Solution to deer problem draws fire Developer plans to have animals shot in Gaithersburg

January 07, 1998|By Candus Thomson | Candus Thomson,SUN STAFF

GAITHERSBURG -- The next shot in Maryland's battle of man vs. deer may come in the dead of night from a high-powered rifle with a silencer and heat-sensitive scope.

Gaithersburg is the first Maryland municipality to require developers to have a wildlife inventory and a management plan for their property. Tom Natelli, who wants to build a 1,700-home development, is the first to come under the law.

Wildlife experts have advised him that the quickest, surest way to comply with the law is to hire a well-equipped sharpshooter to kill 200 deer.

But it is not the quietest.

About 200 residents and animal rights activists crowded an auditorium last night to bash the plan for the 383-acre Lakelands, on the outskirts of Gaithersburg, and to plead with the City Council to force an alternative.

Council Vice President Geri Edens said she didn't understand how anyone can ensure that deer would not return to the site after the hunt was over. "Killing the deer is not the answer to the problem. It's a very temporary intervention. There's no reason for us to be leaping to a fatal conclusion here," she said to thunderous applause.

A young Gaithersburg resident, Alex McGaughan, asked the council to save the animals.

"Shooting the deer would not be fair because they were here first. I'm 11, and I'd like to see the deer when I'm 12," McGaughan said.

If approved by the Gaithersburg City Council and the Maryland Department of Natural Resources, Natelli's solution would likely be repeated elsewhere in the state, which has seen its deer population -- estimated at 250,000 to 300,000 -- more than double in the past five years.

PTC Wildlife experts and government leaders across Maryland have long grappled with the conflict between nature and development that too often ends with an injured motorist and a dead deer. Last year, 3,110 accidents involving deer were reported in the state.

Suburban sprawl attracts deer, which like to feed on shrubs and flower beds, especially at night when they are most active.

When Gaithersburg approved its law in 1995, officials believed that dealing with the deer as part of a developer's plan would save them from controlled hunts like those playing out in Maryland parks.

The irony, they say, is they are getting hate mail from people who live in developments that took away deer habitats.

Natelli, a Montgomery County native, understands the emotion of the issue.

"I don't want to do it," he said in an interview. "I'm not a hunter and I don't shoot guns. But I think people have an unrealistic idea of the options out there."

Joshua Sandt, director of the wildlife and heritage division of the Maryland Department of Natural Resources, said Natelli's solution is cost-effective.

"Contraception works over a long period of time, and that can be the answer," he said. "But if you need an answer in a year or two, it's not going to work. Trapping and moving them is not an option because there's no place to move them to."

Hiring a sharpshooter to solve a deer problem is not new.

Two years ago, a tiny island in New Hampshire's Lake Winnipesaukee was almost overrun with more than 120 deer, more than four times what the vegetation could support.

Tony DeNicola, who has a doctorate in wildlife ecology and a steady hand, was hired by the state to thin the herd.

Ninety bullets and 90 deer later, DeNicola was done, and state wildlife officials had a herd it could manage through an annual controlled hunt.

Natelli said he is willing to spend the $30,000 or so it will take to bring DeNicola to town.

New Hampshire officials wish him good luck.

"You'll never reach a consensus on this issue. It's an emotional issue," said Steven Weber, a wildlife biologist with the New Hampshire Department of Fish and Game. "You hope to reach an informed consent that even those people who don't like it realize this is as good as it gets."

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Pub Date: 1/07/98

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