Crop-Killing Drought Gave Critters Less to Chew On


WASHINGTON (April 4, 2008)—Crop damage from animals dropped $1.4 million in Maryland between 2007 and 2006, a new survey said, likely because of a smaller, drought-stricken crop last summer.

The survey, done annually by the Department of Agriculture's National Agriculture Statistics Service field office in Maryland, showed a decline in damage from $10.4 million in 2006 to $9 million in 2007. The same survey in 2005 reported $10.5 million in wildlife-related damage.

While most experts were hesitant to name any one reason for the drop, most thought particularly dry conditions in Maryland last year led farmers to worry less about the damage caused by animals and instead focus on salvaging what little crop they had.

"It's hard to make those calculations when the damage is so bad that people are getting just a few bushels a yield," said Herb Reed, educator at the University of Maryland's Agricultural Extension in Calvert County.

Statistics seem to bear that out. Farmers spent just over half as much on preventing wildlife damage in 2007 as in 2006, shelling out $639,200 and $1.19 million, respectively.

"There was less spent on everything, because it's pouring good money after bad," he said. "People gave up crops, which they should have—water can be such an overriding issue."

There could have been just as much animal damage as 2006, but more of it was likely passed off as lost to the drought, Reed said.

"In Southern Maryland, at least, the deer damage wasn't as much of an issue because so many crops were just a total loss anyway," Reed said.

Kurt Fuchs, assistant director of the Maryland Farm Bureau—the primary users of the USDA's survey—agreed.

"I would assume that with the drought foremost in folks' mind, they would be hesitant to contribute it to wildlife," Fuchs said. "Rather than a precipitous drop in damage, there was simply less of a crop out there to be damaged."

But Robert Beyer, associate director of the Wildlife and Heritage Service at the Maryland Department of Natural Resources, didn't buy the argument that the drought's smaller crop would mean less varmint damage.

"Animals will seek the easiest source of food they can find," Beyer said. "There could be 10 percent wildlife damage on a very, very good year, but if you have a bad year, (animals) can literally wipe out a crop" by eating the same amount of food.

Deer are the biggest source of crop damage in Maryland, accounting for 84 percent of estimated damage in 2007, according to the survey. Groundhogs accounted for 7 percent, geese accounted for 6 percent, bears accounted for 1 percent and other species totaled 2 percent.

But last year's drought is likely history. Dry weather caused corn production to drop by one-third from 2006, but rain deficits of 6 to 12 inches in some parts of Maryland should shrink soon, according to Douglas LeComte, a senior meteorologist and drought specialist with the National Weather Service's Climate Prediction Center. The past few weeks' rains have already knocked an inch off the deficit, he said.

The "Old Farmer's Almanac" predicts rainfall will be 1 to 2 inches above the region's normal rate of about 4 inches for April, and WRC-TV meteorologist Bob Ryan said he doesn't see any evidence of a drought returning this year.

North Central Maryland (Baltimore, Carroll, Frederick, Harford, Howard, Montgomery and Washington counties) reported the most wildlife-related damage, with $2.6 million. The southern Eastern Shore (Dorchester, Somerset, Wicomico and Worcester counties) reported $2.2 million in damages, Southern Maryland (Anne Arundel, Calvert, Charles, Prince George's and St. Mary's counties) reported $2.1 million, the northern Eastern Shore (Cecil, Caroline, Kent, Queen Anne's and Talbot counties) reported $1.8 million and Western Maryland (Allegany and Garrett counties) reported $338,000.

Capital News Service contributed to this report.

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