Curbs on deer herds sought

Howard considers two hunts to thin growing populations

Other controls possible

One group estimated over 10 times ideal size, officials say

July 24, 2000|By Larry Carson | Larry Carson,SUN STAFF

Encouraged by last year's accident-free deer hunt in Columbia's Middle Patuxent Environmental Area, Howard County officials hope to sponsor two such hunts this fall.

"I feel compelled to do more to control the deer population," said County Executive James N. Robey, whose administration is also pursuing nonlethal efforts to control deer.

That compulsion is driven by the knowledge that the deer population is increasing despite the 134 animals killed in last fall's hunt and the hundreds more killed on county and state roads each year.

The animals have become so numerous and so wide-ranging in their search for food that many have lost their fear of people and houses.

"I've seen deer on [house] decks eating out of birdfeeders," said Philip C. Norman, county natural resources specialist. "They're suburban deer, though they don't quite have their passes for the light rail yet."

While other counties have avoided deer hunts and the controversy that almost inevitably goes with them, Howard seems to be moving against the grain.

Norman estimates that the deer in the Middle Patuxent Environmental Area near River Hill at Columbia's western edge - the scene of last fall's hunt - are more than 500 strong, compared with nearly 400 last year. A population of 40 would be ideal, recreation officials have said.

Officials and hunters want to continue the hunts for several years to see if they make more of an impact.

But Martha Gagnon, president of Animal Advocates of Howard County, said the increasing size of the herd demonstrates the futility of hunting. "So often when you try to cull a herd, the herd becomes stronger and more prolific," she said. "It's just another reason why we feel killing isn't going to solve any problems."

She wants the county to buy dozens more specially designed reflectors to keep the animals off county roads and test a method of injecting the deer with contraceptives to curb births - an option rejected last year by a county task force, which concluded there's no cheap, practical method.

Joe Webster, an experienced hunter in Howard, countered that more hunting, not less, is needed.

"I feel we did not remove enough deer last year," he said.

Webster said animals flushed by home construction and other human activity often use the Middle Patuxent area as a refuge, putting pressure on vegetation there.

"The deer have eaten all the ash and oak seedlings and saplings, and the blueberries. There is a substantial amount of native species missing," he said.

Gary J. Arthur, director of the county Department of Recreation and Parks, said he hasn't decided whether and where a second hunt might be held but is evaluating five possible park sites. Those sites - Rockburn Branch, Benson Branch, West Friendship, Schooley Mill and David Force parks - all have large wooded areas, he said.

The county is trying to gauge deer populations in the parks using a dozen hidden cameras with infrared sensors to take photos. Depending on how many bucks with distinctive antlers are identified, officials can roughly estimate the size of a herd. Norman explained that those more mature males are the only deer that are distinguishable from others.

The hunts concentrate on removing females, however, to reduce the number of fawns.

Arthur said the final decision about a second hunt could come down to "where we see that the deer are really damaging the habitat of the park - where it's most severe." He said county officials will meet with nearby communities before any second hunt occurs.

Norman said that in the 1,000-acre Middle Patuxent area, small test parcels enclosed with fencing last year to protect low-growing plants are showing marked improvement this year.

"One I came across shows a very distinct difference. What you see is that inside, the ground is green," while deer have eaten most of the low-growing vegetation outside the fence, Norman said.

He said it will take several more weeks of using the camera method to gauge deer population. The county was unable to find a company this year to take heat-sensitive photographs from the air - its usual means of obtaining a count.

Despite the county's talk about the need for hunting, Gagnon remains skeptical. "This is a perfect opportunity for us to do our own little contraception study," she said.

"The general public may believe we're just doing what we have to do. I'm telling you they [hunters] like it."

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