Striking an ecological balance Choices: The ebb and flow of animal populations in Maryland creates natural imbalances that are not always easy to resolve.


WHEN ASKED about Maryland's population, I used to say around 5 million people, and increasing rapidly -- as if humans held the only franchise on the place.

Increasingly, we cannot ignore other claimants, such as the following:

Black bears, 300 to 500; white-tailed deer, 300,000; tens of thousands of nutria; coyotes and beaver that have spread to every county; 3,000 mute swans and 70,000 non-migratory Canada geese.

All are wild, large, visible and flourishing, and in the fifth most densely populated (with humans) state, jostling for space with us and other flora and fauna.

How it all plays out may say more about us than about the animals. Consider the nutria and the mute swan.

Ecologically, the two are fellow travelers in the Chesapeake landscape. Both are introduced species, non-native to this place, with no natural role in the scheme of things.

Also, both are expanding in number and in range, with documented impacts on valued species of native plants and animals.

The nutria, South American cousin to the beaver, eat marsh plants. Recent experiments at Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge have fenced off sections of marsh to see what happens when nutria are excluded.

The results prove nutria are a significant factor in the decline of wetlands. The results also show that damaged marsh, when protected, recovers rapidly.

Mute swans have been known for years to destroy the submerged aquatic grasses whose recovery is a major goal of the Chesapeake Bay restoration effort.

But at least as worrisome is evidence they are expanding their nesting areas into remote bay islands and beaches, displacing native species, like black skimmers, from their last refuges.

Difficult choices

Both nutria and mute swan need to be controlled. So why is it that Maryland has a "zero" population goal for nutria -- meaning eradication -- while the goal for mute swans is officially "not fixed" -- meaning too hot to handle.

Public reaction is still reverberating from the state's shooting last year of nesting mute swans whose presence had destroyed a skimmer colony.

"I find it interesting that I can talk freely about eradicating nutria, whereas with the swans I can't talk about even a reduction without fear of controversy," says Eric Schwab, director of Forests, Wildlife and Heritage for the Department of Natural Resources.

Interesting, but not surprising.

The swan is lovely, and glides up to waterfront residents' yards and estates to be fed (black skimmers, birds of the remote bay edges, are equally lovely, but won't eat out of your hand or float prettily on your pond).

The nutria is ugly, a big, coarse-haired rodent, with buck teeth the size and color of small carrots. Even if they would eat out of your back yard, you'd probably move.

So it's bomb the rat, but seek the heads of wildlife managers who would harm the great, white bird.

Other species fall all along the spectrum between swan and nutria.

The black bear has grown in Garrett County from perhaps a dozen in the 1950s to as many as 500. Claims for bear damage to crops and other property doubled last year to $40,000.

Even in Garrett, however, many would oppose opening a hunting season to control bears. Knowledgeable observers think 40 percent to 50 percent of residents would prefer to put up with them, rather than shoot them.

And in the rest of Maryland, which holds most of the voters and virtually none of the bears, the don't-shoot majority would be huge. So state strategy for now will be to try and appease bear-damaged residents, short of an open season.

The rest of us might put our money where our hearts are, and buy the $5 souvenir bear stamp the state sells to raise money to compensate farmers and others for damage. To date, sales have generated a woeful, $6,000 to $8,000 annually, less than a fifth of damage complaints. Feel guilty? Call 1-800-873-3763 and have your Visa or MasterCard ready.

Schwab doesn't think black bears will ever explode like white-tailed deer, since even a single bear needs a large, roadless forested habitat.

Deer population

But white tails, oh deer! There are as many in Maryland now as in the whole country a century ago. The state's herd is estimated to have doubled in the last decade -- as have car-deer collisions on highways, from 1,500 to 3,200.

Crop damage, at $38 million annually, and auto damage, around $10 million, make $40,000 lost to bears look minuscule.

Hunting deer is no problem. If you had the skill and the freezer space, you could theoretically kill a dozen or more under a dizzying array of deer seasons offered.

Ironically, the state has acknowledged in its new Deer Management Plan that shooting alone can never control the white-tail; the places where deer now flourish best are suburbs, which form a de-facto refuge from gunfire.

'Resident' geese

I suspect that also will turn out to be the case for our rapidly expanding "resident" geese, which look like those that appear every fall and return north every spring; except these are a subspecies that remains all year, eating crops and polluting ponds and "greasing" lawns with their feces.

They have adapted admirably to suburban life, where guns and hunts are unacceptable, and where many people want to feed them, even as others clamor to have them removed.

Removal -- trapping and relocation -- is what the state has been doing with a growing beaver population, whose dams can cause flooding problems. But Schwab says, "We are at the point there is no place left to relocate them."

Perhaps beaver stamps are next. And there is more fun to come.

Coyotes are not a big problem, but may become one. Snow geese, so populous a federal plan calls for killing more than a million on their northern breeding grounds, have increased here from the thousands to the hundreds of thousands; and bald eagles, on the rebound, may be displacing great blue herons and other birds from their nesting areas.

Solutions will be a mix of the biological and the social-political; and the latter is almost never simple, or entirely rational.

Pub Date: 6/05/98

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