Destruction by deer hits pocketbook

Overpopulation costs farmers, motorists, homeowners dearly

Expanding suburbia is key

Estimates of damage to Md. crops as high as $38 million a year

March 25, 2002|By Ted Shelsby | Ted Shelsby,SUN STAFF

Everybody loves Bambi, but deer are becoming increasingly destructive in Maryland, costing farmers, homeowners and motorists tens of million of dollars in damage each year.

Deer consumed $13.6 million worth of corn, soybeans and wheat in the field and cost the average farmer in the state slightly more than $5,000 in lost sales last year, according to a survey released last week by the Maryland Agriculture Statistics Service.

The loss is based on the current market price for grain and would be considerably higher if grain prices were not at a near 20-year low.

As the deer population continues to grow - particularly in the metropolitan areas around Baltimore and Washington - so do their encounters with an expanding suburbia. As a result:

There were 4,000 deer-related auto accidents in the state last year with repair bills topping $8 million. This does not include medical costs.

The estimate on deer damage to shrubs, flowers and vegetable gardens at homes in suburbs surrounding Baltimore and Washington tops $20 million a year.

There are more than 10,000 new cases of Lyme disease in the United States each year, with a third of them in the Northeast, including Maryland.

More than 100 motorists are killed on the nation's roads each year as a result of deer-related accidents, according to a Cornell University study.

"The economic impact of an overpopulation of deer, particularly in the Northeast, including Maryland, is staggering," said Paul D. Curtis, an assistant at Cornell University's Department of Natural Resources, who has done extensive research on deer damage. "It runs into the hundreds of million of dollars."

In Maryland, the problem is getting worse each year, according to Jonathan Kays, a regional extension agent with the University of Maryland based in Keedysville, in Washington County. "I talk to a lot of people, a lot of farmers, and nobody says the problem is getting better."

Bradley H. Powers, deputy secretary of the Maryland Department of Agriculture, called the crop damage assessment by Agriculture Statistics "very conservative."

"I think it's much worse," Powers said, noting that a 1996 study by the University of Maryland put the loss of corn, soybean and wheat to deer at $38 million.

David Knopf, deputy state statistician, said the two studies were not comparable. "It would not be comparing apples to apples," he said. Powers called deer the auto body shop owner's best friend, saying they keep the shops busy during the winter months.

Robert Hutchison, who farms nearly 4,000 acres around Cordova in Talbot County, said he has neighbors who stopped growing soybeans on certain fields because the deer ate so much they couldn't recover their planting costs.

L. Douglas Hotton, a deer project leader with the state Department of Natural Resources, estimates that there are about 225,000 deer in the state.

He said the number is growing and that it's the suburbs of the Baltimore metropolitan area "where the number are really jumping." He attributes the gains to urban development that creates a near-ideal environment for deer, with plenty of food and restricted hunting.

A survey done by Howard County in 1999 found that deer did $3.9 million worth of damage to home shrubs, flowers and vegetable gardens. They destroyed another $1.1 million of agricultural crops in the county.

Kays declined to project deer damage to residents across the state - "Nobody has a number" - but he said "the damage in Montgomery County is every bit as great as in Howard."

He said the loss of landscape plants is worse in the central corridor of the state, which includes Baltimore, Anne Arundel, Prince George's and Harford counties.

"We have a real problem with deer, and we need to find a solution," Kays said.

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