To cull a burgeoning deer herd that is rapidly destroying vegetation and stripping trees, the Baltimore County Council is expected tomorrow to approve a program to allow firearms hunting for the first time in Loch Raven Reservoir.
"We absolutely have to do something," said Harry Spiker, game mammal leader with the Maryland Department of Natural Resources. "All you have to do is look at the landscape."
The use of sharpshooters with rifles in February would follow a 4 1/2 -month season of bow hunting, also a first-time event, in a 1,600-acre northern area of the Loch Raven watershed. When the bow season ends Jan. 31, an estimated 200 white-tailed deer will have been removed from a herd of nearly 900. But more deer will have to go if the forest is to remain viable, officials said.
The rifle hunting would take place at night, likely for about a week, in areas that have been identified with large deer populations, particularly around Piney Branch Golf Course and the Loch Raven Skeet and Trap Center, officials said.
"This will be an efficient, completely controlled situation that could quickly eliminate up to 250 deer," said David Carroll, county director of sustainability.
Opponents of bow hunting at Loch Raven say they are also against the proposed firearms hunt.
"It kills me when they say this is humane," said Enid Feinberg, a member of Deer Solutions MD and a resident of the watershed areas. "Before the county takes such drastic measures, what we need is effective, humane management that everyone can live with, including deer. There is no justification for killing animals just because there are too many."
Hunting is not an effective long-term solution, Feinberg said. "What you do is create empty space with food for more deer," she said.
Opponents say using hunters to kill deer causes needless suffering, with some animals slowly bleeding to death. Hunters contend that theirs is the more humane resolution to restore balance to the herd. Otherwise, deer might starve or cause car accidents.
Recent surveys found that 880 deer inhabit an ecosystem that can adequately sustain about 100.
Deer are devouring the young plants and trees that the forest depends on for regeneration, degrading the quality of the reservoir's water and destroying the habitats of other wildlife, officials said.
The surrounding forest and vegetation help deter runoff and pollution of the Baltimore City-owned reservoir. Loch Raven, the largest of the city's three reservoirs, supplies more than 2 million residents with drinking water.
The county is sharing with Baltimore City the $42,453 cost of the rifle hunt, which will be undertaken by sharpshooters hired and certified by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
"Paying for this hunt with our tax dollars in such a difficult economy is outrageous," Feinberg said.
Working in teams of three that include a shooter, spotter and driver, the hunters will use polymer-tipped bullets that travel short distances at a low velocity, officials said.
"Sharpshooting is definitely the most effective way to handle balancing the herd," Spiker said.
Carcasses will be donated to Farmers for the Hungry, an organization that provides food to the needy, officials said.
Bow hunting has been permitted in the watershed since that season began Sept. 15. Those hunters - about 1,800 have bow permits - have killed about 165 deer so far. Although that number will increase before the bow season closes, it is not enough to make a significant impact, officials said.