Thigh-high soybean plants scour the undercarriage of Dave Rose's red Toyota pickup as he drives it through a lush field that he rents from the Gunpowder Falls State Park near Jacksonville.
But as the truck rolls over the crest of a hill and down toward the woods, the rustling beneath the truck stops. The long rows of soybean plants are only ankle-deep here, much of it too short to harvest. More isolated fields are almost entirely shorn, and overtaken by grass and briars.
Surveying acres of clipped plants, Rose says, "It makes you think . . . that I've done something wrong."
He hasn't, but the real culprits are close by. Down the hill, perhaps 100 yards away in an adjoining field, four deer are browsing on Rose's soybeans in broad daylight. This makes eight deer he has spotted in 30 minutes.
"When you can look around at 4 o'clock and see this many, you know how many you've got that you don't see," he says.
Indeed, the field smells of deer droppings, which are everywhere underfoot. In the adjoining woods, little that is green survives below a 5-foot-high browse line.
At night, Rose and park officials have often seen 30 to 40 deer at a time dining on parts of the 150 acres of fields Rose farms in the Sweet Air section of the park. Rose estimates 400 to 600 deer are in the area.
And they are eating up all his profits, he says -- about $11,000 on these fields this season.
Rose's wife has likened the problem to mice. "What would you do if you had mice in your house?" he quoted her as saying.
The solution, he believes, is for the state to reduce the burgeoning deer population with even a brief hunting season in the park, where it is now banned.
State Wildlife Program officials agree, but Park Service authorities are waiting for park neighbors to demand it.
"The only feasible option we have is hunting," says Joshua L. Sandt, the state's forest wildlife program manager. Without it, "we will continue to have problems like [Rose] is experiencing."
"Not only that, but there is a lot of concern for the whole ecosystem . . . Some studies have shown the deer cause certain plants to become absent from the area, impacting tree reproduction, oak trees especially . . . We're losing the bio-diversity of an area."
Crop damage complaints are "soaring," says Michael J. Browning, Gunpowder's assistant manager. "I have never received so many complaints in such a short period of time, and not just from David Rose. From everybody."
Road kills and poaching are also up, and state wildlife officers in Baltimore County spend their time on little else, he says.
But state park officials, wary of opponents of hunting, have no plans to do anything about it.
James W. Dunmyer, the Department of Natural Resources' assistant secretary for public lands, says his office will take no action unless residents and farmers neighboring a state park get up a petition and demand it. Then public hearings must be held before any action is taken.
So far, he says, that hasn't happened at Gunpowder.
"We're still waiting," he says. And "unless the problem gets significantly worse," the state will take no action on its own.
"The most important thing is having the lands managed correctly." Dunmyer says. "I'm not sure . . . when we get to the point where something has to happen as far as the size of the herd."
Rose has tried to handle the problem himself. Last year, the park granted him permission to shoot up to 40 deer, the most crop damage permits park officials have ever issued to one farmer.
Rose says he managed to kill 32 last January, but admits he never found them all.
Park officials then received so many complaints from park visitors about dead and wounded deer in the Sweet Air section that they have told Rose he will get no more permits to kill deer for now.
"We cannot have . . . people subjected to wounded, crippled or dying deer," Browning says. Moreover, "too much time and effort was spent by rangers finding, dispatching and disposing of wounded or dead deer."
Still, officials acknowledge that killing even 32 deer has not solved Rose's problems.
Dunmyer says stabilizing the prolific herd probably would require killing 40 percent of the herd's females each year. And the narrow and popular Gunpowder State Park, close by growing residential neighborhoods, is "an area where it would be difficult to control hunting . . . and not create a situation where it's a safety hazard."
But Rose says many hunters are looking for a place such as Gunpowder to hunt. "Why can't they shut these parks down for a couple of weeks and let them hunt it?"
The Patapsco State Park has done just that at the request of sportsmen, opening some Carroll County portions of that narrow park for the first time to specially permitted bow hunters for two days next January.
Sandt has long urged the State Forest and Parks Service to do the same in other parks. But wariness of hunting opponents has so far deterred state action.