Hunters allowed in undeveloped Howard County parks have killed 168 deer this season, compared with 120 animals killed in the 2006-2007 season, but the only store in the county that had butchered the animals is refusing the work.
Phil Norman, the county's deer project manager, attributes this year's higher numbers largely to one day in October when 40 deer were killed in the 1,000-acre Middle Patuxent Environmental Area. He also said factors include good hunting weather, a large acorn crop and development along Route 108 that pushed more deer into parklands.
But since the county's managed hunts began in 1998, fewer deer now populate the six county parks where hunting is allowed, Norman said.
"We're not taking deer in the numbers we had in the past at most of the places where we've hunted," Norman said. "This year at Middle Patuxent is somewhat anomalous."
The program reached its peak during the 2000-2001 season, when 256 deer were killed. This year, 125 hunters were selected to continue the attempt to reduce the number of deer. Hunting takes place from October through March in the Alpha Ridge Landfill, David Force Park, High Ridge Park, Middle Patuxent Environmental Area, Blandair Park and Schooley Mill Park.
White-tailed deer populations in Howard County are starting to level off after many years of growth during the 1990s, Norman said. Norman estimates that 75 deer can be found in every square mile in county parks. His goal is 15, based on U.S. Forest Service estimates on how to best reduce plant damage.
To help meet that goal, the county hired a second sharpshooter this year to assist Norman in the hunts on certain sensitive sites such as Alpha Ridge.
The state and county encourage hunters to manage the deer population because, officials say, grazing deer destroy plant life in parks, and hunting reduces the number of animals that run onto roads. Animals, mostly deer, collided with 57 vehicles in the county last year, according to the State Highway Administration.
But animal rights activists counter that when deer are hunted, the survivors have less competition for food. When they are better fed, they reproduce at higher rates. Also, hunting may scare deer onto roadways, creating more of a safety threat, said Jennifer Grill, a spokeswoman for Animal Advocates of Howard County.
"Hunting actually increases deer populations over time," Grill said. "What they're saying they're doing to control deer population is actually making it worse."
Grill said the county should use more nonfatal methods, which include planting foliage disliked by deer and building fences to control herds.
But Norman insists that hunting is the most practical and least expensive option.
"We can't put a deerproof fence around a 1,000-acre park that's supposed to be a natural area," he said.
In the county's rural areas, many residents hunt on private land. The county does not measure private hunting, but fewer residents are taking up hunting across the state. In Maryland, about 122,000 hunters applied for licenses last year, about 8.5 percent fewer than in 2000, according to the state Department of Natural Resources' Fish and Wildlife Service.
"There has probably been a 30 percent drop of license holders in the last 20 years," said Bob Beyer, associate director of the Fish and Wildlife Service. "Anybody who is in this business is concerned."
To compensate for the lack of hunters, the state allows bow-and-arrow hunters to kill as many deer as they can in Howard's parks. In most counties, including Howard, hunters using firearms can kill up to 10 doe and two bucks in a year.
Before this year, Boarman's Meat Market in Highland was the county's only location where deer could be donated, processed and delivered to a food kitchen that distributes venison. But with fewer hunters living in the county, Boarman's has begun changing its practices.
After four decades of processing deer, the market stopped accepting fully skinned deer this winter because owner George Boarman said too many customers were complaining after they saw a deer get butchered in the refrigerated trailers behind the store.
"People got really upset seeing deer skinned out back. ... They didn't want their children seeing it," said Boarman, 57. "What we're worrying about is the changing of the times. One [slaughtered deer's] hair getting loose and getting on someone's clothes, we can't have that kind of mistake."
About 80 percent of the hunters who donated deer to the store were not local customers. Instead they often came from Western Maryland or the Eastern Shore, said assistant butcher Steve Beard. And the needs of local customers come first.
"We're not doing cartwheels to do deer," Beard said. "Deer season is between Thanksgiving and Christmas, it's a busy time. ... It's a great program, but we just can't do it now."
That means less venison for food kitchens. It also may mean that with no butcher accepting venison in Howard County, hunters could be inclined to remove fewer deer from county parks.
"Sportsmen aren't going to kill a deer and not have anything to do with it. ... You don't shoot unless you are going to eat it," said Scott Ainsworth, president of Mead Natural Heritage Association, the organizer of Patuxent Wildlife Refuge's hunts. "They're not going to throw [killed deer] into the woods. That's totally opposite our ethics and what we're taught."