Updated: Nov 1
Anne Arundel County Executive Steuart Pittman is bullish on providing a bonus to hunters harvesting deer as an incentive to help cull an overpopulation that sometimes devastates local farms. But some hunters find the prospect of attaching money to the killing of a deer as a big leap toward the commercialization of a public resource.
Along with being county executive, Pittman helps run Dodon Farm, 550 acres in Davidsonville where his family raises and trains horses and grows grapes. The farm has been run by the family for centuries, and Pittman is keenly aware of the problem of the county’s overpopulated deer.
He was passionate when talking about the issue in a phone interview.
“This is the number one concern of farmers in Anne Arundel County for sure,” he said. “There’s crop damage in the millions of dollars. I’m acutely aware of the overpopulation. The numbers keep growing and hunters decline.”
To try to help solve the problem the county began a “Venison Food Relief Program” whereby licensed hunters would receive $50 for each deer that was killed and donated to the Anne Arundel County Food Bank. And one of three venison processors would receive $100 for each deer that was processed.
According to Anne Arundel County’s Economic Development Corporation (AAEDC), last year, 255 deer were harvested and 5,727 pounds of venison meat were donated to the Anne Arundel County Food Ban through the program. Of the $126,000 in federal CARES Act money allotted to the program, $12,750 went to hunters, $25,500 went to processors (plus an additional $945.00 administrative fee), $6,000 to AAEDC to administer the program, and the remaining $80,805 was donated to the Anne Arundel County Food Bank.
But the program ran into a headwind. Subsequent state bills which would have legalized hunting-for-pay as long as the venison went to such food bank programs, was controversial to more than one hunter. Some regarded it as putting a bounty on a wild animal.
“Imagine the implications,” wrote Bill Miles, head of Hunters of Maryland. “Widespread hunting for a dollar, black markets evolving statewide and a permanent stain on the image of being a conservation-minded sportsman or sportswoman.”
Miles also cited the potential inequity to those who hunt of such programs.
“Why should a select few be compensated with taxpayer dollars to harvest a publicly-owned resource?” he asked.
Pittman believes the program is not that different than the sharpshooter programs that were already in existence. He also said the county's managed hunt programs aren’t attracting enough hunters to deal with the problem.
In the case of using sharpshooters, the costs can sometimes run into the thousands of dollars.
“The law’s insane,” Pittman said. “The law says you can pay sharpshooters to kill deer but you can’t pay hunters.”
Traditional hunting in North America involved hunters having a wider world view than human interaction alone. Residents who lived on the land often hunted in it too. They got a close-up view of its workings, and how a human being fit into that picture.
Nature is normally intricately interdependent and also profoundly abundant. A hunter walking the land might see its beauty and wonder in the morning and by the afternoon be confronted with its occasional cruelty and indifference. To be a traditional hunter is to come face to face with the ways of the natural world whenever you ventured out for game.
For many hunters a connection develops between the heart of the hunter and the land and wildlife they are harvesting from. When asked why hunting was important, Miles found it hard to put the answer into words.
“It’s hard to answer this question with those unfamiliar with hunting afield,” he wrote. “The only real way to answer this question is to accompany someone afield so he or she can truly understand what its like being out there and one with nature .It borders on the spiritual.”
Not all hunters have a traditional mindset. Some are in it for the thrill of the kill, because they want a trophy, or they just need to put food on the table.
The problem of the decline in hunters remains, though. Last season in Anne Arundel County only 1,919 deer were harvested a decline of almost 27 percent from the previous season.
Hunters may differ in their motivation, but politicians are confronted with the reality of millions of dollars in crop loss, motor vehicle accidents and the seemingly straightforward solution of adding money to the equation.
When asked, Miles wrote he believed the solution to the problem of deer overpopulation was more hunters and better access to private lands. That solution sounds simple, but getting to it doesn’t appear to be.
It may be hard to get people to give up there technology for time in the woods and fields of Anne Arundel County.
“Youth today are more consumed with computer games and social media than being afield,” Miles wrote. “If there are no family members willing to introduce them to hunting, there is little wonder they have no interest.”
County Executive Pittman wants Maryland’s Attorney General to weigh in further on the legality of bonuses for deer hunting. The state bills that failed were written with no specified limit on the amount of money that could be paid to a hunter harvesting deer for a food bank nor any other bonus-related regulation.
The County Executive hopes the financial incentive program will gain final and full approval.
“We may have to get an Attorney General’s opinion, ” he said. “I believe that would come out differently.”
Steuart Pittman is campaigning for re-election next year and the current state’s attorney general, Brian Frosh, plans to retire in 2022.
Maryland’s Department of Natural Resources was reached out to multiple times to provide its perspective for this story, but officials had not responded by the time of publication.
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