Farmers state their case at deer management forum

It’s literally standing room only as farmers and hunters pack the Gumboro Community Center Aug. 15 for a deer management forum.

GUMBORO – On a humid, 90-plus degree mid-August day, Scot Wharton planned to switch from farmer to deer hunter.

He’d rather not, but potential corn and soybean profits are being consumed by an overabundance of deer.

“The bad thing about this is that it’s almost like another job, now. You’ve got to go hunting whether you want to or not. It’s 90 degrees. You’ve got to go,” Mr. Wharton said. “At this time of year, it’s not a lot of fun sitting out there when it’s hot, with the flies, bugs and skeeters. It’s not fun.”

That was Aug. 16, the day after upward of 100 people – mostly farmers feeling the financial pinch from hungry deer – packed the Gumboro Community Center for a forum on deer damage and deer population management. It was sponsored by State Rep. Rich Collins, R-Millsboro, and State Sen. Bryant Richardson, R-Seaford.

“I have gotten more calls from farmers this year about deer damage than I’ve had. Believe me, I have experienced it myself. I used to farm next to Prime Hook Refuge, and there were always two herds of deer in my field,” Rep. Collins said. “Deer are considered a shared public resource, but a disproportionate amount their cost falls on the backs of Delaware’s farm families.”

Featured forum speakers were Rob Hossler, Division of Fish & Wildlife’s Wildlife Section Administrator; Kyle Hoyd, assistant forestry administrator with the Department of Agriculture’s Forest Service; and DNREC Fish & Wildlife Director Dave Saveikis.

Dave Saveikis, DNREC Fish & Wildlife Director, speaks at the Aug. 15 deer population management forum at the Gumboro Community Center.

“The Division of Fish & Wildlife fully recognizes that we have a large deer population in the state that needs further management. Some of that management requires changes in state law. Some of them are administrative changes that the Division of Fish & Wildlife can make on its own authority without General Assembly approval,” said Mr. Saveikis. “Mainly, we are here to present and discuss the existing and new deer management tools and opportunities that will do two primary things: help farmers and provide added recreational hunting opportunities for recreational hunters.”

“Farmers can’t do it by themselves,” said Mr. Saveikis. “A farmer can do everything they can on their property to manage deer, but if deer aren’t managed broadly within the landscape, they are going to come in. If the farmer takes out 50 deer, those 50 will be replaced quickly.”

White-tailed deer, scarce in Delaware six decades ago, are now the First State’s most iconic wildlife. But in the eyes of some they merely “are rats with hooves,” said Mr. Hossler.  Deer also are a tick-borne carrier in the spread of Lyme disease.

Overwhelming passage of Senate Bill 198 increases recreational hunting opportunities by legalizing deer hunting on 18 Sundays for established deer hunting seasons (Sept. 1 through Jan. 31) using weapons legal for each respective deer hunting season.

House Bill 156 legalized additional weapons – pistol-caliber rifles – to harvest deer. “This could be a revolutionary thing for harvesting of deer,” Rep. Collins said.

Back on the farm, Mr. Wharton and his brother farm two parcels near Gumboro between Laurel and Millsboro. There’s about 850 total acres of soybeans and corn. They have been enrolled in the state’s Deer Damage Management program and this year are, as of the management forum, among four farms in the new Extreme Deer Damage Assistance Program. EDDAP permits deer harvest from mid-May through mid-August, generally prohibited during the dependent fawning period.

“Hunting seasons are established so that you do not authorize the harvest of adults when young are dependent upon. That’s why there are fall and winter seasons,” said Mr. Hossler. “I realize there is an economic loss here, but I will assure there are parts of the state, that fawn there … they don’t want to hear about anything else. I’m not saying that is the right. I’m just saying that is reality.”

Crop damage caused by deer has been slowly increasing over the years, said Mr. Wharton. “But the last two years by far have been the worst,” he said. “Last year, the farm we had the worst damage on, which is about a 100-acre farm, we lost in corn. We probably lost at least 30 bushels to the acre. And when you are talking $4 to $4.50 a bushel over 100 acres you’re talking real money. That was just one farm.”

Mr. Wharton says they are not alone in experiencing decreased crop yields from deer damage. “Like almost every other farmer, absolutely,” he said.

“The crop on which deer have the greatest impact is soybeans,” Rep. Collins said. “On farms with high concentrations of deer, large sections of fields adjoining the woods are stripped bare of plants. With corn, deer like to eat the silk, which prevents the ear from developing.”

Through deer population management the state is aiming to address the problem.

“Agriculture is part of our Delaware heritage – it’s our No. 1 industry, and it’s a way of life,” stated Gov. John Carney. “The best way to protect and preserve family farms is to help make them more profitable.”

The state’s intention is that by enhancing current deer damage programs and expanding recreational deer hunting opportunities, deer population management will benefit farmers, hunters, home owners and motorists.

Rob Hossler, DNREC Division of Fish & Wildlife Section Adminiostrator shares information to farmers and hunters on the state’s deer management plan.

“Managing a balance between deer, people and Delaware’s landscape,” said Mr. Hossler. “We also realize when there is an overabundance of deer, they cause a lot of problems. The focus of any harvest to reduce the deer population is on antlerless deer. They are the reproductive component. They are the engine that drives the deer population. That is what you have to control.”

“You ride around, you see deer everywhere. The problem that there is now is it’s going to take a major effort to get the population under control because there is so many out there now,” said Mr. Wharton. “The majority of the does, when they have their young, they have two, not one. I can kind of see their point, too, that they’re dealing with the general public and animal rights and all this stuff, but we’re the ones feeding them. And we’re not getting paid for it. It would be no different than the state taking $100 a week out of your paycheck to help feed the livestock, because basically that is what they are doing to us in a roundabout way.”

“When I was a kid, if you saw a deer it was something special,” Mr. Wharton said. “Now, I take my grandkids, they kill two a day. The problem has gotten worse and worse, and at this point we’re almost behind the game, and I don’t know what we’re going to have to do to get caught up and get the upper hand on it. They (the state) are making an effort. I guess time will tell if it’s enough or not.”

Damage assistance programs

DNREC’s Division of Fish & Wildlife makes available free deer harvest tags to farmers to harvest an unlimited number of antlerless deer during and outside hunting seasons.

Deer Damage Assistance Program allows antlerless deer harvest during hunting seasons from Sept. 1 through Jan. 31 using weapons legal during the respective seasons.

Severe Deer Damage Assistance Program allows harvest of antlerless deer from Aug. 15 through May 15 during and outside regular deer hunting seasons, also using any legal deer hunting weapon.

Extreme Deer Damage Assistance Program allows antlerless harvest May 16 through Aug. 14.

Other approaches

Increased farmer participation through multimedia outreach and farmer engagement; improved online application process and increased opportunities and incentives for farmers and hunters are other approaches.

“A lot of hunters will only shoot what they need for the freezer. Once they get what they want, which may be an antlered animal, they are done,” said Mr. Hossler. “We realize you can’t solve your problem in one year. Bottom line, hunters will not only help you solve your deer damage problem; they will pay you to solve your deer damage problem if you can get the right group of hunters.”

The Delaware Sportsmen Against Hunger, a feed the needy donation program, and Master Hunter program can be useful tools, Mr. Hossler said.

Sportsmen Against Hunger encourages hunters to share harvests with donations of venison to Delawareans in need. Over the past 20-plus years, the program has provided nearly 2 million meals.

Mr. Hossler said there is no better way to send a positive message to non-hunters and those opposed to hunting “than to say we are donating to the food banks.”

Surrounded by state woods

One farmer who signed up for the Extreme Deer Damage Assistance Program said his farm is surrounded by state-maintained woodlands. “We can shoot the few that is out in that field, but as soon as they go in that woods, if we shoot them, then we are in violation of the law,” he said. “So why when you have severe cases like this don’t you open those state woods up for summertime hunting or whatever to help control the problem.”

“For some of these areas near state lands, we are going to increase access,” Mr. Hossler said.

“That’s my argument, too, is they are opening these programs up for the farmer, but this farm that we had the worst damage in is totally surrounded by state-controlled woods. I mean they are big woods,” said Mr. Wharton. “But unless they open this program up for people to hunt those woods, what we’re doing is we’re trying to use a garden hose to put out a forest fire. As soon as we shoot them, they go back in the woods; then they go nocturnal, and then we’re out of the game.”

“The state bought part of the woods, probably six or seven years back, and they had a field that borders the farm that I till. Instead of planting a crop in that field to maybe help feed the deer, they are letting it grow up into trees,” Mr. Wharton said. “Therefore, the deer are not eating out of that field, and they are eating out of mine.”

Mr. Hoyd, pinch-hitting for Delaware Agriculture Secretary Michael T. Scuse who had another commitment, was grilled on why state forestry turns its cut-timber areas into tree farms.

“That is the biggest culprit that feeds this whole animal, that you come in and you cut all trees out, so all of the hardwoods are gone. You put pine tree back in it, and just about the time the deer are in there eating you all spray to kill everything but the pine tree. And now they’ve got somewhere where they’ve got to go,” the farmer said. “And where they are going to go is everybody’s farm and eating until their heart’s content, and then they run back in the tree farm and you can’t see them.”

“We grow trees. That’s our business,” said Mr. Hoyd, noting the agency is self-sustaining. Mr. Hoyd said the forestry department plans to make state woodlands more accessible to hunters.

“We’re trying to create a happy medium here,” Mr. Hoyd said. “We’re here to help DNREC. They are here to help us. The goal is to help you guys.”

“And another thing, and I don’t know what the answer to this is but say if we shoot one and it doesn’t die in the field and goes off in the woods. Then we go off in the woods and it jumps up and you shoot again,” Mr. Wharton said. “Well, the game warden says we’re basically breaking the law because the program that we have is tied to a tax map number parcel of property, and that woods is not part of it. And when the game warden gets you, your picture is in the paper, and it’s not Scot Wharton was protecting his crops, it’s Scot Wharton was caught for illegal hunting. It’s kind of a Catch -22.”

“They have not been thinking about the farmer in this thing – in the past. It’s frustrating,” said Mr. Wharton. “You fight the weather. If you have a bug out there, you can kill it. If you have a groundhog out there, you shoot and kill it. Weeds, you can kill that. But if it’s a deer out there, by God don’t shoot and kill it because it’s like a sacred animal. Sometimes, I feel like they are under the thinking we’re going to hunt them into extinction. But those days are long gone.”

Questions

Other suggestive audience inquiries included allowing shotguns, which account for more than 50 percent of deer kills, during muzzle-loader season; and implementing nighttime hunting.

Another audience member believes deer can match wits with and sometimes outwit hunters.

“In my opinion deer are getting smarter. All of sudden, they are gone. It’s a problem. They are getting sharper. It is not necessarily that hunters haven’t been trying,” he said.

“The smartest deer in woods is an adult doe,” said Mr. Hossler. “There are certainly some that have figured out where stands are. You have a point.”

Avid hunter Dave Brown sighted in on rifles, as are allowed in some counties in neighboring Maryland. “So, what’s the reason for not allowing rifles in Sussex County?” he said.

“That is a General Assembly decision. State law would have to be changed,” said Mr. Saviekis. “And with all of the attention to guns and gun issues this year and the difference between upstate politics and downstate politics – I’ll let the elected officials here speak to that – but my personal opinion is it would be difficult to get high-powered bottleneck cartridge rifles legal in Delaware. I’m not saying it is good or bad.”

State Rep. Rich Collins addresses the full-house audience on deer population management forum.

“It’s a miracle we got this handgun bill passed. This year they were trying to ban everything,” said Rep. Collins. “The main reason is simply – Delaware is flat. And this is what people believe, right or wrong, there are too many houses in range from an errant shot with a centerfire rifle.”

“Right now, we’ve got more to worry about having our guns taken away than having this. The danger is in the other direction” said Rep. Collins. “We’ve got this incredible explosion, and I believe we need some form of deer insurance where people of Delaware help pay – not pay all – but help pay for the damage that deer cause. We’re never going to have it perfect, but we can make it better and better. I’m going to work on these ideas and try and get some of them implemented, believe me.”

Mr. Wharton sees a problem with efforts to increase interest in hunting.

“People don’t hunt like they used to. The young people don’t hunt like we used to,” said Mr. Wharton. “My generation is soon going to be not hunting, and it’s just going to get worse. The younger generation aren’t the outdoors type like we were when we were kids. They’ve got other things to do inside. The bad thing is the whole time we’re the ones paying the bill, basically.”

Rep. Collins urged farmers to encourage hunting on their property and all parties to promote hunting.

“This deer situation, from all the pain it is causing the farmers, is a wonderful situation for hunters and also for our firearm rights,” said Rep. Collins. “Because once we lose too many hunters, folks, we’re going to have a huge pool of people with a lot of the political power that protects our gun rights that is going to be gone.”

News Editor Glenn Rolfe can be reached at grolfe@newszap.com

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