Late one night recently, as he was touching down on the airfield at Aberdeen Proving Ground, Maj. Gen. George H. Akin was a bit unnerved. White-tailed deer were fleeing from the path of the plane in which Akin, the post commander, was riding.
The proving ground, a 72,000-acre weapons testing site that is largely undeveloped in Harford County, seems as much a thriving wildlife refuge as a place where 70-ton tanks roam. With thousands of acres of swamps, fields and woods, it is a haven for deer, bald eagles and other critters.
But the deer population has increased so much that some deer are starving, and hundreds of deer are colliding with private cars and military vehicles, officials say.
Citing a 13 percent increase in the number of deer being hit by cars so far this year, the proving ground has announced that it is trying to reduce the herd.
Officials are trying to increase hunting and encourage hunters to kill more female deer, which will reduce the herd faster. The proving ground's estimated population of 5,000 deer has remained stable in recent years. The herd seems to be somewhat larger this year, officials said.
Some animals are starving because of overpopulation. Ralph Plummer, the federal game warden assigned to the proving ground, said he has killed seven starving deer in the last six weeks.
"If we have a bad winter, I feel there is going to be a high die-off rate," he said.
Compounding the problem of the growing deer population, Operation Desert Shield has prompted a stepped-up schedule of tests with weapons and other equipment. More tests has meant more people driving around the proving ground.
"We're trying to have as large a population as we can safely," said James Pottie, a wildlife biologist at the proving ground.
About 700 deer have been killed by hunters -- military personnel, civilian workers, retirees and others -- on the proving ground since mid-September. The firearms season lasts until early December, and there is a two-week bow-hunting season next month.
As many as 1,400 deer are killed by hunters each year, Pottie said.
Each year, there are as many as 150 deer hit by private cars on the proving ground. Another 40 or 50 deer are hit by tanks and other military vehicles.
So far this year, about 130 deer have been hit by private vehicles. There were 117 such accidents last year and 120 in 1988.
So far, post officials are not aware of injuries resulting from the any collisions, and they hope to avoid any injuries.
About five years ago, a deer was struck by the propeller of a plane that was landing at Phillips Army Airfield, where Akin, the commander, recently was alarmed at the sight of the animals on the runway.
The accident, which killed the deer but did not injure any people, resulted in about $40,000 damage to the aircraft.
Stewards of other federal land in Maryland also are dealing with sizable deer herds. At the 5,769-acre Catoctin Mountain Park in Frederick County, home to the Camp David presidential retreat, the National Park Service said as many as 800 deer are stripping vegetation at a rate far greater than the forest can handle. There is no hunting in the park, but officials are considering a season as a way of reducing the herd.
At Fort Meade in Anne Arundel County, officials say, there is a manageable number of deer roaming the 13,671-acre Army installation. Also, the fort has much less vehicle traffic on back roads than does the Harford County proving ground, said spokesman Don McClow. Therefore, the possibility for deer-car collisions is reduced.
As at the proving ground, deer hunting is allowed at the fort as a way of the keeping the 600-animal herd in check. For example, a special weeklong gunning season began Friday for hunters using muzzle-loaded rifles.
Across the country, deer herds are flourishing, even in metropolitan regions. Most natural predators were decimated years ago. And, as more houses and roads are built, the animals are being squeezed into smaller spaces.
At the proving ground, when the days get shorter in the fall, thousands of civilian workers often are driving to and from their jobs around dawn and dusk. So collisions between deer and cars are more of a problem. The animals frequently feed along roads around dusk and dawn, where there is lush growth of grasses and other plants.
The animals are trying to fatten themselves in preparation for winter. In their quest for food, Pottie said, "they lose some of their inherent smartness."