Hunting: Delaware’s most important deer management tool
Chuck Workman and Mark Workman, brothers, till thousands of acres of Sussex County farmland in the triangle formed by Georgetown, Millsboro and Laurel. Corn, wheat and soybeans represent the small-grain staples of Delmarva farmers.
There's always market demand for the grains, and Sussex County's flat and generally well-drained, fertile soils, average annual rainfall of 43 inches, and long frost-free season provide excellent growing conditions. But food producers who buy their grains aren't the only ones vying for the fruit of the Workmans' labor.
At a recent gathering of hunters and farmers, Chuck showed me a video taken from a combine he was using to pick corn. The video didn't show typical thick, straight rows of brown and dried stalks supporting hanging ears of corn awaiting harvest. Instead, dust arising from the combine's big wheels lumbering slowly through the field blew across acres of scruffy and sparse weed-laden stalks.
"That's crop damage from deer," he said. "Soybeans hold up a little better against browsing deer, but when the deer get after the corn stalks and strip the ears, it allows weeds to grow up and make a real mess. This is about the worst year we've ever had for crop damage."
In addition to acorns and honeysuckle, corn and soybeans – and ornamental shrubs – rank high as favorite food for white-tailed deer.
Depending on how heavily deer get into a soybean field, they can have a positive or negative effect. Some reports say that light deer browsing can actually boost soybean yields by promoting branching in the plant. But when heavy concentrations of deer get into a soybean field, they can also do considerable crop damage.
A 2009 report authored by Joe Rogerson of Delaware's Division of Fish and Wildlife included information about deer populations in about 16 different zones from the top of the state to the bottom. Aerial surveys confirmed the Workmans' problem – a problem suffered to varying degrees by at least 75 percent of Delaware's farmers. A graph in the report showed that the area the Workmans farm has the highest concentration of deer in Delaware: about 115 per square mile.
In 2005, upper New Castle County showed the highest concentration of deer at 135 per square mile. But complaints from farmers, and homeowners losing azaleas, hostas and other ornamental plants, spurred the state to get more aggressive.
In scientific-study terms, the biological carrying capacity for deer had exceeded the cultural carrying capacity. People were fed up with crop damage, car damage and landscape damage.
A major shift
That's a far cry from the state's first official deer management action in 1841 when it banned all hunting for deer. For centuries preceding, deer played an important role in Native American culture and survival, and there were natural predators like wolves that also fed on them. But by the mid-19th century – according to Rogerson's report – hunting pressure had grown so great that there were few deer left.
It wasn't until 1954 that Delaware reinstituted very limited seasons. With most of their natural predators gone, and farmers and homeowners providing ample food, deer populations rebounded quickly. By 2005, surveys determined a post-hunting season total deer population of 37,563 – from not enough to too many.
By 2009, expanded seasons and limits had done their job. The post-hunting season population that year stood at about 25,730 – a 31 percent reduction. The report stated in no uncertain terms that hunting is by far the most effective means of controlling that prolific population.
It also stated the economic and recreational importance of hunting: "White-tailed deer are arguably the most important wildlife species managed in Delaware. Wildlife watchers, photographers, and hunters contribute millions of dollars each year to the state's economy while pursuing deer.
"Annually, the white-tailed deer is the most commonly pursued game species by Delaware sportsmen. Surveys indicate that more hunters pursue deer than all other game species combined. Deer are both challenging to hunt and offer a bountiful supply of venison."
State wildlife biologists said this week that the state's deer herd stood at about 35,000 prior to last week's shotgun season. It's been holding steady there for several years due to aggressive management.
The shotgun season accounts for the largest share, by far, of harvested deer. It's estimated that hunters, with bows, crossbows, shotguns, muzzleloading rifles and pistols, take 14,000 or so deer each year. Of those, 65 percent to 80 percent are taken by shotgun hunters. That's why last week, pickup trucks lined every roadside woods in Sussex.
Hunting makes a big difference in reducing crop damage in Sussex County, but Chuck and Mark Workman wouldn't mind seeing those hunting numbers go even higher.