Deer hunt sparks debate in Baltimore County

Managed hunt would allow county to control increasing population

April 27, 2011|By Raven L. Hill, The Baltimore Sun

A fight to save Baltimore County parkland is pitting hikers and homeowners against hunters and some environmentalists, as all confront a common foe — deer.

A bill to permit managed deer hunts in some county parks, including Oregon Ridge in Cockeysville, has sparked both strong support and staunch opposition. The debate was framed by extremes at a County Council work session Tuesday, as some called the hunts a "deer massacre" and others said not culling the feeding herds would turn parks into suburban "deserts."

"When people think about Oregon Ridge or any Baltimore County public park, they think about enjoyment, relaxing with their families, not about danger and death," said one opponent, Enid Feinberg. She called the bill "poorly thought out."

But others said the measure would help preserve forests at parks such as Oregon Ridge — at 1,000 acres, the county's largest contiguous park.

Both supporters and critics agree on one point.

"The state is overpopulated with deer," said Fred Carter, owner of DFJ Wildlife Control Specialists based in Harford County. "They do keep coming back."

A study conducted by the Baltimore County Commission on Environmental Quality more than a year ago determined that deer were causing severe damage in some parks, leading to devastated crops and greenery, and potentially increasing the spread of Lyme disease.

The bill, introduced last month by Republican council members Todd Huff and David Marks, would amend county code to permit a hunt in collaboration with the state Department of Natural Resources. Two years ago, the county approved firearms hunting in Loch Raven Reservoir to cull the herd, sharing the estimated $42,450 cost with Baltimore City for a rifle hunt by sharpshooters hired and certified by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Hunt supporters say similar efforts are needed to preserve parks and to protect water quality. Cromwell Valley and Marshy Point are also overrun by deer.

"Healthy forests are the easiest investment and the cheapest way to maintain water quality," said John Markley, deputy director of the county Department of Environmental Protection and Sustainability. "To the extent these forests are damaged, and they certainly are very, very damaged … they're practically degenerated to the point of where if something isn't done, these will turn into meadows. And I'm not exaggerating."

Other concerns that hunt proponents tend to raise — for example, driver safety and Lyme disease — are important but not paramount, Markley said. "The most important thing is forest preservation," he said.

Baltimore County Council Chairman John Olszewski Sr. said the bill needs work to ease misconceptions that the county would authorize open season in public parks.

"We just want to have managed professionals, who will thin the herds out and do it when no one is using the parks and do it when there's no chance of accidents," Olszewski said.

He said the bill needs to be withdrawn and reintroduced, or may require amendments for passage.

Other council members wanted assurances that parks would be completely closed during managed hunts, all deer meat would be processed by local companies and donated to county shelters, and that hunts would be limited in scope.

But residents and activists said they were concerned that even a managed hunt had too much potential to go dangerously awry for families, birders, hikers and Scout troops using the parks. Some encouraged the county to consider more innovative solutions, such as sterilization, and warned that thinning the herd could result in too few deer.

Some speakers warned that permitting hunting of any sort could have unintended consequences.

Lierra Lenhard, who lives in Phoenix near Loch Raven Reservoir, said deer have spilled over into neighborhoods, trying to get away. "We have triple the amount of deer we used to have," she said.

Michael Pierce, a member of the environmental commission and president of the Cromwell Valley Park Council, said he supports a managed hunt but believes the county must better control the perception. Officials should delay the bill if needed, he said, to "ensure that the results will not be contrary to what was intended."

Both sponsors said they would not consider withdrawing the bill, although Huff said he would consider amending it.

"All we're doing is giving the county the option to do this," Marks said. "If you delay this bill for a year or two, the budget will still be tight and the deer population will continue to grow."

A vote is scheduled May 2.

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