What began in the 1930s as a noble effort to restore a vanishing species in Maryland has become a pounding headache for wildlife authorities today.
Whitetail deer, once nearly hunted to extinction in the state, have made an extraordinary comeback -- so extraordinary that many people now regard them as pests.
Maryland has at least 150,000 deer, and in some places they are defoliating the forest floor, destroying crops and residential shrubbery, causing auto accidents and possibly contributing to the spread of Lyme disease.
Similar problems are being reported in New Jersey, Pennsylvania and other Eastern states. Rising deer populations have been accompanied by a growing concern about Lyme disease, a bacterial infection carried by the deer tick.
Unless treated with antibiotics, the infection can cause arthritic, neurologic and cardiac problems.
Some Maryland habitats are overrun with hungry deer. At Catoctin Mountain Park near Thurmont, hundreds of emaciated deer are stripping the forest floor bare and raiding nearby farm fields to eat.
Burgeoning deer herds are "probably the No. 1 wildlife issue in the East for the National Park Service and other wildlife management agencies," says John Howard, a national park ranger at Catoctin.
The state's deer population consumes perhaps 260 tons of food per day, and damage to cultivated fields, orchards and suburban backyards is both costly and annoying.
Complaints about deer to state wildlife authorities doubled between 1986 and 1989, and beleaguered farmers are shooting thousands of the animals each year.
FARMERS CALL FOR HELP
Increasingly, the Department of Natural Resources is receiving requests for help from farmers along the Gunpowder State Park corridor and from homeowners near the Loch Raven Reservoir watershed.
"They're calling us and asking, 'How can we get rid of these damn things,'" says Joshua L. Sandt, the leading deer expert in the state Forest, Park and Wildlife Service, part of the Department of Natural Resources.
His colleagues tell a similar story. "In 1981 we only had one complaint from a farmer," says Marilyn L. Mause, state wildlife biologist for Harford, Baltimore and Carroll counties. "In 1990 I have 130 different individuals who are losing income due to deer damage.
"I would venture to say we are dealing in the hundreds of thousands of dollars in commercial damage," she says.
Homeowners, too, are calling for help -- at a rate of one a week, says Mause. Tree guards and fences, some electrified, are becoming commonplace in some areas.
Throughout the state, deer are dying in road accidents in record numbers. About 1,600 road kills were tagged last year, but authorities estimate that four more deer are killed for each one tagged. Auto damages in one 1986 study averaged $635 for such collisions.
Deer abound on the grounds of Hampton Mansion in Towson. And trophy bucks have been killed by cars along Park Heights Avenue just outside the Beltway. There even are deer in the city's Leakin and Druid Hill parks.
Older hunters can remember when deer were scarce. In 1902, after two centuries of land-clearing and the hunting of wild animals for food and profit, there were so few deer left in Maryland that hunting them was banned. Deer sightings became news events.
It was 1928 before licensed hunters were allowed to stalk deer again: just bucks, in order to maximize reproductive rates, and only in the far western part of the state.
Legal hunters bagged only 32 deer statewide in 1931, but the "harvest" grew with the herd, and now the toll is 46,000 a year -- still not enough to keep the population in check, wildlife officials say.
SIX BECAME THOUSANDS
The reintroduction of deer to the wild began with six animals released at Aberdeen Proving Ground in the 1930s. The six became thousands by the 1940s, and they were shipped to every county in the state.
By the 1970s, deer were being hunted in every county, and the "harvest" seemed stable at 12,000 to 13,000 a year.
Then something happened.
"We've seen an explosion in the deer population in the last 10 years," says Sandt.
From 14,500 in 1980, the kill more than doubled to 33,000 in 1988. It climbed again to 46,000 in 1989. That number was matched in 1990 despite less favorable weather.
Archaeologists say there are far more deer in the state today than before the white man arrived in the 17th century.
Sandt sees a variety of factors at work. Mild winters in the 1980s probably accounted for 5 to 10 percent of the growth. But better nutrition and increasing genetic variability also have contributed.
By the 1980s, deer re-introduction programs in states up and down the East Coast had succeeded, and yearling bucks from neighboring states began enriching the narrow gene pool of Maryland's herd and raising fertility and survival rates.
Also in the 1980s, Sandt says, Maryland farmers began using more fertilizer, yielding more nutritious forage for deer. And development policies in the suburbs encouraged the deer by preserving wooded tracts, providing abundant forage and discouraging hunters.
HERE'S THE MATH
The mathematics of this newly invigorated deer herd are sobering.
During her first year of life, a well-fed female deer in Maryland can produce one fawn -- then twins and sometimes triplets each year after that. So, "a healthy population has the potential of doubling every year," Sandt says.
The principal reason it doesn't, he says, is hunting. Last year, hunters killed 90 percent of Maryland's bucks and 30 to 40 percent of the antlerless deer.
But Sandt believes the herd has continued to grow, to at least 150,000.
"We have got to stabilize the deer population," he says. "And in some areas we need to reduce it.
"We don't want to see it get to 300,000 or 400,000 because of the problems that would create."
Deer hunting is a $50 million-a-year industry in Maryland, and hunting license fees provide $4.3 million in state revenues, supporting two-thirds of this year's expenditures by the Forest, Park and Wildlife Service.
In most counties, hunters are now permitted to shoot two bucks, or one of each sex, in each of three seasons -- gun, bow and blackpowder musket. (The seasons start in mid-September and run through Jan. 31. Most deer are shot during the brief rifle season, which ran from Nov. 24 to Dec. 1 last fall.)
But few hunters can use that much venison, and only 38 percent kill more than one deer. As a result, "We have not been able to stop the growth of the deer herd," says Sandt.
The state's choices for population control are limited, he points out. Sterilization is considered too costly and impractical. So is physical removal of deer. No part of the state wants more.
Doing nothing and "letting nature take its course" is another option, but one which carries a price tag in property damage.
Maryland already licenses 120,000 deer hunters. But their numbers are no longer growing, so Sandt says more liberalized hunting is needed -- perhaps a January rifle season or a requirement that at least one of the hunter's two deer be a doe.
"In my bag of tricks," Sandt says, "I don't have any other options to control the deer population."
NEXT: Crisis at Catoctin