on 175 acres of corn. He also planted 300 acres of milo, which deer don’t feed on very much, but also doesn’t come with the same profitability as the other crops.
“The loss of income on a milo crop versus a corn crop is substantial,” he said. “You can’t get the income out of it that you’d get out of corn or soybeans.”
Hurley said the Doe Harvest Challenge is just one option farmers are doing to take some of the crop damage pressure off their land.
“It’s only one tool in the toolbox,” Hurley said of the challenge. “It’s going to take several things like this.”
Along with planting milo on heavily-damaged acres, Hurley said he’s tried repellents and made changes in his cover crop system to deter deer from feasting in his fields.
In Dorchester County, farmers said the situation is just as bad with the sika deer herd expanding its range north and east.
“It is getting worse every year,” said Donald Cheesman, a farmer in the East New Market, Md, area.
Lin Spicer, a Church Creek farmer, said the goal of having the challenge available to Dorchester hunters is “to do a better job of managing our herd in the county.”
Spicer said he’s talked with several wildlife biologists and there’s a general consensus.
“They all say if you want trophy deer then you have got to manage the doe herd and keep it down,” he said.
In Dorchester County which hasn’t previously participated in the harvest challenge, deer harvest has increased during the January season over the last five years but not taken the same leap as in the Lower Shore counties, according to DNR data.
Antlerless deer harvest in Dorchester for that season was 251 in 2018; 238 in 2019; 271 in 2020; 331 in 2021 and 347 in 2022. About 60 percent of the deer harvest in the January season is sika deer.
In the past and this year, county farm bureaus, Maryland Grain Producers Association and Maryland Soybean Board have supported the challenge with funding and organizers said donations are coming in from ag-related businesses that understand the deer problem affects them as well.
“You’re talking about tens of thousands of dollars in a lot of cases,” Spicer said. “That’s pretty significant. That’s money that could be used to by seed, fertilizer and other inputs that’s coming out of a farmer’s pocket.”
Hurley said feedback from hunters about the challenge has been generally positive, though some questioned its necessity this year as Epizootic Hemorrhagic Disease or EHD has been on the rise. Hurley said as many farmers also hunt, the challenge has no intention of pushing deer numbers below a manageable level.
“We’re not trying to destroy someone’s hobby,” Hurley said.
The farmers behind the Doe Harvest Challenge just hope the potential to win a drawing gets people hunting in January.
“Naturally, the chance of getting an extra $1,000 is attractive,” Spicer said. “There’s nobody that’s told me that’s a bad idea.”