Hoping to ambush an unsuspecting deer, Chris McAvinue perched precariously in an oak tree as darkness became dawn.
The distant drone of traffic from Interstate 83 penetrated the dense woods of Gunpowder Falls State Park in northern Baltimore County. Pulley-aided compound bow in hand, McAvinue stood almost statue-still, peering slowly about for his quarry.
For most Marylanders, autumn is a season of colorful foliage, falling leaves and migrating waterfowl. But for thousands of outdoors enthusiasts, it is also hunting season, a chance to get into the woods, to fight off cold, sleep and boredom and maybe bag a deer.
"It's mostly standing around waiting," said McAvinue, 38, a department store engineer from Parkton. That's why it's called hunting and not killing, he added. "You don't spend a lot of time killing."
But for some, the killing is a problem. This fall has sparked renewed skirmishing between hunters and animal lovers in Maryland.
"We believe that it's legalized animal cruelty," said Norman Phelps, program coordinator for the Fund for Animals in Silver Spring.
Protests last week from animal lovers and other park users prompted the Maryland Department of Natural Resources to postpone the first bow hunting for deer in Sandy Point State Park near Annapolis. A public meeting has been scheduled for 7 p.m. Wednesday at the park.
State wildlife officials say they are trying to expand hunting to curb Maryland's growing deer population, and to encourage a dwindling pastime. The state has about 120,000 hunters, about 50,000 of whom use bows.
Once hunted until they nearly vanished, deer have increased in number in Maryland from a few thousand in the 1930s to an estimated 300,000 today, explained Joshua L. Sandt, the DNR's director of wildlife and heritage. With no natural predators to control their numbers, deer have flourished to the point that they are damaging forest foliage and roaming out of the woods to feed on farm crops and suburban gardens.
"A deer population has the ability to double in a year," Sandt said. Hunters legally kill about 60,000 a year, and Sandt estimates that a similar number are killed by motor vehicles, disease and harsh weather. Wild dogs and coyotes also take some.
Sandt calculates that another 50,000 deer must die to keep the herds from growing. In order to stabilize the population, he said, "we need to take half of it."
But animal-protection advocates argue that other ways exist to control the deer population. "We believe that it's essentially wrong to kill an animal for fun," said Dale Bartlett, researcher with the Humane Society of the United States in Washington.
He and others question the safety of bow hunting in heavily used parks in the suburbs of Baltimore and Washington. They also contend that bow hunting is more cruel to deer than shooting them with a rifle, citing studies that many animals hit with arrows are not killed.
State wildlife officials say contraception and relocation aren't feasible, and they dismiss suggestions that bow hunting poses a safety threat. Bows have a much shorter range than a rifle, and archers typically wait until their quarry is close enough to clearly distinguish it.
Some bow hunters have injured themselves falling out of trees -- their favored vantage point because deer rarely look up. But nonhunters have never been accidentally shot with arrows, which hunters using firearms cannot claim.
Despite the furor at Sandy Point, the state has managed to open several other parks to bow hunting recently, including the Hereford area of Gunpowder. Bow hunting is also allowed in Patapsco Valley State Park in Carroll and Howard counties, at Morgan Run Natural Environmental Area in Carroll; at Elk Neck State Park and Fair Hill Natural Resources Management Area in Cecil County, at Susquehanna and Rocks state parks in Harford County and other areas.
Overrun with deer
A helicopter survey last spring tallied about 90 deer per square mile in Gunpowder Falls State Park, more than three times the number that can be sustained there, said Robert Marconi, the ranger who manages the 3,800-acre Hereford area.
McAvinue saw plenty of deer there during his chilly three-hour vigil in the tree, which he shimmied up in the dark at about 6 a.m., hauling the platform on which he stood.
It was a perfect day for hunting, with only a faint breeze. And this is mating season for deer, he said, which makes the usually wary animals "a little goofy."
A half-hour after he perched in a tree, a doe bounded right under him, with two bucks in close pursuit. A couple hours later, a big six-point buck strolled by within easy shooting range.
But he never raised his weapon.
The doe was running too fast to get a good shot, he explained later. And he had to let the bucks go because the park's hunting regulations require that the first deer killed be a female, or without antlers.