Deer damaging park environment, state officials say Problem submerged in controversy over how to manage population

'Things are out of sync'

'They have eaten almost everything,' at Seneca Creek Park

November 28, 1996|By CAPITAL NEWS SERVICE

GAITHERSBURG -- Nestled among the pine trees in Seneca Creek State Park is a patch of lush greenery, with spice bush, honeysuckle and wild rose.

Another spot like this is hard to find in the park's almost 6,000 acres. The deer, numbering 100 per square mile in some sections, have eaten almost everything.

"Things are out of sync," says Ken D'Loughy, a program manager for the Maryland Department of Natural Resources.

When deer consume forest underbrush, they destroy habitat food and shelter - for many birds, rabbits and other animals, D'Loughy observes. Deer "extremely limit what the wildlife diversity could be," he says.

Seneca's problems are muffled by the noisy controversy over how to manage Maryland's deer population.

At Sandy Point State Park in Anne Arundel County and Gunpowder Falls State Park in Baltimore County, bow hunts have raised tensions among the Department of Natural Resources and hunters, local residents and animal rights activists.

Deer population 250,000

Joshua L. Sandt, director of the Wildlife and Heritage Division of the DNR, says Maryland's estimated deer population is between 250,000 to 300,000. That is up between 56 percent and 88 percent since 1992, when the estimate was 160,000 statewide, DNR statistics show.

Wildlife managers don't view deer as a statewide emergency, but caution that in some areas, they definitely constitute a problem.

On a recent sunny day, D'Loughy was glad to get into the chilly air to explain why Seneca's patch of green is enclosed in a rusted fence, 12 feet high, 20 feet wide and 30 feet long. It was erected three years ago to show what deer can do to the park.

And the difference is striking. The field around the enclosure is barren, with tall brownish grass and trees on its edges.

The park's 800-acre day-use area is home to an estimated 100 deer per square mile, a population density between four and five times what wildlife managers believe is healthy.

From his truck, D'Loughy points out that one can see far into the forest because the deer have eaten the underbrush. "If something isn't done, this is the best we can expect down here," he says.

And not only Seneca has suffered. D'Loughy says deer have wreaked havoc at other locations, including Catoctin Mountain Park in Frederick County.

A 'more complicated issue'

For Rob Gibbs, a Montgomery County Department of Park and Planning ecologist, deer are a "more complicated issue than you might first think."

In Montgomery County, where Seneca is located, there are four major worries. The most important, to Gibbs, is auto accidents. Last year Montgomery County police reported responding to 1,244 auto accidents caused by deer.

"That's probably only a half or a third of what actually occurred," Gibbs adds.

Damage to crops has cost farmers money and limited their ability to grow alfalfa and soybeans - favorites of the deer.

Deer are also damaging gardens and shrubs at private homes, "a growing concern," Gibbs says.

Finally, damage to natural vegetation is destroying wildlife habitat across the county, he says.

Driving through Seneca, D'Loughy points to a second fenced enclosure in the woods. While its contrast with the surrounding fields is not as dramatic as the first's, little sprouts of green poke through the gray leafy ground cover.

But just a half mile down the road is a different world. Trekking into the woods, D'Loughy holds a tall green shrub in his hand.

While the deer density has not been completely evaluated here, it is lower than in the day use area, he says. "This forest is much healthier."

Sandt, of the Department of Natural Resources, describes the deer predicament this way: Wildlife managers "have failed to get ahead of the curve" in some places.

While he expects 60,000 to 70,000 deer to be killed statewide by the current 120,000 deer hunters, hunting and other methods of deer population control have not kept up with increasing numbers of animals.

Sandt says the deer are plentiful because they are healthy. Young deer reach reproductive age at 1 year old on the diet provided by Maryland's rich agriculture, he says.

D'Loughy says his park is planning a controlled hunt, meaning officials will dictate when and how the hunt is done and who the hunters will be.

But Dr. Allen Rutberg, a senior scientist for the Humane Society of the United States, says there are better ways to control deer than hunting. For one thing, he says, the society offered to pay part of the cost of deer contraception in Montgomery County.

Gibbs confirmed the offer, saying, "We're not ruling out any options."

But he adds that at big parks such as Seneca, "contraception isn't going to work." Each doe would need to be drugged twice during the breeding season, and that is too hard to do, he says.

Pub Date: 11/28/96

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