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 toward the woods, the soybean plants are only ankle-deep. More isolated fields are almost entirely shorn and overtaken by grass and briers.
"It makes you think . . . that I've done something wrong," Rose says.
He hasn't, but 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, deer droppings are everywhere underfoot and nearby woods are heavily browsed. At night, Rose and park officials often have seen 30 to 40 deer at a time dining on parts of the 150 acres Rose farms in the park's Sweet Air section.
And they are eating up this year's profits, he says -- about $11,000 on these fields.
Rose wants the state to thin the herd 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.
"Some studies have shown the deer cause certain plants to become absent from the area, impacting tree reproduction, oak trees especially," says Sandt. "We're losing the bio-diversity of an area."
Crop damage complaints are "soaring," says Michael J. Browning, Gunpowder's assistant manager.
Road kills and poaching are also up, and state wildlife officers in Baltimore County spend their time on little else, he says.
But state parks officials, wary of hunting opponents, 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.
"We're still waiting," he says. And unless the problem gets "significantly" worse, the state will take no action on its own.
"I'm not sure . . . when we get to the point where something has to happen as far as the size of the herd," Dunmyer says.
Last year, the park granted Rose permission to shoot 40 deer, the most crop damage permits 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 area that they 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."
Dunmyer says 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."
Patapsco State Park, however, at the request of sportsmen, has opened some Carroll County portions of that narrow park for the first time to a few bow hunters for two days next January.
Sandt has long urged the State Forest and Parks Service to do the same in other parks. "They just dropped it," Sandt says. "But I think public attitudes are changing as the deer population increases."
Attitudes may be changing. But it's not clear how much sympathy there is for Rose and other farmers who bid on park leases knowing that deer will reduce yields.
Rose is the county's biggest farmer, and the state lands are a small portion of the 4,000 acres he tills, 3,400 of them rented from 80 different landowners.
And if the deer can't be thinned out, it's likely he'll quit the park fields.
That would cost the state the annual rent -- $6,000 this year. But Rose says it will also drive the deer further from the park in search of food.
"That's a problem," Dunmyer agrees. "Unless you thin the herd, you just move the problem somewhere else."
For information on how property owners can limit deer damage, 1/2 write the Gwynnbrook Wildlife Management Area, 3740 Gwynnbrook Ave., Owings Mills, 21117. Or phone 356-9272.