In a bid to limit the burgeoning deer population in Baltimore's suburbs, some counties have experimented with contraceptives and other nonlethal technologies. But experts say the surest way to trim shrub-eating deer herds is primitive: hunting.
Despite several decades of research on methods that can either prevent conception or kill a fetus, each option has been found to have drawbacks. Even the perfect chemical can be hard to deliver, says Lowell W. Adams, president of Columbia-based Urban Wildlife Resources Inc. and an adjunct professor at the University of Maryland.
"It's not something you can pull off the shelf," said Adams, one of several experts scheduled to speak to Howard County residents last night about managing deer herds.
"Once [deer] get stung with a needle, they learn to stay away from people trying to shoot them with a dart gun," he said before the meeting with about 100 people at River Hill High School, on Columbia's western edge. The finely honed survival instincts of deer either take them out of the area or make them more wary of humans.
Animal-rights activist Frank C. Branchini, of Edgewater in Anne Arundel County, called the pro-hunting statements "the typical [state Department of Natural Resources] line."
"The slant is always going to be pro-hunting," Branchini said.
Hunters legally killed more than 85,000 Maryland deer last fall and winter. And though several counties -- including Anne Arundel, Baltimore and Howard -- have held managed hunts to limit deer damage to vegetation, the spread of Lyme disease and collisions with motorists, Howard County officials sought to inform the public about nonlethal technology.
The meeting with research biologists, sponsored by the Howard County parks department, was designed "to bring out the facts to citizens," said Philip C. Norman, who supervises the county's managed deer hunts.
Those facts might not be what many people want to hear, officials said.
The idea of reducing the deer population without hunting might seem alluring. But there's no easy replacement for bullets and arrows, said the officials.
"We're still in the research stage," Adams said.
Among the other speakers last night were Allen Rutberg, a senior scientist with the wildlife and habitat department of the Humane Society of the United States, and Robert J. Warren, a wildlife biologist at the University of Georgia.
Warren said that although fertility control "is a very active area of research, we do not have any methods that can be used routinely."
"We are reducing fertility, but most studies have not yet shown a reduction in deer herds themselves," he said.
The speakers said field tests on deer in Gaithersburg and on Fire Island, N.Y., have used various methods of preventing pregnancies, but that all have drawbacks.
Rutberg said inoculating a deer the first time "is often not hard to do, but it gets harder and harder" because the deer grow more wary.
The methods for preventing pregnancy must be repeated often, and a herd must have a high death rate for populations to decrease.
`Still a long way to go'
Hunters in Howard County killed 289 deer in managed hunts last fall and winter in two county parks, but Norman estimates that the herd in the 1,000-acre Middle Patuxent Environmental Area near River Hill High remains more than five times its ideal size.
"We're starting to bring the herd down [to size]," he said, "but there's still a long way to go."
Some have criticized Howard County officials for sanctioning hunts at Middle Patuxent and David Force Park, off Interstate 70, saying hunting is inhumane.
Paul Peditto, game project manager for the Maryland Department of Natural Resources, said that even if nonlethal techniques were perfected, they would never replace hunting deer, whose Maryland population exceeds 250,000.
"We at the department are really looking forward to the day when we could add [nonlethal means] to our deer management toolbox," he said.
A state task force is examining nonlethal ways of minimizing conflict between people and wild animals, and it will make recommendations to next year's General Assembly, Peditto said.
However, he said, "Practical application of nonlethal technology is a long way off," and hunting remains "the most cost-effective way of doing business."