At 5:30 on a recent Monday morning, the sky is still dark and temperatures hover around the freezing mark. Phil Norman, the county's deer project manager, sits in his truck outside High Ridge Park in North Laurel, National Public Radio murmuring from his radio, checklist on the dash.
Eight hunters have permission to enter the park starting at 6 a.m. They're each assigned a stand, where they will watch and wait for the deer they hope to kill with shotguns. Already a line of cars and trucks has lined up behind Norman, including two who are taking their chances on standby.
Walter Oleniewski, 67, of Silver Spring, and his son Christopher, 37, are among the eight with permission to hunt. "It's something I've been doing since I was a child," said Walter, who drives up at 5:38 and is greeted with a handshake and a "Good morning, Walter," by Norman. "I enjoy being in the outdoors."
But the real pleasure is being with Christopher. "It's really a thrill to me just to be out here in the woods with him," Walter said. "We try to hunt together as much as we can."
Like other hunters, Walter likes to eat deer meat, which is of course organic, all-natural and free of preservatives. If he downs more venison than he can eat, he'll donate the meat through an organization called Farmers and Hunters Feeding the Hungry, he said.
As Norman checks in the hunters, he gives each directions to his assigned stand, which must be at least 150 yards from any occupied structure, with instructions that seem to involve a lot of stream crossings. Hunters bring their own climbing platforms.
"The hunt itself is very much a solitary activity," said Oleniewski. "You're spending most of your time being quiet and still."
Hunts since 1998
Howard County has been allowing hunters like the Oleniewskis to participate in managed deer hunts in county parks since January 1998. Norman, a county employee since 1990, has run the program from the beginning, and said it was started to control a deer population that was growing beyond the habitat's ability to support it.
The deer have "negative impacts on natural resources," said Norman, eating seedlings and stripping small trees. Hunting has been shown to reduce deer populations in Howard County and slow the increase in traffic accidents, he said.
The county's goal is 15 or fewer deer per square mile, Norman said. A survey estimating deer populations in each park between 2001 and 2011 shows the managed hunts have brought down the numbers, but "there are still many locations where density is above our goal," he said.
The numbers are rough, since they are based on flights over the park with special equipment that can see the deer in the dark. In High Ridge, for example, officials counted no deer in 2011, but put the estimate at 71.4 per square mile in 2009, and 100 per square mile the previous year.
Norman said 90 deer were taken the first year, and since then it's been about 60 a year.
The season for managed deer hunts runs from late October through February, a time when the does are not pregnant or nursing. Another reason for hunting in cold weather is that the parks, which are closed to the public during the hunts, are less popular in the winter months.
"We've got over 130 hunters in the program, and I know most of them," said Norman, a hunter himself. While the largest number are from Howard County, hunters also travel from Montgomery and Prince George's counties, the Eastern Shore and Northern Virginia to hunt in Howard County parks. A few women hunt, but most Howard County hunters are men, Norman said.
Aside from the occasional sprained ankle or scratch, the 14-year-old program has been injury-free.
Soon it is 6 a.m. and the hunters leave their trucks. "Be safe, have fun," Norman says to the hunters.
'Being in nature'
"For guys like us, who have been hunting a long time, it's about being in nature," said Jim Rehbein, the county's lead park ranger, who is assigned to the hunt program throughout the season. "It's not always about shooting the deer."
Bow-hunting was added about 10 years ago, after the county acquired the 300-acre Blandair Park in Columbia. It's the only choice for parks near residential communities, since archery equipment has a shorter range. Some neighbors also prefer the silence of bows and arrows to the sound of shotguns.
Norman and Rehbein said they occasionally hear complaints that deer hunting is cruel, but most residents support the practice, partly because the county's deer population has gotten so large that it seems everyone has a story of ruined gardens and Route 29 near-misses.
In an email, Ann Selnick, past president of Animal Advocates of Howard County, a volunteer organization fighting animal suffering, said Howard County's managed hunts "kill deer in a cruel and inhumane way," and the county should follow Baltimore County's lead in adopting a policy of thinning the deer populations with sharpshooters that kill the animal instantly with a bullet to the brain.
She would also welcome a deer sterilization program like one being piloted in Baltimore County, she said.
Howard County's managed deer hunts take place at about six parks a year. Rockburn, which has a school adjacent to it, is not open to managed hunts, so county sharpshooters reduce the deer population, operating at night.
By 7:30, the sky is light and the first shots are echoing from the park. Norman and Rehbein are preparing to walk the perimeter, both to check on the hunters and to push the deer toward them.
As it happens, John DePalma of Rockville, who got a standby slot at the last minute, is the only hunter to kill a deer that day, Norman said. It was a buck that had shed its antlers.