A rapidly growing deer population in a western Columbia park -- where many residents regard them as cute Bambis -- may soon encounter a new group of people who look at them as meat.
County park officials want to curb deer herds in the 630-acre Middle Patuxent Environmental Area by holding controlled hunts within the next two months. The proposal is to be presented during a public hearing Wednesday night at the county recreation and parks headquarters.
The proposed hunts are sure to be controversial in Columbia, where liberal traditions have encountered exploding populations of deer. Already, leaders of the Fund for Animals, a nationwide anti-hunting group based in New York, promise to speak out against the proposal.
Many residents object to hunting for ethical or safety reasons. But they've also seen deer eat expensive shrubs and they fear hitting deer with their cars or catching Lyme disease. And the deer are destroying habitat for songbirds and small mammals.
"It's something I think we need to do," County Executive Charles I. Ecker said of the hunts. "My goal is to get it going as soon as possible."
Ecker would like to start the hunts by the end of next month, but he said he won't make a decision until he is sure they can be done safely.
Under the proposal, about 10 hunters would be allowed into the environmental area, a tract of woods between the Columbia villages of River Hill, Hickory Ridge and Harper's Choice. The venison would be donated to food banks or homeless shelters.
Details of the hunt, including what weaponry would be allowed, have not been set. The hunters would have to demonstrate their skill by shooting a target before the hunt, and they would be
encouraged to kill does.
Deer populations are expanding in Howard County, just as they are throughout Maryland. As suburbs have spread into traditional deer habitat -- and driven away hunters and predators, such as coyotes -- deer have flourished.
Md. herd doubled in 5 years
Maryland's deer population -- estimated at 250,000 to 300,000 -- has more than doubled in the past five years, according to the state Department of Natural Resources. No estimate of Howard's deer population is available, but state officials say more than 300 deer are hit each year by cars in the county.
The managed hunt could be one of the most effective ways of reducing the herd at Middle Patuxent, advocates say.
"They have no predators," said Larry Coburn, a hunter and member of the Howard County Deer Management Task Force. "This is the most economical and probably fastest way to reduce some of them."
Although many residents are concerned about their safety during a hunt, hunters and county officials said the risks are minimal. Hunters would shoot from elevated tree stands, so errant bullets or arrows would strike the ground.
That doesn't satisfy Susan Gibbs, who lives on nearby Few Star Court.
"I've had hundreds of dollars in landscaping eaten by the deer, and my husband's hit one in the car," she said. "But if there's going to be hunting, we'll be gone that day. I'd hate to have my kids wearing orange gear so they won't get hit by a stray bullet."
One strong advocate of managed hunts is Aelred Geis, a wildlife biologist who for 30 years worked to keep the park, once owned by the Rouse Co., from being turned into subdivisions. He says deer are eating foliage that smaller creatures, such as wild turkeys, need to survive.
"The deer have been reproducing faster than they are dying," Geis said. "If they remain in the area, the problem will get worse."
Some residents who like deer, but recognize the problems they cause, aren't sure what to do.
"I have mixed feelings about the hunt, because I love having the deer around, and that was one of the reasons I moved here. But I know they've gotten to be too much," said Maureen Pulver, who also lives on Few Star Court. "I just hope they don't wipe them out."
In Hickory Ridge village, Andrea Needle, who lives next to the wildlife area, objects to the proposal on moral grounds.
"The deer were here first, and they're entitled to eat in their space," said Needle, who also worries neighborhood children who play in the woods could be harmed by hunters.
Heidi Prescott, national director of the Fund for Animals, said development has ruined the deers' habitat.
'A Band-Aid approach'
Because hunters may not be required to shoot only does, she said, the hunt might have little effect in reducing the herd.
"They are using a Band-Aid approach," she said.
The county Recreation and Parks Department plans to choose hunters from about 100 who participate in similar controlled hunts in the Fort Meade area. "It certainly will not be opened to the public," Ecker said.
The state's bow season has started and continues -- off and on -- until Jan. 31. The shotgun season is from Nov. 29 to Dec. 13.
Ecker's proposal is independent of a variety of deer-control measures being studied by the Howard County Deer Management Task Force. That group is expected to release countywide recommendations by March.
The public hearing starts at 8 p.m. Wednesday at the Howard County Recreation and Parks Department headquarters, 7120 Oakland Mills Road.
Pub Date: 10/13/97