Once Scorned, Deer Hunters Find Welcome in Suburban Md.

By Steve Hendrix
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, January 12, 2009

A year ago, this would have been illegal: Mark Eakin, a federal oceanographer and avid deer hunter, sat in a portable tree stand with his bow at the ready, overlooking a small creek and two Rockville back yards on a cold January morning. As the camo-clad Eakin peered down, the weekday routine rolled down the street behind him, school buses, trash trucks and commuters heading toward Wootton Parkway.

"The worst is when people are out here with their leaf blowers," Eakin said. "You don't see a lot of deer then."

But Eakin, who has bagged eight deer since bow season began in September, isn't complaining about the suburban conditions. In fact, he's one of several hunters, game officials and residents to hail Montgomery County's surprising emergence as something of a deer-hunting haven.

Even as neighboring Howard County has proposed tightening rules on where hunters can hunt, after an incident last month when one shot out the window of a day-care center, Montgomery is going the other way. In spring, the County Council overturned what had been some of the state's most restrictive hunting rules and freed up more downcounty areas to bow and shotgun hunting.

Last season, Eakin's Rockville perch would have been prohibited as too close to a road. But now he is able to set up his stand with the permission of surrounding homeowners. "It's not that people embrace the hunting," said Eakin, who belongs to a group of volunteer archers who hunt at the request of neighborhoods with large deer populations, "but they know something needs to be done."

Behind Montgomery's new openness to hunting, officials said, is public frustration with the whitetail population boom. Crumpled fenders, ruined gardens and the risk of Lyme disease have made residents much more receptive to hunters.

"They've gone from 'How dare you propose shooting the deer' to 'When are you coming to my neighborhood?' " said Rob Gibbs, head of Montgomery's Deer Management Working Group.

John Yakaitis, 62, has watched increasing numbers of deer destroy his shrubs and the surrounding forest understory. His wife hit a deer two years ago, doing more than $1,000 in damage to their car.

"There are just so many of them, they're eating everything in sight and they're still starving," Yakaitis said. "A lot of folks who were opposed to it are signing up" to allow hunters, he said.

When Gibbs's working group proposed changing the law to make it easier on hunters, the council approved the plan unanimously. Gibbs predicted that the shift would build on progress the county has made in recent years in stabilizing the deer population in parklands through controlled hunting in those areas.

"What we hear from the public now is that they want the county to do more to thin the deer population," said Montgomery Council member Phil Andrews (D-Gaithersburg-Rockville), chairman of the public safety committee.

The council had an object lesson in deer danger in late 2007 when council member George L. Leventhal (D-At Large) was injured in a collision with a deer on the Capital Beltway. Leventhal, who suffered serious facial damage, had additional reconstructive surgery Wednesday at Johns Hopkins Hospital.

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