Volume XI, Issue 10 ~ March 13-19, 2003

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Burton on the Bay

Will Maryland Hunters Arm Themselves
a la William Tell

If the first arrow had hit my son, the second was for you.
— William Tell on being quizzed by a bailiff after he shot an arrow from atop his son’s head in the early 14th century

Back when the Swiss were trying to throw off the yoke of the Hapsburgs of Austria, the crossbow was a weapon of choice, whether for war, law and order or for hunting. Now, in Maryland, eight centuries later, there are signs of renewed interest in making that same type of bow a weapon of choice among deer hunters.

The bring-back-the-crossbow concept surfaced at the Department of Natural Resources in the mid and late 1990s. But that was under the anti-hunter administration of Gov. Parris Glendening, so no one needs to be told why it went on the back burner. Those hunting with traditional weapons under the Glendening reign had enough problems maintaining status quo, never mind trying to expand hunting opportunity.

The same for wildlife managers who originally considered the crossbow a potential tool in their campaign to cull a troublesome and expanding deer herd across Maryland. But it was obvious there would be no crossbows as a weapon of choice or to boost hunting opportunity while that governor was in the catbird seat. So DNR backed off.

Thankfully, for the sake of hunting, we now have a new governor who we have every reason to believe is more supportive of the needs and wishes of hunters. It was no coincidence that during the first legislative session, under the regime of Gov. Bob Ehrlich, a bill was introduced in the General Assembly to make the crossbow a weapon of choice.

That bill — co-sponsored by Del. Donald Elliott of Carroll County and Del. Mike Weir Jr. of Baltimore County — was withdrawn, but it brought the issue from a burner in back to a burner in front. Legislation to make crossbows weapons of choice is not necessary. DNR can do it on its own. So once again the department is taking a second look at the idea.

Let DNR Do Its Job
That, of course, is a more acceptable route. Decisions on wildlife management should be left to wildlife scientists and administrators; what do legislators know about such matters? The Elliott-Weir bill cleared the way, sending a message to DNR: “Either you do it, or we’ll try from our domain.”

When fish and wildlife matters get hashed out in the General Assembly, politics, vote-swapping and pressures from interest groups play a major role — a more potent role than the learned opinions of those who handle such matters daily on a professional level.

We have another such conflict in questionable legislation to ease crab regulations, and still another in an anti-hunter bill to continue a moratorium on black bear hunting until 2009. Now tell me: Who knows more about the problems in trying to turn around the sorrowful blue crab situation — or the need for a highly restrictive bear hunt to reduce bear nuisance problems — the senators and the delegates at Annapolis or the respected scientists who work on such problems? If you know the answer, it’s not a question.

Crossing Bows
That asked (and answered), now it’s up to DNR to get down to the business of a hard look at the pros and cons in allowing all hunters to use crossbows if they so desire when on the deer trail or any other trail for which a crossbow is appropriate. That would basically mean in the hunt for any species that is traditionally hunted via bow and arrow.

A crossbow is as legitimate a weapon as a recurved or compound bow. It could play a significant role in the program of deer managers in their ongoing battle to reduce nuisance whitetails anywhere in the state and in populated areas in particular. Basically, the crossbow has the same impact as do the more traditional bows.

But many organized bowhunters do not agree. Some contend that allowing crossbows would dilute the tradition of their sport, making the harvest of a deer easier — though there are no indications this is so. Others fear they would have to share the pie. With more competition afield, they might even have to give up some days of their incredibly long season to make room for special crossbow hunts.

They covet their exclusive days afield, which basically run from September 15 through January 31. Over that span, the traditional archery season is closed for brief intervals to accommodate modern firearms and muzzleloader schedules, but bowmen can still hunt with their bows and arrows though they must abide by the regulations in force for the ML and firearms hunts. They have the best of two worlds.

Legendary Weapons
Emblematic of those who hunt with bows and arrows are Robin Hood and his Merry Men, a legendary gang who robbed the rich to give to the poor in 12th century England. Those of the crossbow set look back to their hero William Tell, who close to a century later sliced the apple atop his son’s head at the order of the vile Bailiff Hermann Gessler, who was bent on suppressing the freedom of the Swiss.

Tell’s weapon of choice was the weapon of his day, a contraption that adopted in appearance the curved bow of Robin Hood and the blunderbuss that was to come on the scene not long thereafter. Tell was both a patriot and a legendary marksmen. When he refused to bow to Gessler’s hat atop a pole in respect to Austria’s rule, he was ordered by the bailiff to take that legendary shot at the apple.

It was death to both him and his son if he refused; it was freedom if he scored, which he did. But when Gessler asked why he had the second arrow set aside, Tell spoke his everlasting words. For this he was sentenced to lifelong imprisonment at Gessler’s castle for the crime of impertinence.

But in stormy waters near the castle, Tell jumped ship and subsequently waylaid Gessler with that second arrow. Thus Switzerland was on its way toward freedom — and the crossbow band had a legendary hero.

Crossbows Do the Job
Justification for accepted weapons in hunting lies not in history or heroes but on the merits of a given reasonable means to harvest wildlife. The crossbow meets the standard. Already, 17 states allow it during firearms seasons, and seven permit it during bow seasons. Some other states offer special crossbow hunts, while many others, including Maryland, permit its use by handicapped hunters.

Why only the handicapped? The crossbow is no more dangerous than such other primitive weapons as the original bow, later the recurved bow, then the compound bow and still later, the muzzleloader. It is as effective afield at reasonable range as the other bows; for many it is easier to use, though certainly not as easy as a shotgun or rifle.

Permitting its use in Maryland could bring new hunters into the fold, as it has in states where regulations have been liberalized. In Ohio and other states, it has played a prominent role in reducing deer numbers in populated sectors.

What’s the difference in what a hunter chooses — whether it be a sophisticated compound bow with all its wheels and cams, a more simplistic curved or recurved bow or a crossbow? The bottom line is the hunter is contributing to Maryland’s effort to reduce nuisance deer problems while giving all those on the deer trail a reasonable option in their hunts. With that, I rest my case. Enough said …



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Last updated March 13, 2003 @ 1:57am