Sunday, April 09, 2006

DELAWARE NEWS: Crop damage fuels conflict

By Rachel Swick, Cape Gazette staff

Deer who feed on crops cost Delaware farmers millions, and they say state officials have not done enough to correct the problems.

Members of Farmers Against Infringement of Rights (FAIR) said programs promoted by Delaware Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Control (DNREC) do not go far enough to help farmers deal with trespassing deer. FAIR is calling for state legislators to pass new legislation allowing farmers to shoot deer on their property year round.

Joseph Robert of the Neuberger Firm, a Wilmington-based law firm representing 26 farmers from Delaware, said DNREC officials do not provide enough support for the farmers. He said farmers in this state have lost in the millions of dollars to trespassing deer that eat crops during spring months, when farmers cannot shoot them.

“FAIR’s problems will not be solved by DNREC,” said Robert, in a brief statement last week. “There is proposed legislation making the rounds that we understand will be introduced soon.”

FAIR attorney Thomas Neuberger was unavailable for comment.

But not everyone agrees that FAIR’s actions of lobbying for legislation are the way to go.

Secretary of Agriculture Michael Scuse said if the state allowed farmers to shoot deer year round it would not only be hazardous to the health of Delawareans, but it would be hazardous to the deer season.

“If farmers are allowed to shoot deer year round, it will do more harm than good,” said Scuse. “It will make deer hunting more difficult during the season. Deer are fairly intelligent. They can pattern hunters, and hunting whenever will change their habits, making it more difficult to take deer during the season because they will be used to avoiding hunters.”

To prevent crop damage by deer, Scuse said farmers can enroll in two DNREC programs that were recently recognized and honored by the Delaware Branch of the Quality Deer Management Association.

Division of Soil and Water Conservation Director Robert Baldwin said his division won the award for providing important funds to Delaware landowners that will minimize crop damage by deer.

“The program includes $70,000 in cost-share funds for landowners who participate in the Delaware deer damage assistance program,” said Baldwin. It was developed by DNREC in conjunction with the Department of Agriculture and includes a vegetative habitat buffer program and the contact repellent program.

The first program helps farmers plant “trap crops,” including a clover mixture, around the borders of their fields to lure deer away from farm crops, Scuse said.

The second provides funding for spray repellant, which is used around fields that are bordered by forests to help deter deer from eating crops.

“Farmers can enroll in DNREC programs to get permits to use during hunting season,” said Scuse. “They can get an unlimited supply of permits. Now, every hunting tag comes with four antlerless doe tags.”

But, Neuberger said farmers have written to DNREC in the past to request additional hunting permits that were not approved and farmers’ requests were frequently turned down.

“Farmers face enough economic difficulty without the deer. If they go bankrupt and they must sell to developers, Sussex County will become more and more congested,” said Neuberger in a letter to Attorney General Carl Danberg, asking that farmers not be prosecuted for shooting deer out of season. “Development of the farmlands also will threaten the rivers and marshes and all Delawareans will feel the loss.”

Danberg said he could not provide legal advice to private citizens. The Attorney General’s office is responsible for providing information to state agencies, not to the public, he said. “The Delaware Department of Justice cannot grant blanket immunity for violations of Delaware’s hunting laws,” said Danberg in a letter to Neuberger.

Neuberger replied in a press release on March 24, “This will be a hot election issue all over the state…AG Danberg has failed in his duty to Delaware citizens.”

Scuse said the best solution for farmers is to get hunters onto their fields during the season. If the deer are getting shot at on the property, they are more likely to move away and not harm the farmer’s crops in the spring, he said.

“Farmers should use the available programs because when properly used it will help take care of the problem in time,” said Scuse. “Many hunters only want to take bucks, but farmers have to put hunters out there to get antlerless deer. That’s what it takes to solve the problem.”

Scuse said FAIR farmers are looking for a compensation program through legislation. But if the state starts compensating the farmer for lost crops, he said, then many other groups will form looking for compensation as well.

Scuse said the deer problem is difficult. “But compensation is not the answer.”

Burt Messick, president of the Sussex County Farm Bureau, said the deer are a big problem for farmers. He said his organization supports FAIR and is helping to get legislation passed.

“The deer eat our crops during the growing season,” said Messick. “Some farmers lose 10 to 20 percent of their crops to deer.”

Messick said he doesn’t see it as a safety problem because farmers will only be shooting deer on their own properties. He said they know where the neighbors and roads are and would be responsible not to shoot near those areas.

Legislation was introduced last week and a public hearing on the deer issue has been scheduled in Dover at 4 p.m. Wednesday, April 5 in Legislative Hall. For more information about these programs, call DNREC at 302-653-2883.

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