HUNTERS ARE now thinning deer herds in the 1,018-acre Middle Patuxent Environmental Area in Howard County. Faced with overgrazing that might have permanently altered the park's ecological balance, county officials had little choice but to allow a managed hunt to thin the herds.
County officials hope to kill about 120 deer out of a herd estimated at more than 350. On the first three days this week, 50 were killed. Even organizers were surprised by the tally, an indication of the high degree of overpopulation. Naturalists believe that the Middle Patuxent is capable of supporting only about 40 deer.
This is not like the case of the Baltimore County homeowner who sought a hunt on her 2 1/2 acres because of deer spreading Lyme disease. The balance of nature in the park is suffering. Ravenous deer are consuming all the low-lying vegetation. Very few oak and hickory saplings -- favorites of the deer -- survive in the Middle Patuxent area. Faced with the loss of habitat for insects, birds and other mammals, a hunt will cull the herd and reduce pressure on the vegetation.
If the Middle Patuxent were a wilderness area with predators, the deer herd would be culled by coyotes, wolves or mountain lions. Given that these species are no longer present in Howard County, 36 hunters, selected from a list of more than 125, will be allowed to bag deer on 28 days during the next three months. Each will be required to kill at least two female deer before they can take a male.
Animal advocates are unhappy with this solution. They wanted the county to use nonlethal methods such as contraception. But contraception is an expensive process that requires two injections and periodic boosters and has a spotty record of effectiveness.
If the county's goal is to protect the Middle Patuxent habitat, even with its shortcomings, hunting is the only realistic choice.