Growing suburbs find a downside of nature


Mary Rose Batuure doesn't have to go far to show her 1-year-old daughter and 2-year-old son the wonders of Mother Nature.

Almost every night, she says, as many as eight fawns and a doe bed down on and around the brick steps of her colonial home on High Stepper Trail in Sykesville.

"You just don't expect to see these deer that are supposed to be out and running about, . . . lying so near to your home," says Mrs. Batuure, 35, who moved from Bowie to the River Downs subdivision last November. "If they would just cooperate and stay out of my garden, we could live together."

As open fields and wooded lots give way to suburban homes, residents and wildlife are rubbing shoulders more than ever, biologists say -- and those interactions aren't always welcome.

Increasingly, homeowners in Howard County and other suburban areas complain to wildlife officials about deer that destroy gardens, skunks that take up residence under porches, birds that nest in drainpipes -- even groundhogs under the hood of the family car.

What begins with charming encounters with the natural world turn into serious nuisances for many residents.

Normally people expect to see wildlife in more rural settings, but more and more people move into these animals' natural habitat, the animals are adapting to man's back yard," says Noel Myers, a wildlife biologist with the Animal Damage Control division of the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Last year, the division logged more than 1,000 complaints from Howard County residents about nuisance animals, up from just 280 in 1991. The 1994 total included:

* More than 300 calls about groundhogs tearing up flower beds to make holes.

* More than 100 calls about gray squirrels, who often make their homes in attics or open air vents.

* About 100 striped skunk sightings.

This year, there have been about 450 calls in Howard County. The pattern is consistent with statewide figures, which show a steady rise in the number of calls, from about 3,500 in 1991 to more than 8,700 last year.

In Howard County, the rising number of incidents is a direct result of a growth boom that puts pressure on the animals' natural habitats, biologists say. From 1990 to 1994, the amount of land committed for development in Howard jumped from 87,353 acres to 99,902 acres.

"We're . . . building houses where groundhogs, skunks, deer and most other animals have made their burrows and beds," says Mr. Myers, the USDA biologist. "That leads to more human-wildlife interaction and possible conflict."

And the differences can be irreconcilable, says Chick Rhodehamel, assistant director of the Columbia Association's Open Space Management division.

"People feel that their space is being invaded by wildlife, but really these are often areas where animals have always lived, and as the communities settle down, the animals are moving back in," he says.

Some animals welcome

Homeowners can be quite subjective about which animals they consider colorful local fauna and those that qualify as pests.

Rabbits and woodpeckers, for example, draw few complaints from people who people enjoy seeing them in their yards. But let a groundhog swarming with flies root in a homeowner's manicured lawn and the phones start ringing, Mr. Myers says.

Statewide, groundhogs, squirrels, snakes, raccoons and foxes account for the bulk of complaints.

In some cases, the residents themselves contribute to the problem, wildlife experts say.

"There's plenty of food that many people leave out on their deck or patio, like cat food, that foxes and raccoons are crazy about," Mr. Myers says. "It's a free meal for the animal. . . . They don't have to do any work, but that usually sets off a homeowner."

For residents who have to put up with the damage, suburban wildlife is no laughing matter.

Mike Rethman, a Columbia Council member from Hickory Ridge village, says squirrels chewed through a hose connected to his grill from a propane tank -- just a week after he wrapped it in wire mesh and electrical tape to protect it from their sharp teeth.

He spends $80 a year on "Deer Spray," a putrefied egg white he sprays on bushes to discourage deer. That hasn't kept them from chewing up the rhododendrons and azaleas in his yard on Blue Flag Way.

Groundhog gnaws wires

"I guess I just pay my annual dues to wildlife," says Mr. Rethman.

Les Greenberg, a resident of the Dorsey Hall neighborhood in west Columbia, says he knew things were out of control when a groundhog took up residence in his daughter's 1995 Pontiac Grand Am. The animal gnawed through the wires, causing the odometer and speedometer to stop working.

"At first I didn't believe the mechanic when he said a groundhog did it, but when I saw the wires and saw that it wasn't any clean cuts, I did remember seeing groundhogs run up underneath neighbors' cars before," Mr. Greenberg says.

Confronted with troublesome woodland creatures, some residents call in heavy reinforcements. That's what Cheryl Wisniewski did when she smelled a family of skunks living under her front stoop on Little Boots in the Village of Owen Brown.

The county referred her to Bob Dunker, a professional trapper from Catonsville who has captured more than 500 wild animals in the county over the past 11 years, including raccoons, snakes and bats.

Two weeks ago, he caught two baby skunks in Ms. Wisniewski's front yard, using a bait that he says works like a charm -- marshmallows. "Like any other kid, these little guys just couldn't stay away from the sweet stuff," he says.

Other residents are more resigned.

Gives up on garden

Barbara Condron, who lives on Watch Chain Way in the Village of Hickory Ridge, has given up trying to grow a vegetable garden after six years of deer devouring her plants.

"It was a battle every year," said Ms. Condron, whose home is about four miles from the Middle Patuxent Environmental Area, a sanctuary for deer. "We'd try some new technique, like aluminum pie pans or green netting over the plants, but nothing worked.

"Every year they won," she said.

Over time, those tensions could lessen simply as a result of natural factors, wildlife experts say. Eventually, the animals may reach what is known as their "maximum carrying capacity" for their habitat, said James Boller, field supervisor for the Howard County Animal Control.

A more troublesome phenomenon, from the biologists' point of view, is the harm that development can cause to animal populations that are more sensitive to humans than deer and raccoons.

Already, birds such as meadowlarks, pheasants, quail, barred owls and worm-eating warblers are in decline, says wildlife biologist Lowell Adams, president of Urban Wildlife Resources in Columbia.

"It's a fact of life that whatever we as humans do will impact the land and everything among it, from birds to deer and raccoons," adds Joanne Solem, president of the Howard County Bird Club. "Their lives will be changed."

Willing to coexist

Many residents, meanwhile, are willing to put up with a little inconvenience as the price of coexisting with local wildlife.

Frangiska Lewis, 41, of Ellicott City is one of them.

Since May, a trapper has been trying to catch a suspected family of groundhogs in Mrs. Lewis' yard. The trapper has caught two groundhogs and a raccoon. But three 6-inch-wide holes below the family's deck suggest that the animals are back.

"It's a very expensive proposition to trap them, but I do have a fear of the children in the neighborhood getting hurt," says Mrs. Lewis, who lives in the 3900 block of River Walk. "Otherwise, I do feel that we've infringed on their lives more than they've inconvenienced us. We've moved in here, leaving them with no place to go."

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