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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.

"I do think my accident dramatized for elected officials in Montgomery County the hazards associated with overpopulation of deer," Leventhal said by e-mail from his hospital room.

The new rules largely do away with the added restrictions the county had maintained in the so-called urban zone of southern Montgomery, almost two-thirds of the county stretching from near Germantown to the District border. No longer do licensed hunters there have to obtain special permission from Montgomery police to hunt with firearms on land parcels of at least 50 acres, as long as they have the owner's permission.

The rules also reduce from 200 yards to 150 yards the distance hunters must stay from houses or buildings. And there is no longer a requirement that bow hunters be at least 100 yards from any road; now they can station themselves near a road as long as they don't shoot across it. Hunters are also required to shoot downward from an elevated stand, which reduces the distance a slug or arrow can travel.

The changes bring southern Montgomery more in line with the northern, more rural areas of the county and the rest of Maryland.

In Northern Virginia, deer complaints have also led officials to loosen some hunting rules. The regular deer season ended last weekend, but the state has extended doe hunting until March 28 in Fairfax, Loudon, Prince William and Fauquier counties. "Frankly, we had so many complaints about damage up there that we needed to extend the season," said Julia Dixon, spokeswoman for the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries. In Arlington County, however, local regulations effectively prohibit deer hunting by firearm or bow, Dixon said.

Maryland's relaxed rules haven't just attracted hunters such as Eakin, whose Animal Connection group shoots deer to reduce the population and donates the venison to food banks. Trophy hunters, too, are increasingly keen to get a bead on the big bucks lurking in the woodsier parts of Rockville and Potomac.

"There is definitely a trend now of hunters looking for suburban lots to hunt on," said Cpl. JoAnn Berisford, the state game ranger who patrols Montgomery. "A lot of these places have never been hunted, and they grow these monster bucks. We're talking [antlers of] 12, 14 points."

The arrival of more hunters decked out in camouflage and sporting bows or shotguns has made for some jarring encounters, Berisford said. She recently responded to a complaint of a bow hunter stationed atop playground equipment in a Potomac back yard. But because the hunter had the permission of surrounding homeowners, Berisford said, the jungle gym made a perfectly legal deer stand.

Not all residents are happy with the increased hunting. Judy Scott Feldman, a few doors from Yakaitis, doesn't let the archers use her property, saying she would rather endure damaged landscaping than participate in a blood sport.

"I understand there's a problem, but I just can't bring myself to see deer dying in my yard," Feldman said. "It's starting to become commonplace, but I'm not going to change." One morning in November, Feldman was disturbed to see a deer standing by the side of her street with an arrow sticking from its side. "The school buses go right by there," Feldman said.

With the state's firearm deer hunting season coming to a close Sunday, county officials said they have no reports of problems related to the new rules. Bow hunting is allowed until the end of January.

Howard officials, meanwhile, are poised to make hunting rules more restrictive in that county. Although no one was hurt when a hunter's shotgun blast shattered a day-care window Dec. 10, County Executive Ken Ulman and others want to double the distance hunters must be from occupied buildings, from 150 to 300 yards.

"We owe it to ourselves to have a community discussion about what is the appropriate distances,'' Ulman said. "Hunting can be done safely -- that's demonstrated every day. But I think the fact that this happened and that it didn't appear to violate local statutes warrants a good look to make sure we're doing all we can [to keep people] safe.''

Back in Rockville, Eakin climbed down after a few fruitless hours, loaded his gear into his truck and immediately confronted another fact of suburban deer hunting: the rush-hour traffic jam on Falls Road.

Staff writer Lori Aratani contributed to this report.

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