Words only go so far in thinning the deer herd

Bringing up deer.

Does are pretty good at it, as the statewide population of 230,000 would indicate. But in most cases, elected officials might be better off not bringing up deer at all.

The beautiful critters with the soulful brown eyes can still be the third rail of wildlife politics. Just ask Baltimore County Council member Todd Huff, one of the authors of the law to thin the herd in local parks.

Huff and council colleague David Marks took the buck by the antlers when it became apparent that deer were treating county lands like an all-you-can-eat salad bar.

"We had a major problem. When I showed people pictures of Oregon Ridge, they were in awe. They couldn't believe the destruction deer caused," Huff says.

The two first-term lawmakers filed Bill 21-11, "An act concerning hunting."

Except it wasn't about hunting at all because hunting is regular folks buying a state license from the state for the chance to put some venison in the freezer. As the original bill language indicates, the lawmakers wanted a "managed hunt," which Howard County has used in its parks since 1998.

Here's how it works in Howard: A press release goes out announcing the dates at each of 10 parks and the approved method (bow or shotgun); hunters are individually screened, tested and must have a state marksmanship proficiency card; hunting hours are from dawn to noon and the park is closed to other uses.

What the Huff and Marks bill authorizes is something else entirely. If we were talking about bugs, we would call it extermination. If we were talking about the Washington Capitals and the Stanley Cup playoffs, it would be elimination. But we're discussing suburban deer in 2011 and the vocabulary bus is driven by obfuscation.

So what Huff and Marks got for their trouble was a "deer cooperator program."

Despite the friendly sounding name make no mistake, the deer aren't cooperating, unless it's to fall over dead when plugged by a hired gun. The program's efficiency, as a New Hampshire official once summed it up, is "90 bullets, 90 deer."

You can hardly fault the lawmakers for not knowing the lingo, but Huff blames himself.

"By no means was [the bill] about hunting," insists the county native and businessman who grew up on a farm. "I should have been more specific."

But "hunting" and "managed hunt" is what the bill said. And that gave opponents of hunting on public land the opening they needed to demand — and get — a total rewrite.

As it stands, the law is more amendment than original words. The county council has promised to consider "sterilization, hunting and birth control," promised that the deer cooperator program will follow the 2007 euthanasia guidelines of the American Veterinary Medical Association and promised that the bill "is not intended to open county park lands to hunting."

Further, the special ops must be conducted at night, must be advertised two weeks in advance with notices prominently displayed and the park must be closed for the duration. The venison must be donated to a food bank or charity.

Why did the sponsor accept all the changes? "Appeasement," Huff says, laughing.

What Baltimore County has agreed to will cost about $19,000 to hire state-approved sharpshooters, perhaps as early as this fall. It's an amount Huff, a self-described fiscal conservative, believes will be money well spent because the job will be done right.

Ann Roberts, vice president of the 800-member Mountain Club of Maryland, the state's oldest hiking club, says she's pleased that public places like Oregon Ridge will remain hunter-free "and safe for families."

A similar situation is playing out in Bay Ridge outside Annapolis, where neighbors are lobbing unkind words over back fences and in community meetings about how to reduce the deer population. The Humane Society of the United States is performing shuttle diplomacy.

The deer density in Bay Ridge doesn't rise to the level of state intervention, so whatever the solution, residents will most likely foot the bill.

Part of friction in these cases and countless others is that there are more options than there were a decade ago. Maryland is the first state to license the use of the EPA-approved deer contraceptive GonaCon. A privately funded pilot program near Loch Raven is in the first year of sterilizing does. Managed hunts and sharpshooters, er cooperators, also are in the mix.

Finding the best fit is a contact sport.

Huff believes that by bringing up deer, he has stimulated discussion among outdoors groups about wildlife management and the way governments go about it.

"We feel real good about the law now," he says. "Both sides are happy with the adjustments."


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