Deer woes spur hunt

Howard to relax restrictions in effort to control population

Animal advocates object

August 01, 1999|By Larry Carson | Larry Carson,SUN STAFF

Howard County is organizing an expanded deer hunt this fall in the Middle Patuxent Environmental Area -- despite objections from animal advocates -- as part of a countywide effort to control a burgeoning population that is causing major damage, officials say.

According to estimates in a Howard County Deer Task Force Study conducted from 1996 and released late last week -- but due two years ago -- the animals are causing more than 1,000 traffic accidents a year and nearly $6 million in damage annually to residential and agricultural county property.

There are about 350 deer in the 1,000-acre area, which has a capacity of 40 deer. The animals are severely damaging the environment by eating foliage, berries and seeds, county officials and the study said.

Maryland health officials say reported cases of Lyme disease, which is caused by deer-borne ticks, are up from 285 cases from Jan. 1 through July 28 last year to 303 so far this year in Howard County.

Maryland's incidence of Lyme disease, about 11 cases per 100,000, was 11th highest in the nation last year and was double the national average of about five per 100,000, said Karen Damewood, chief of the Bureau of Zoonotic Diseases. Cases statewide have more than tripled since 1992.

"I wish I could say there's another alternative to the hunt. However, at this point we need quick results before the next breeding season begins," County Executive James N. Robey said. He said he wants a fall hunt to avoid killing pregnant deer.

Robey said he's receiving complaints about deer "every day" from residents. "It runs the gamut from deer destroying shrubbery to Lyme disease," he said.

Animal advocates favor controlling the deer through birth control, but Robey said that's too expensive. Birth control requires two injections plus annual boosters, the task force report said.

But Martha Gagnon, a task force member and president of Animal Advocates of Howard County, strongly objected. She said the task force was biased toward hunting from the start and its conclusions are "questionable" and "inconclusive." She accused fellow committee members of using survey results selectively and basing recommendations on their preconceptions.

"We [Animal Advocates] are deeply disappointed with the recommendations to kill deer since nearly an equal percent of survey respondents favored nonlethal methods," she said in a written statement.

Chick Rhodehamel, chairman of the deer task force, countered that "she is an absolute animal advocate. She doesn't believe that's [hunting] the way to deal with it." All the survey numbers are in the report for everyone to see, he said, and the 16 members "put a lot of time into it."

The report recommends a coordinated county-state effort to plan a comprehensive population control strategy. Meanwhile, the county is planning road reflectors, chemical repellents, public educational efforts and better habitat management.

Howard County plans to begin taking applications Friday for an eventual pool of 120 hunters, nearly five times as many as the 25 registered from past hunts.

The heavily regulated hunts are scheduled over 28 days in October, November and December. In past years, the hunts have been held in mid-winter, though Robey canceled plans for one last winter while he awaited the report.

Thirty hunters will be allowed in the woods each day instead of 10 allowed daily in past hunts, and they will be required to use shotguns equipped with telescopic sights for increased safety.

The hunts will all be on weekdays when children are in school, and will begin a half-hour before sunrise and end by 11 a.m. Each hunter will be required to shoot from a preselected tree stand at least 10 feet high, and kill at least two female deer before killing a male. There is no limit on how may be killed, the regulations say.

"I'm happy with it for lots of different reasons," said Joe Webster, 57, of Bethesda, who has participated in other Howard hunts.

One reason is that more hunters can participate. "They found out that most of us are good, honest and abide by the rules," he said.

Webster noted that the hunt isn't for recreation but for reducing the population of deer. The rules prohibit shots at moving targets or deer more than 80 yards away, and shotguns are safer because they don't reach as far. Tree stands also help because hunters are firing toward the ground.

"The restrictions are quite severe because the No. 1 priority is safety," Webster said.

According to the report, deer were nearly extinct in Maryland 100 years ago. Now, however, there are thousands of deer sightings a day in Howard County alone.

A mail survey sent to 7,700 property owners, including 624 rural landowners, produced replies from half, and 62 percent of respondents believe action is needed to control the deer.

Annually, the deer eat more than $700,000 worth of soybeans in the county and are consuming corn crops. Webster said deer will walk for miles to find desirable food after they've eaten seedlings and berries in the county's 38,000 acres of parks, farmland and other open spaces.

The report also says deer have caused $4.5 million in damage to residential property, and that residents have spent more than $2 million annually to prevent the damage. One resident sent a letter complaining about $6,432 worth of damage from deer.

Projecting results from the survey, the study concluded that there were 1,080 collisions with deer on Howard roads last year. A survey of county body shops in 1996 turned up 259 repair jobs ranging from $400 to $2,500 per car, at a total cost of $205,000.

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