The mushrooming deer population in Howard County has grown from a backyard curiosity to a substantial economic problem, spurring the County Council to ask a task force to find ways to bring the menace under control.
The damaged shrubbery, acres of lost crops and increased traffic accidents that the animals are causing countywide have been costly to homeowners, farmers and drivers.
Now the 15 task force members will ponder solutions ranging from extending the hunting season to allowing hunters to kill more than the current limit. They will meet monthly and report to the County Council.
"I suspect there are more deer in Howard County than there are cattle," said County Councilman Charles C. Feaga, who called for the task force to be created after getting numerous complaints from the public.
Glenwood farmer Howard Clark said he stopped farming corn on about 100 acres near Ellicott City two years ago after deer damage cost him more than $30,000.
"They eat the buds right off soybean plants and nibble the kernels of corn off the stalk, ruining the whole thing for harvesting," he said. "It's thousands of dollars that us farmers are losing each year.
"And when you watch your time and money being eaten up, you feel pretty helpless because there is nothing you can really do about it."
The most drastic measure the task force may offer to reduce the deer population is to extend the three-month hunting season by an undetermined period, state Department of Natural Resources officials said.
According to the DNR, about 1,500 deer were harvested during the 1995-96 hunting season, compared with almost 1,200 in 1994. And the numbers are increasing statewide as well, with almost 62,000 deer harvested this year vs. about 51,000 the year before. Even with the increased kills, the deer are thriving, said Ken D'Loughy, a DNR wildlife program manager and task force member.
"Whether in a garden of azaleas and rhododendrons or a farm field of corn, they are adapting to their surroundings and thriving and now multiplying," D'Loughy said. "They've got none of their natural predators like mountain lions or wolves around, and they've learned to run at the sound of gunshot."
Feaga, a Republican, said he plans to seek a regulation from DNR to increase the number of deer allowed per hunter from one to two per season, hoping that will help reduce the numbers.
"It's almost a joke to take just a buck, because it only takes one of them to reproduce a whole herd of deer," Feaga said. "We simply didn't have deer in Howard County 40 years ago and now there's an explosion of them all over."
Although there is no estimate of the number of deer in Howard County, DNR deer biologist Doug Hotton believes there are at least 220,000 statewide.
The task force will work to identify areas with large deer populations and determine how many there are, officials said.
County wildlife officials said they receive more than 10 calls a week from farmers and homeowners about deer that destroy gardens and crops. The growing suburbs have provided the animals with more food sources such as azaleas and tomato plants and a haven from one of their only remaining predators -- hunters, according to Chick Rhodehamel, assistant director of the Columbia Association's Open Space Management division.
"While it is cute and neat to see the deer so close to people and their homes, they are willing to move into what we thought of 10 or 15 years ago as man's domain," Rhodehamel said. "We're seeing their nibbling marks [on] small trees along park edges and their hoof prints can be found in almost any neighborhood. They know no boundaries."
The result has been an increase in highway collisions, according officials. DNR reported more than 200 deer killed in Howard County in 1995 by cars. And that is expected to continue to rise, they said.
"They've shown they are capable of living in close quarters with humans, but the dangers to the animals and to cars when they collide can be astronomical," D'Loughy said.
To keep deer off the highways, some experts said deer whistles -- which let off a high pitched noise and are placed on a car's side mirrors -- sometimes work.
The remedies for gardens and farm crops aren't assured success either. They range from hanging perfumed soaps on trees and spreading human hair around plants to putting up invisible fencing or spraying deer repellents, experts said.
Pub Date: 7/19/96