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Oh, Deer! Learning to distinguish Delmarva's herds - October 22, 2013

As the leaves start to turn and gradually fall off and the nights get colder here on Delmarva, it means two things: fall is here and deer hunting season is up and running. Hunting for deer in Maryland has been a tradition dating back to before the European settlers arrived here. To this day, Marylanders still hunt deer, but it is now managed and permitted hunting in order to protect and control our deer populations.

We have two species of deer on Delmarva: the white-tailed deer, which is native, and the Sika deer, which is an introduced species of elk from Japan.­

The white-tailed deer is generally larger — bucks can grow up to 300 pounds — and has a reddish-brown coat during the summer and a gray-brown coat in the winter. The name is derived from the distinctive patch of white fur under its tail. Sika deer tend to be smaller than the white-tailed deer, with males only growing up to 90 pounds. Unlike white-tail deer, which lose the spots on their fur when they reach adulthood, Sika deer keep their distinctive white spots throughout their lifetime. As such, it can be difficult to differentiate between a juvenile white-tailed deer and an adult Sika deer, although there are minor differences such as ear and snout length.

The easiest way to tell these deer apart is not from morphological differences, but by their calls. Sika deer are actually more closely related to elks than to deer, and as such, they have a very distinguishing bugling call, which is said to sound like a multi-pitched extended wail. They use bleats, whistles and other calls to communicate. Meanwhile, white-tailed deer use several calls including grunts, bleats and bellows.

The distribution of these deer in Maryland is different, as well. The white-tailed deer, being a native species, are found throughout Maryland, from our sandy coasts to the top of our highest Appalachian peak. Sika deer were first introduced in Maryland in the early 1900s on James Island. From there, they have expanded outward onto the Delmarva Peninsula. They have yet to make any major incursions onto the western shore, with the highest population living on Assateague Island and in southern Dorchester County.

Deer populations in Maryland have been a topic of discussion for many years, with numerous ideas and practices adopted in order to maintain a healthy population without letting them overbreed. The Maryland Department of Natural Resources has long-term goals for both deer populations, although the foremost important aspect is to ensure the present and future health of deer populations and their habitats. Maryland DNR not only helps to educate and inform the public about deer populations, but also helps to manage these important resources with permitted hunting.­

The hunting season for deer is generally open from early September through late January. There are multiple “seasons” for deer hunting here on Delmarva, depending on what method you use to hunt. There is an archery season, blackpowder/muzzleloader season, regular firearm season and even a falconry season. Each of these seasons are only open for a limited time and vary depending on whether the deer is male or female, and what region you are hunting in. There is also a limit on the amount of deer you can take per season, region and whether it is a male/female. There are numerous managed hunts where hunters must receive a special permit and can only hunt on a specific property.

Hunting deer may seem heinous to some, but it is vital in order to keep the deer populations healthy. When European settlers colonized Delmarva, they also drove off or killed most of the major large predators we had in this area. Gray wolves, bobcats, black bears, cougars and other large predators were driven locally extinct by settlers who wanted to protect their livestock and families. This created a gap in the local ecosystem where there were no longer predators available to keep top down control on herbivores. This led to an explosion of herbivore populations, such as the white-tailed deer. When this occurs, the large herbivore populations can overconsume their food source, putting significant stress on local plant species and in some cases, causing large die-offs from starvation and diseases.

One such disease that has become a major problem is Chronic Wasting Disease, a fatal disease that attacks the brain and spinal cord of deer and elk. While the exact cause has yet to be discovered, it is believed to be a prion disease. A prion is an altered protein that causes other normal proteins to change and causes sponge-like holes in the brain which leads to abnormal behavior, brain deterioration and eventually death. We have yet to see CWD transmitted to humans or other animals, but DNR does advise extreme caution when handling any deer possibly carrying the disease and does not advise eating contaminated venison.

Deer hunting in Maryland has been a tradition for hundreds of years and now, more than ever, it is necessary to help keep these important herbivore populations healthy and stable.
 

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