Last weekend, a dozen 10- and 11-year-old Cub Scouts and a group of fathers spent a couple of nights at Sandy Point State Park, camping in the back reaches, hiking through the woods and marshland, eating and telling stories around the fire ring.
It was one of those kinds of trips that many of us take at two periods in our lives; first when we, too, are 10 or 11 and wide-eyed, and then again, some years later, once the wonderment has matured to an awareness of what is necessary to maintain something of a natural balance on what have become unnatural lands.
Hunting is not permitted at Sandy Point, nor is camping allowed without special permission. In the fall, once the temperature has dropped, the beaches and picnic areas are clear of people, and the geese and deer generally have free run of the place -- and there are plenty of both.
The geese seemed to hold little fascination for the hikers. But the deer seemed to have a mystical sway over some, even though no individual deer was seen. (What deer would be anywhere near so silent a dozen of these pre-teen-age mutant ninja scouts?)
There were, however, fresh trails through the marsh and old tracks and droppings in the wood along trails leading off the greenways.
Inevitably, the question arose, as it does among some of us of all ages: Why do people kill them?
The answer, in basic terms, is that they must because there no longer is a natural balance in Maryland's slice of nature.
Coyotes and feral dogs may take 100 deer a year in Maryland, Josh Sandt, supervisor of forest wildlife management for the Forest, Park and Wildlife Service, said late last week. Black bears in Western Maryland may take a few fawns, if they can catch them.
Otherwise, Sandt said, "Man has to play the role of predator."
Maryland hunters, Sandt said, do a creditable job of preying on deer. This year, some 50,000 deer are expected to be taken in Maryland's various deer seasons. In the firearms season alone, which opened yesterday, 38,000 to 40,000 deer are expected to be taken, and one of three hunters who take the field is expected to bag a deer.
But before one begins to envision a wholesale slaughter of deer, think first of what Sandt calls the cultural capacity of the land, "how many deer landowners and farmers are willing to tolerate."
There are an estimated 150,000 deer in Maryland, Sandt said, a population that has grown steadily since 1981. This year, fawns produced in June are breeding, Sandt said. First, they will produce single offspring and then breed again and most likely produce twins and perhaps triplets.
Unless the population is culled, Sandt said, then the situation elsewhere may become as it already is in the Catoctin, where some of the deer may be facing starvation despite the species' adaptable feeding habits that allow it to eat virtually anything that grows.
It is that adaptability that creates the need to cull the species. When deer are hungry and without feed in unsettled areas, they move into pastures and farmland, into backyards and town parks. To the farmers, they become menaces. To the motorists who encounter them on the roadway, they become expensive accidents. To homeowners, they become pests.
The solution is to regulate the numbers.
"Some animal-rights activists say that, if the deer are simply left alone, they will stop breeding because of natural stresses, that nature will take its course and the population will decrease," Sandt said. "It will slow, but it will not stop."
Birth control or trapping and transporting deer to other parts of the state are two alternatives often discussed. But, Sandt said, "trapping is not an alternative, because we have run out of niches to put them in. We have a high deer herd here, and so does everyone else on the East Coast."
No birth-control methods have been devised that will work effectively, Sandt said. "There are some being formulated, but I can't even count the number of does that are out there, much less catch them and treat them.
"It is not like the wild horses out West, where you can tell them apart because of the blazes on their faces or whatever. One doe pretty much looks like another."
Hiring sharpshooters to come in and cull the herd is another alternative, Sandt said, but that is simply another form of hunting.
And deer hunting is a $50 million-a-year resource in Maryland, where 120,000 hunters take the field each year. According to a DNR study, that money turns over 2 1/2 times in communities before leaving the state. That translates to $125 million per year.
"Right now, deer is the exception to a lot of species," Sandt said. "Most other animals are preyed upon by some larger animal, and populations may decrease by as much as 80 percent per year. There are no natural means to control the deer population."