Bay Ridge residents divided over plans to cull deer herd

November 30, 2011

When the natural splendor of a wooded tract in Bay Ridge was threatened by a bulldozer, residents of the tony community a stone’s throw away from the Naval Academy in Annapolis banded together and agreed to an annual tax to protect the forest.

But now, a decade later, those neighbors are divided over what some say is a different form of encroachment: roving deer that devour vegetation and wreak havoc in those woods.

With a cull conducted by U.S. Department of Agriculture sharpshooters scheduled to take place sometime between Thursday and April 1, longtime friends are avoiding each other for fear that polite conversation will lead to angry words over each side’s motivations.

“It’s like politics or religion,” said Jane McWilliams, a longtime resident and author of “Bay Ridge on the Chesapeake,” an illustrated history of the bayside community. “I was at a meeting last night with 10 people, and we didn’t talk about it. We decided that because we are all friends and neighbors who like each other, we would not talk about it. It’s like that these days.”

“Good people should be able to disagree with each other,” said Rosemary Miller, 72, a retired teacher who serves as head of the Bay Ridge Civic Association’s forest management committee, which oversees conservation efforts in the woods of Bay Ridge. “That’s what has gotten so wobbly about this. Each side feels strongly about what they believe is the best thing to do.”

For many residents of the community of historic cottages, modest bungalows and stylish mini-mansions, preoccupations such as beach cleanup and area development have given way to an obsession over what to do about the deer.

Both sides agree that something needs to be done about the animals’ population — which is, depending on whom you ask, 25 to 30 in the 355-acre community of about 430 homes. The Maryland Department of Natural Resources considers 30 deer per square mile — 600 acres, an area almost twice the size of Bay Ridge — an amount that could cause significant damage to plant life and destroy the ecological diversity of a wooded area.

After the Bay Ridge Civic Association, the local homeowners group, began considering what to do about the deer at its members’ behest, it formed a subcommittee that recommended relocating the deer and studying the extent to which they threatened the forest.

But the subcommittee was ultimately disbanded, and the civic association’s board voted several months ago to authorize the USDA cull.

USDA sharpshooters will be prohibited from hunting within 150 yards of the home of any resident who does not give permission. The hunt, which was contracted for $11,000, will be unannounced. The venison will be donated to the Maryland Food Bank, authorities said.

Opponents said they fear a shooting accident. Irene Howie, a resident who opposes the hunt, said that the association board entered into the contract without authorization of the membership — expenditures of more than $5,000 are required to be pre-approved by a vote of the membership, according to BRCA’s bylaws — and in what she believes to be a violation of a conservation easement on the woods which prohibits hunting.

“This is about procedure being violated,” she said.

In response to complaints voiced by her and other residents, the board sponsored a ballot by residents, who voted overwhelmingly in favor of the cull.

Those in favor said that concerns about damage to plant life make it necessary to reduce the herd. Sandra Sweeney, president of the Bay Land Trust, which holds the conservation easement on the community’s forest and nearby land owned by the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, said the decision was made to allow the cull for the sake of the forest. Although the easement bans recreational hunting, that prohibition should not rule out a cull, Sweeney said.

Maryland, like other states, has struggled with problems created by deer near developed areas as forests give way to construction projects that eat at their natural habitat. Maryland wildlife experts estimate this year’s herd statewide at 230,000, down from a high of 300,000 seven years ago, but significant enough in some areas to cause substantial damage to wildlife and humans. Each year, deer are responsible for millions in damage to residential lawns, golf courses, public and private park facilities, not to mention injuries to motorists and damage to motor vehicles.

Experts said that an adult deer eats as much as 10 pounds of vegetation each day. An adult deer can live 20 years, and herds can grow by 40 percent each year in optimum conditions, said Paul Peditto, director of Wildlife and Heritage Service for the Maryland Department of Natural Resources.

Peditto said that deer populations have flourished in the Mid-Atlantic and North after falling off because of rampant development in the early-to-mid-1900s. Efforts to bring back the herds have been successful. As the numbers increase, so do the problems. Places with traditional deer hunting have herds that are largely controlled. But in metropolitan areas, deer populations grow rapidly in some cases because of restrictions on killing them.

Each year, residents, business owners and property managers resort to all kinds of efforts to keep deer away from lawns and airport runways, Peditto said. Hundreds of managed hunts are scheduled, in which hunters following guidelines set by state wildlife officials take down deer in the thousands, donating the venison to the needy.

But those hunts are often accompanied by protests. In Rockville, a proposal to thin a herd of white-tail deer drew the ire of former TV personality and animal rights activist Bob Barker, who sent a letter to residents in September asking them to oppose the culling. City leaders received 1,400 comments. The issue is scheduled to go before the City Council and mayor Dec. 12.

Montgomery County officials have approved a measure to allow the thinning of a herd at Sligo Creek Golf Course. They have also planned 21 deer culls next month and several next year to thin herds on public land, according to the county’s Web site.

Karen DeLong, an 11-year resident who moved to Bay Ridge from Bethesda, said that problems associated with the deer could be abated by sterilizing does using a chemical approved for use in Maryland or by trapping and relocating the deer. She and others disagree with the assessment of the number of deer and the area in which they roam. She said that local deer roam into other areas, such as neighboring Highland Beach.

“I even disagree with the use of the word ‘herd’ because that implies that there are deer running rampant, and they are not,” she said.

Sharpshooters in Bay Ridge will undoubtedly reduce the number of deer. Whether that’s good for the community remains to be seen.

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