Delaware opens Sunday deer hunting

A doe stops in the center of Killens Pond Road, near the state park in Felton, as she waits for her fawn in July. (Delaware State News/Andrew West)

DOVER — Last month, permission to hunt deer on Sunday in the state was officially signed into law. The policy change constitutes a significant increase over one made in 2016 that opened five specific Sundays for hunting during the season.

“Senate Bill 198 legalized Sunday hunting across the whole season established by the state,” said Rob Hossler, DNREC‘s environmental program administrator. “The new legislation will add 18 more Sundays during the season to hunt giving us a total of 23 Sundays during the 2018-2019 season on public and private land.”

The rationale behind the deregulation concerns increased deer-related property damage reported by farmers and a desire to increase recreational hunting accessibility and opportunity for the state’s hunters. Mr. Hossler notes that the regulation itself was likely an old “blue law” — or Sunday law, traditionally designed to restrict Sunday activities for religious reasons — held over from earlier decades.

“I think there are still about seven states that have blue laws like this, mostly in the northeastern part of the U.S.,” he said. “It’s the same basic idea behind not being able to sell alcohol on Sundays. Most of the Midwestern states always allowed Sunday hunting.”

So far, Mr. Hossler said feedback has been generally positive.

“We had a public meeting on July 31 and while the hunters are happy about the extra opportunities, some other users of public land like horseback riders, hikers and birdwatchers expressed concern about increased conflict between the two types of land use,” he said. “But, we were about to work out a land use schedule for certain areas that was amenable to all the groups involved and reached what appears to be a happy medium.”

The biggest boon of the new law, Mr. Hossler says, comes in the form of added opportunity.

“This gives a few more days per season for hunters to take advantage of, especially those working six days per week make ends meet,” he said. “It’s also good for hunter recruitment. Younger kids who may have football, basketball or some other sport activity most days of the week now have an extra day on the weekend to try hunting if they want.”

In recent years, as it has in much of the country, the population of hunters has continued to decrease in the state.

“It comes down to two main factors: the baby boomer generation is starting to retire from hunting because of their age and fewer young people are picking it up,” said Mr. Hossler. “There are a lot of pressures against the youth to become hunters. We’ve heard everything from too many single family parents, no access to hunting mentors or videos games and other sports taking their attention instead.”

Population control

While conceding that the change will very likely result in an increased deer “harvest” this upcoming season, Mr. Hossler has tempered expectations about just how many more deer will be removed from the population.

“Looking at the last two years we’ve had the added five Sundays, the harvest only increased about 300 to 350 deer on average,” he said. “The key here is added opportunity, having 18 more days doesn’t mean for sure the increase of harvest will rise proportionally. We’ll have to wait and see, but we’re guessing the harvest will probably go up around 600 deer for the season.”

Overall, the total harvest is at an all-time high already. Mr. Hossler notes that the 15,000 deer harvested last season was a record haul in the state.

“Prior to that, it’s fluctuated between 13,000 and 14,500 for the last 10 years or so,” he said.

The high harvest and increase reports of crop damage likely owes to the robust population itself, says Mr. Hossler. DNREC believes the population is growing at about 3.2 percent per year. Compared to the early 1900s, the current deer population is massive.

“The state didn’t even have a deer hunting season until 1954 because we just didn’t have the population for it — deer sightings were actually very rare,” said Mr. Hossler. “We have a fairly new hunting season in comparison to neighbors like Pennsylvania and other mountainous stats with much longer deer hunting traditions. Up until the ’80s, we were harvesting only about 3,000 deer per season. But as farmers introduced more row crops and the state introduced more wooded refuges the population started to increase quickly.”

According to DNREC records, 505 deer were harvested during the state’s inaugural season in 1954.

“The population is still on the rise, but we’re getting closer to stabilizing it — whether or not it’s where it should be depends on who you ask though,” said Mr. Hossler. “Our farmers want it lower, our hunters want it higher and the wildlife watchers are probably happy with it as is. It’s a matter of perspective.”

Dates, times and locations of Sunday hunting ground can be found at dnrec.delaware.gov/fw/pages/sunday-deer-hunting.aspx.

Deer population management public forum on Wednesday

Sussex County residents will have an opportunity to meet with state officials to discuss Delaware’s thriving white-tailed deer population on Wednesday, Aug. 15.

State Rep. Rich Collins is sponsoring the meeting to provide farmers and deer hunters with the best, current information on deer management options.

The event will be held at the Gumboro Community Center, 36849 Millsboro Hwy, Millsboro, beginning at 7 p.m.

Deer are numerous throughout the state, not only posing a threat to motorists but also impacting the viability of many family farms. One deer will eat nearly 200 pounds every month, potentially causing significant crop damage with their selective browsing.

Delaware Agriculture Secretary Michael T. Scuse, as well as representatives from the Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Control will be on-hand to discuss deer management and what can be done to control crop damage.

Reach staff writer Ian Gronau at igronau@newszap.com

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