County to continue deer hunting

Poll shows support for thinning the herd in undeveloped parks

July 23, 2008|By Larry Carson | Larry Carson,Sun reporter

Despite strong objections from animal advocates, county officials are planning to continue managed deer hunts in a half-dozen undeveloped parks this fall, based on the results of a new public opinion survey.

The 10-minute telephone survey of random respondents was conducted in April, and the results were released this week.

"We wanted to find out in general what attitudes were," said Gary J. Arthur, director of the county Department of Recreation and Parks.

If the survey had revealed a swing to overwhelming public opposition to hunting, the county would have revisited the plans, he said.

County officials say the hunts are needed to reduce an excessive deer population that they say has led indirectly to more transmission of Lyme disease, damage to vegetation and ecosystems in parks, and added to the danger of collisions for motorists.

But members of Animal Advocates of Howard County found those arguments unconvincing, countering that other animals carry deer ticks, residents can use fencing and repellent to protect plants, and driving more cautiously and using roadside reflectors would reduce collisions.

"It was a biased panel and a waste of taxpayers' money," said Jennifer C. Grill, the organization's representative on the committee that helped frame the survey's questions. She withdrew from the group in protest.

The survey of 800 residents found that 81 percent support continuing managed deer hunts if nonlethal control methods are ineffective. At the same time, 70 percent support using nonlethal controls if they work. About 58 percent said there are too many deer in the county.

Asked their opinion on what methods work, 42 percent said managed hunts are "very effective," and 40 percent said hunts are "somewhat effective." That compares with 26 percent who said that contraceptives or capturing and moving deer are very effective and 52 percent who said those methods are somewhat effective.

The $22,333 survey was organized by Donald F. Norris, chairman of public policy at the Maryland Institute for Policy Analysis and Research at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County. In a report accompanying the results, Norris wrote that "current scientific evidence shows that contraception does not work," and that capture and transfer is also "not a viable option."

About half the respondents said they had either been involved in a collision with a deer or have a relative or friend who had been in the past five years. More than half said they had bushes or crops damaged by deer.

The survey was requested by Animal Advocates last summer in a meeting with County Executive Ken Ulman, Arthur said. The group has strenuously opposed killing deer for years.

"I don't think we have an over-population of deer, " Grill said.

Residents should adapt to whatever the deer population is, Grill said, using practices that minimize danger to the public or the deer. She also said she feels the 23-member survey committee - made up of residents and members of civic and conservation groups - was weighted in favor of hunting advocates, while her views were marginalized in the questions asked.

Arthur objected to that characterization.

"We didn't indicate to her that her group could write the questions," he said.

Norris also rejected Grill's criticisms.

"They are fallacies," he said. "They are based on the single point of view of the advocates. It's advocacy versus analysis."

Norris said the committee was balanced and accused Grill of wanting a "push-poll," a survey that gives respondents certain facts designed to produce a predictable opinion.

The annual hunts managed by the county's Recreation and Parks department began in 1998. They were suspended briefly after James C. Robey took office as county executive and resumed in late 1999. The hunts are conducted on various days during fall and winter with hunters who must register and be selected to participate.

Since the start, hunters have killed 1,758 deer in the county, according to Philip C. Norman, deer project manager for the county. Over that time, he said, the hunts have reduced the deer population in the 1,000-acre Middle Patuxent Environmental Area south of Route 108 in Columbia from 100 or more to 23 per square mile, Norman said. The ideal, he said, would be 15 deer per square mile.

Other parks included in hunts over the years are David Force in Ellicott City, High Ridge in North Laurel, Schooley Mill in Highland, Blandair Park in Columbia, and at the Alpha Ridge landfill, where trained sharpshooters operate. Hunters use bow and arrows at Blandair, where homes are nearby.

Norman said the change in the health of vegetation in areas were the hunts have taken place is apparent, compared to areas of nearby Patapsco State Park where no hunting has taken place.

He added that it takes several years after deer are removed for deer ticks that carry Lyme disease to also decline.

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