Since September, hunters have been allowed to descend on select Howard County parks for several days each month to kill deer in efforts to control a rampant deer population.
So far this season, which continues until March, hunters have killed 175 deer through the Department of Recreation and Parks’ deer management program, which uses sharpshooters and managed hunts across 16 locations.
The hunts, which began in 1998, allow groups of eight to 50 hunters to participate in bow and shotgun hunting on parkland during daytime hours. Each park is closed to the public during hunts. Group hunts are largely complete for the season and have bagged 141 deer, according to Phil Norman, the county’s deer project manager.
Sharpshooting takes place in areas that are too highly populated for group hunts and certified marksman use noise-suppressed rifles. Sharpshooters have killed 34 deer, with seven hunting dates left in the season.
Those numbers are up from last season’s total, which saw an unusually low number of less than 140 deer killed, Norman said.
Brian Eyler, deer project leader for Maryland’s Department of Natural Resources, said deer populations have trended downward in the last several years, but that in the more highly populated central region of the state, deer management continues to be a challenge.
Experts say the ideal number of deer in a square mile is 15. In Howard County, there are about 50 deer per square mile. When the program began in 1998, there were an estimated 100 deer per square mile.
Howard County faces particular challenges in controlling its population, Eyler said, because of a lack of opportunities for hunters to get into the parks.
Howard, along with Prince George’s and Baltimore counties, are the only counties in Maryland that do not allow hunting on Sundays.
“Adding that second weekend day would be doubling opportunity for deer hunters,” Eyler said. “Access is tough, you can’t control deer if you can’t get to them.”
The state is starting to craft its next 10-year plan for managing the population, including objectives for bringing down the population in each county.
“We will continue to chip away at it and keep that population stabilized [in Howard County],” Eyler said. “But actually bringing it down to the goal [ratio] will be challenging, solving that access issue and opportunity issue. We don’t have a magic bullet to solve those two issues.”
Hunting regulations are set by state legislation and state Del. Robert Flanagan introduced a bill this month to expand bowhunting zones and allow hunting on Sundays in the county.
Flanagan, a Republican who represents District 9, said talk of Sunday hunting has upset residents who want to use parks hat time for recreation. He removed the Sunday hunting provision from his proposed bill.
“I’m more goal-oriented, and the goal is not Sunday hunting in and of itself,” Flanagan said. “The goal is managing the deer population to promote safety.”
Democratic District 9 Del. Terri Hill, who in the past three years has voted against similar versions of the bill, said she’s likely to vote yes this time because the deer population problem needs to be solved.
Animal-rights advocates for years have called on governments to explore non-lethal population controls, such as sterilization and contraception. But these options, which involve capturing deer to sterilize them or inject them with a contraception vaccine, are costly and time consuming, Eyler said.
In Montgomery County, Eilene Cohhn has spent more than two years fighting bowhunting, which she believes is inhumane.
Montgomery County introduced a bowhunting pilot program in 2015, and Cohhn took the county to court, claiming the practice was cruel, as deer can suffer for longer than when shot by a bullet. The Maryland Court of Special Appeals ruled in November that bowhunting is legal.
Cohhn believes people need to learn to cohabitate with deer and other animals, and that the problem is exacerbated by continued development onto natural lands.
“It isn’t a matter of overpopulation of deer, we’re taking away all their land,” Cohhn said.
On that point, Eyler agrees. More development onto natural lands means more deer-human interactions will occur, causing more vehicle accidents and vegetation problems.
Norman said deer are involved in more than 1,000 vehicle accidents each year in the county.
Howard County is one of the fastest growing jurisdictions in the state, with a 9.5 percent population growth rate that’s over double the state average.
“Realistically I think we can expect fewer deer in Howard County 10 years from now, but we still may not be at a level that’s socially compatible with humans,” he said. “You work on bringing deer numbers down but at the same time as the human population expands you see increasing deer problems.”