For such animal-rights advocates as Wayne Pacelle and Tony Povilitis, the growing numbers of white-tailed deer in Maryland are not a wildlife management problem at all. They're a human problem.
"My personal observation is that we have an overabundance of people in the United States, and until we get a handle on that, we will have severe problems," says Povilitis, a wildlife biologist with the Humane Society of the United States.
For Pacelle, national director of the Fund for Animals, "It is, at the bottom line, an issue of tolerance . . . and whether we can live harmoniously with other species."
Pacelle holds the state Department of Natural Resources responsible for the herd's growth, and for any consequent damage to people's property.
Since the 1930s, he says, wildlife officials have tried to increase the deer population "to create more targets for hunters."
Pacelle says the chief mechanism in that campaign has been the state's ban, until 1957, on the hunting of antlerless deer, which has altered the sex ratio in the wild from a natural 50 or 60 percent females to at least 80 percent females.
The distorted sex ratio maximizes reproduction rates, he says.
Although the DNR since 1957 has gradually relaxed the rules to allow more antlerless deer to be killed statewide, hunters still prefer the antlered male deer. Of the more than 46,000 deer shot last year, only 17,000 were antlerless.
"If anyone should take the blame for a high density of deer in this state, it is the state wildlife agency and the hunting community," Pacelle says.
"The only way to reduce the deer population is to limit the food supply," he says. Even as hunters kill 30 to 40 percent of the VTC state's deer each year, as long as food remains abundant, the survivors will increase their rate of reproduction."
Povilitis agrees with Pacelle about deer reproduction. "When you suppress them, they respond with greater fawn production and survival rates, and less natural mortality," Povilitis says.
The Fund for Animals and the Humane Society of the United States differ in their philosophical attitudes toward hunting. The former opposes it as an "anachronistic blood sport." The latter accepts it only as a "last resort" when all non-lethal methods of game management fail.
But both Pacelle and Povilitis believe that even if hunting were banned entirely, Maryland's deer population would eventually reach an "equilibrium" with the food supply.
"In the short run, it might increase deer numbers because of the skewed sex ratio. But in the long run you would have a more stable deer population," Pacelle says.
Indeed, Pacelle believes wild animals by definition cannot exceed the "carrying capacity" of their environment. Starvation prevents it.
The only real issue, both men say, is the "cultural carrying capacity" -- the limits of human tolerance.
"I think the DNR treats cultural carrying capacity as a static thing," says Pacelle. "What they should be doing is trying to raise the cultural carrying capacity for deer."
He believes suburban residents should be encouraged to plant shrubs that deer find unpalatable, and fence off any plantings that must be protected.
Foresters and watershed managers should protect saplings with plastic tubes, Pacelle says, and highway engineers should use speed limits, fencing and anti-deer reflectors to reduce car-deer collisions.
As for farmers, Pacelle says he is "skeptical" about how much they really lose to deer.
"I am sensitive to the interests of foresters and farmers," Pacelle says. "But we must challenge ourselves to think of creating non-lethal ways to deal with deer."