- The Washington Times - Sunday, December 8, 2002

Yews stripped of evergreen needles, bushes picked clean of rose and azalea buds, pansies nipped to the stem and thousands of carcass littering the roadways.The evidence is everywhere that the white-tailed deer has taken a toll on the Washington area and most of the East Coast.
They destroy nearly $1 billion worth of U.S. crops, timber and landscaping annually. And each year they cause most of the 500,000 animal-related vehicle accidents that result in about 100 fatalities and $2.5 billion in damages.
Wildlife officials from Maryland and Virginia acknowledge that they have had little success in reducing the deer population, despite making it a priority for more than a decade.
Naturalists say about 1.25 million white-tails inhabit Maryland and Virginia, about twice as many as when the Europeans established the first colony in North America with the Jamestown settlement of 1607.
Some hunters say the population today could be even larger than estimated because they avoid filing reports for game wardens, though the growth explosion is relatively new.
By 1900, the country's white-tail population was nearly depleted by hunters killing deer for profit, then saved from extinction by the Lacey Act of 1900, which outlawed buying and selling game, and gave federal authorities control of interstate transport of wildlife.
Recovery was slow. Virginia, for example, had 25,000 deer in 1931, or fewer than two per square mile.
By the turn of the century, its population in North America had rebounded to about 500,000. And today the numbers have reached about 20 million, equal to those roaming the countryside during Thomas Jefferson's administration.
Naturalists say the population recovered during the past two decades because of reforestation, farms being abandoned and restocking. They also say some of the problems in Virginia and Maryland are being caused by descendents of deer brought from as far away as Arkansas and Michigan in the mid-1900s.
Virginia has about 1 million deer and Maryland about 250,000. The District keeps no official record of its deer population, but the 50-square-mile city probably has a fraction of the number found in neighboring states.
Allowing hunters to shoot and kill deer is considered the easiest and least-expensive method to reduce the population. Though it works in rural Virginia and Maryland, the method is impractical in the District and the suburbs, where man and deer live side by side.
As many as 60 deer per square mile inhabit some parts of Northern Virginia, though about 18 per square mile is the optimal number.
"We have not been successful in the last five years," said Matt Knox, deer program supervisor for the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries. "We are not meeting our management-reduction goal."
One reason is that deer in the suburbs are protected from hunters. And government programs such as Maryland's Open Space provides them with an eden of trees, shrubs, gardens and flower beds.
"Suburbia is actually very good deer habitat, unfortunately for us," said Brian Eyler, a deer biologist with the Maryland Department of Natural Resources. "It makes our job a lot harder."
Sometimes the encounters are bizarre.
For example, a large buck recently burst into a Kroger supermarket in Blacksburg, Va., and ran amok through the store for several minutes, jumping over people, charging down aisles and sliding about on the linoleum floor before finding an exit.
And in Northeast Washington last month, two bucks jumped through the window of a McDonald's and ran frantically through the restaurant amid startled patrons and staff. One deer escaped, but both animals were destroyed by animal-control officers. Four women in the restaurant had scrapes and bruises from the flying debris.
More often, the encounters are expensive and deadly.
There were 4,229 crashes between vehicles and deer in Maryland last year, each incident costing motorists $2,000 to $8,000. Nearly half of them happened in Montgomery County, while Charles County was a distant second, with 413.
In 1999, the state had 2,973 such crashes. Montgomery County had the most: 2,033.
Virginia had 6,030 such collisions in 2001, and Loudoun County led the commonwealth with 283. The number was 4,727 in 2000, a 28 percent increase, according to the Virginia Department of Transportation.
Damage in Maryland and Virginia last year for deer-related accidents totaled about $50 million.
The District does not keep records of traffic accidents involving deer, but most of them occur in and around Rock Creek Park in upper Northwest.
Wildlife officials agree that regulated hunting is the best way to thin the deer population and have recently encouraged hunters to kill more female deer because most other methods are too expensive or impractical.
The trap-and-transfer method can cost as much as $800 a deer, with many being injured or killed in the process. Conservationists say that 85 percent of the relocated deer died in a recent California project.
They also say that reintroducing bobcats and wolves as natural deer predators is too dangerous and unproven.
As proof that hunting is the best method, Maryland wildlife officials point out that in 1996 more than 100 deer were killed by cars in and around Seneca Creek State Park near Gaithersburg. But when they opened the park the following year, hunters killed 134 deer and the number of deer killed on the roads dropped to 50.
Hunters killed 50 deer in the park last year, and eight were struck by cars.
Still, controversy can be expected when hunters are allowed in parks or when any changes affect the deer population.
For example, Rock Creek Park is federal property, so wildlife officials cannot resolve the deer problem until they get approval for an environmental-impact study. Residents can also influence the government's decision with their testimony, which is a requisite part of the process.
"When there is even a hint of us doing something about the deer, we immediately get calls from people saying: 'We love the deer. Don't kill them,'" said Laura Illige, the park's chief ranger. "We also get calls from people saying: 'They are eating my azaleas. Do something.'"
Among the most contentious reduction methods is hiring sharpshooters to cull large deer herds in small areas. In recent years, the shooters have killed deer at Goddard Space Flight Center in Prince George's County, the Randall Cliffs Naval Research Lab near Chesapeake Beach in Southern Maryland and in some Montgomery County parks.
Though the method is too dangerous to reduce deer populations statewide, scientists at the National Institute of Standards and Technologies in Maryland are studying the possibility of shooting darts laced with contraceptive drugs.
Still, most wildlife officials say more liberal hunting regulations is the best alternative.
In some suburban settings, authorities have taken the drastic step of allowing bow hunting in public parks. When Barboursville, W.Va., officials started a special bow season last week in a community park, about 300 hunters stalked through woods not far from hikers and other visitors.
Fairfax County is planning two special hunts in January to thin the deer herd in Huntley Meadows Park in Hybla Valley, home to some of the estimated 40,000 deer that live in the county parks.
Maryland and Virginia have also adopted laws in recent years that permit more hunting of female deer.
"We've got to find ways to increase the harvest of female deer," said Mr. Knox, the Virginia deer specialist.
In Virginia a hunter can kill one female deer a day during the bow, firearm or muzzleloader season.
By hunting in all three seasons, a hunter could kill three bucks and about 150 does each year. By participating in only the firearm season, Nov. 18 through Jan. 4, a hunter in Loudoun, Fairfax or Prince William counties could legally kill as many as three bucks and 81 does.
Virginia hunters killed 214,890 deer last year, a roughly 15 percent increase from the 2000 total of 187,170.
Wildlife officials know that many hunters want to stalk the bigger, more majestic bucks and that many feel uneasy about killing female deer. But they say education programs have steadily increased the number of does killed.
There are no limits on killing female deer in Southern Maryland, the Eastern Shore and the state's central region, which includes Prince George's, Montgomery and part of Frederick counties. To create further incentives, state officials have also waived the $5 fee for each female deer killed and have mandated that after killing a buck, hunters must kill two female deer before killing another buck.
Maryland officials say about 50 percent of the 83,787 deer killed last year were female.
Some avid hunters still complain about the cost of hunting licenses and the strict rules that can result in fines.
"You charged me $50 to do a job the state should do," hunter Dave Gordon told wildlife official Mr. Eyler at a recent deer-management seminar.
Mr. Eyler replied that licensing fees pay for most of the state's hunting programs.
Mr. Gordon, who hunts in all seasons in Montgomery and Prince George's counties, also complained about a $120 fine a game warden wrote him for hunting 15 feet inside the 150-yard no-hunting zone around houses.
He said the homeowner "wanted me to kill every deer in sight because they were eating up everything in her yard."
Yet the biggest obstacle to deer control in Maryland is the dwindling number of hunters.
"Too many kids are sitting home playing deer hunter on the computer," Mr. Eyler said.
Since the 1970s, the number of licensed hunters in Maryland has declined from about 180,000 to about 140,000. The number of hunters younger than 16 has also dropped significantly from a peak of about 23,000 in the 1970s to about 7,000 in the early 1990s, wildlife officials say.
The state recently instituted a special "Junior Hunt" day typically held two weeks before the start of the regular season, which permits hunting exclusively for those younger than 16 and accompanied by an adult.
This and other programs have shown some early success because the number of licensed junior hunters has increased in recent years to about 9,600. Officials say the young hunters are key in changing the trend; 3.4 percent of Marylanders hunt, compared with the national average of 7 percent, 19 percent in West Virginia and 10 percent in Pennsylvania.
Still, wildlife officials know that the problems associated with suburban deer are not going away anytime soon.
"Suburban deer are going to be on the radar a long time," Mr. Eyler said. "It's going to be an issue in this state forever."

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