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.The debates surrounding the deer population explosion have an edge of dark comedy. Because so many suburbanites hate the thought of hunters gleefully slaughtering wildlife, these "culls" have to be done by what a friend of mine calls "professional assassins who have to take no pleasure at all in what they do." The meat has to be donated to food banks, even though homeless people generally won't eat it and it ends up being thrown away.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. . . .
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.
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.
I understand the ambivalence, which I share. I wage constant war with deer in my garden, but I get excited when I see one on the street or in the woods and I love being able to point them out to my children. I don't know what my dog would do for exercise if there weren't deer in the woods for her to chase.
But there is no doubt that the deer populations in the eastern U.S. now are unnatural and that they are changing the forests where they live. Because they love to eat oak seedlings, there are no young oak trees at all in the woods near me, just beeches. They are the main threat to dozens of endangered plant species, like the small whorled pogonia that regularly holds up construction down around Quantico. Many of the stream floodplains around here that once supported diverse communities of rare plants now look like they have been grazed by cattle. Even the National Park Service, which has long had a fanatical anti-hunting, leave nature alone policy, is slowly coming around to "controlling" deer.
We have so thoroughly altered the environment in North America that "leaving nature alone" has no meaning. We are now responsible for what happens in our forests, and we can't just turn our backs.