Refuge shouldn't turn into a killing ground


November 16, 1997|By Norris West

IT IS SERENE here in the Middle Patuxent Environmental Area, a 630-acre swath of woodland bordered by the Columbia villages of River Hill, Hickory Ridge and Harper's Choice.

This is the domain of cardinals, white-tailed deer and small animals. The area seems virtually untouched by human hands, despite its proximity to the suburban communities that have risen around it. Only cicadas and avian sounds punctuate the silence.

Hikers certainly must come here to walk the trails, but you could never tell. The only evidence of humanity I find along a half-mile trek that begins near Trotter Road are an empty oil can, two old tires and the rusted shell of what appears to be a Chrysler sedan from the early 1960s.

There is a small, shallow stream that probably flows from the Middle Patuxent River, itself no more than a foot deep in these parts.

This place is beautiful, and not just because it looks like paradise. Most of autumn's splendor has fallen to the ground, making a colorful carpet for my trail. Some trees are dead, their corpses leaning against their live brethren.

What makes it beautiful is the fact that it is an undisturbed oasis in a fast-growing metropolitan county.

Eighty-six species of birds live here with raccoons, possum, foxes and mice. There has been an unconfirmed coyote sighting, says John Byrd, Howard County's chief of parks and program services.

Before the shooting starts

I decided to stroll through this autumn wonderland before the shooting starts.

I certainly won't be here three weeks from tomorrow, with or without a bright orange jacket, when hunters move into 300 acres of this forest in the county's effort to knock down the surging deer population.

Reducing the number of deer has been a concern of local and state officials for some time. Communities have become increasingly tolerant of programs to "harvest" -- a curious euphemism for killing -- the animals.

Some opponents of the hunt argue that the deer population is self-regulating. Killing will only make the remaining animals reproduce more, they say.

State natural resources officials argue that overpopulation kills deer when there is not enough vegetation to feed all of them. And then comes dreadful starvation.

To residents, the graceful animals have become pests.

Some residents of a New York suburb likened the burgeoning deer population to rat infestation in interviews with the newsmagazine "60 Minutes," because they were everywhere, eating gardens and leaving droppings.

Many of the suburbanites who grew up loving Bambi have shifted allegiances. They are fed up with animals, however beautiful and elegant, that munch on their azaleas and collide with automobiles.

I have no more objections to shooting deer than I do to the slaughter of cattle or chickens, which is to say none, when it is not just for sport.

Unfortunately, sport is the issue for the anxious hunters who have been calling county officials to inquire about the sessions. But safety should be the top concern.

Not too far from the Middle Patuxent, a young man pushing a twin stroller with two babies down a street in the Pheasant Ridge neighborhood of River Hill objected for safety and moral reasons.

Asked why he was opposed to the hunt, he simply nodded toward the stroller with an expression that asked, "Isn't that obvious?"

A young woman, pushing one child in a stroller, complained that deer have become a traffic hazard and ticks carried by furry animals, including deer, have latched onto a number of neighborhood children.

But she remained uncomfortable with the hunt and was not consoled by her belief that neighborhood children don't play in the woods.

In an effort to ease fears, county officials have established a buffer that will put 200 to 300 yards of space between the hunting area and homes.

During the two harvesting sessions -- Dec. 1 to 19 and Jan. 5 to 16 -- hunters will use shotguns firing slugs to shoot the animals.

They must shoot from elevated tree stands so, the theory goes, they will fire downward to prevent shots from traveling long distances.

But rules will allow them to track their wounded quarry beyond the buffer. They will be able to finish off the animals on private property, provided that they gain permission from the owners.

Dead deer in the backyard

We'll have to see how many Columbians will give the OK for hunters to end a deer's misery in their back yards.

The young parents pushing strollers abhor the thought of men in fatigues toting shotguns through their neighborhoods, let alone using the weapons. This is a scenario that residents don't want to repeat year after year.

The county has made a sound argument to justify a hunt this time. But the Middle Patuxent should never gain a reputation as a killing field. It is best used as a place to observe nature, not harvest it.

Norris West is The Sun's editorial writer in Howard County.

Pub Date: 11/16/97

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