We'll meet Dave Heilmeier, Crownsville hunting

David Heilmeier, Southern Regional Manager, Wildlife and Heritage Service, stands near the entrance to the new Cooperative Wildlife Management Area (CWMA), a 546-acre parcel open to public deer hunting and other activities. (Kim Hairston, Baltimore Sun / June 26, 2012)

It's close to Interstate 97, just down the road from Lures Bar and Grille and 10 minutes from the heavy traffic of Annapolis. Yet as you set foot onto Anne Arundel County's most recent environmental management enterprise, you'd swear you had entered the most remote regions of the Blue Ridge mountains.

A barely used path twines through growths of wild blackberry and Virginia creeper, follows a plunging ravine past dogwoods and poplars, and disappears near a cedar tree whose bark has been stripped near the roots, a telltale sign that a buck has made his way through.

Welcome to the Crownsville Cooperative Wildlife Management Area, 546 acres of an outdoors person's paradise in the middle of Anne Arundel that recently became the county's first major deer-hunting preserve on public land.

"Sportsmen have been used to driving to other parts of the state to hunt," said Dave Heilmeier of the wildlife and heritage service of the state Department of Natural Resources, which oversees public hunting in Maryland. "This offers access to a promising location in the heart of Anne Arundel County, and overall, its first season has gone very well."

The property sits on the western portion of what once were the grounds of Crownsville Hospital Center, a facility for the mentally ill that was founded in 1910 as the Hospital for the Negro Insane of Maryland.

After the hospital ceased operations in 2004, the Maryland Environmental Trust assumed control of its hilly 640 acres, more than 80 percent of which lay to the west of I-97. The highway split the site when it was constructed in 1993; the hospital's buildings lie on the tract to the east.

The Maryland Board of Public Works gave the huge western portion to Anne Arundel County in 2009 on one condition: that the county work out a wildlife management agreement with the state that would allow hunting as a means of helping manage the state's deer population.

The county agreed.

Alan Friedman, director of governmental relations for the county, said Anne Arundel mainly wanted the site because it's crucial to the South River Greenway, more than 6,000 acres of undeveloped forestland that serves as watershed protection for the South River and the Chesapeake Bay.

"We wanted to acquire [the land] for the purpose of environmental preservation," Friedman said. "For us, the hunting was a side issue."

Anne Arundel later passed legislation that lifted a long-standing ban on hunting on public lands.

Since last Nov. 26, when the Crownsville Wildlife Management Area officially opened — it's cleared for deer hunting only — the county's Department of Recreation and Parks has worked with the state to manage activity on the property.

On a rainy morning early this week, Heilmeier, a former hunter who lives near Solomons Island, gave a tour of the rugged grounds, sodden leaves rustling as he walked up and down hillsides through shrubs, thorn bushes and trees.

Several factors, he said, make Crownsville CWMA an ideal deer-hunting location. Because it's a huge expanse of uninterrupted forestland, there has been no development — and thus very little fragmentation of the deer population. An abundance of oaks, Heilmeier added, means a bountiful harvest of acorns, which deer love to eat.

And though the steep ravines can make for tough going on foot, the plentiful trees give deer places to rub and scrape, leaving the kinds of clues that can give hunters tips in tracking their quarry.

Permanent deer stands are prohibited, forcing hunters to rely more heavily on their tracking skills.

Heilmeier said that when his staff first surveyed the site, they determined the deer population — while not overflowing like those in other county parks — was healthy, probably around the region's ideal balance of between 15 and 20 per square mile.

At any given time, that means upward of 20 deer are likely to be on the CWMA grounds, which occupy about 0.85 square miles.

"There's plenty of deer here," he said.

Locating a hunting grounds in the midst of a traditionally suburban area can spark controversy. As officials got the site ready to open last year, it was Heilmeier who served as pointman with the public.