With winter looming, an estimated 150,000 deer are roaming Maryland's forests and farmland in a desperate search for food. Many will not survive. Natural causes, however, won't thin the herds sufficiently. So last weekend thousands of licensed hunters went into the woods and fields. Actually, the numbers of both deer and hunters are too great -- and too dangerous.
Wild deer have always inhabited Maryland. In recent years, however, natural vegetation has not been sufficient to feed their growing numbers, and they have extended their grazing range onto farmland and suburban lawns. They can become a nuisance to both. They sometimes cause accidents that injure motorists and damage property.
Hunters licensed by the state's Forest, Park and Wildlife Service can help limit the deer population. But many suburban homeowners live on the cusp of open or forested land. They tell of constant gunfire during the hunting season. Others can point to bullet holes in the sides of their homes.
Even the most cautious hunter sometimes encounters his own nightmare. Last Saturday, the first day of this week's gun season, a 39-year-old Pennsylvania hunter was killed on property near New Market in Frederick County by a shot fired by another hunter. A second hunter was injured in a similar accident in Caroline County on the Eastern Shore.
Will the possibility of similar tragedies prompt other riflemen along Maryland trails to reflect on their own safety precautions? Hardly. Are the animal rights' activists, who show up every opening day of the hunting season, actually protecting the deer against what they see as a vicious onslaught? We doubt it. They just keep getting arrested for breaking a law against harassing hunters.
If some safer response is forthcoming to protect innocent citizens, plus the hunters and their quarry, it will have to come from the state Department of Natural Resources. One suggestion is to reduce the deer population by hiring professional marksmen to humanely cull the herds. That isn't likely, though.
Deer hunting in Maryland attracts 120,000 licensed hunters each year, boosting state and local economies by $125 million. That's fine for those towns and counties that sorely need the business. But in the process, innocent homeowners and their property must be protected.