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Bagging a Backyard Buck

Suburban deer hunting draws attention in Vienna.

Aileen Black was dismayed to step into her back yard one day and see a hunter's tree stand perched on the hill over her yard, a stone's throw from her children's playground equipment. "I'm sure that nobody would feel too comfortable having a deadly weapon up above their head, especially when there are kids around," she said.

Black and her husband have been living on Howard Manor Drive, near Meadowlark Gardens, since 1989. They have four children, aged 5 to 15. "I won't let my kids outside without checking to see if he's there," Black said of the bowhunter who hunts deer on the property behind her house.

She said she had been aware of deer hunting going on, at least occasionally, on the property for four years or so. This year, she decided to do something about it. Black circulated a flyer she had written to 40 or so neighbors, alerting them to the hunting that was taking place in their neighborhood. She had been informed by Dr. Bayani Manalo, in whose yard the tree stand sat, that one or two other neighbors were also allowing hunting on their property.

As of last Friday, Black said she had received about 15 responses to the flyer, all of them expressing safety concerns. "Every person I've talked to has had the same reaction: 'You've got to be kidding me. They can't do that,'" she said. However, upon doing some research, she found that they could. "As long as you're using bows, not guns, and you're not shooting into anyone's yard, you can do it on a townhouse property," said Black.

Often, bylaws set by homeowners' associations prohibit such hunting, but Black's neighborhood has no homeowners' association. "It's within their legal right. That doesn't make it right, though," she said.

Black said she was fully aware of a problem with deer overpopulation. Since a fence was erected around Meadowlark Gardens a couple of years ago, she said, the already overabundant deer in her neighborhood have only increased in numbers. "Something needs to be done," she said. "But having a bunch of hunters sitting in the trees? That is not the answer." Black said she would like to see the county government come up with some viable alternatives.

Particularly in an era following the Beltway Sniper's killing spree, she said, she found it disturbing that people could legally perch in trees with deadly weapons in populated areas.

"I don't think he's going to miss and hit my child, to be honest," she added. "But it's all the other things that could go wrong. You're playing with fire, there." She said she did not care for the idea of her children seeing a deer get shot, she was concerned about a wounded animal running into a child or a car, and she worried that dangerous hunting accidents could occur.

CONCERNS ARE OFTEN raised about dangers to children and pets when the subject of suburban bowhunting comes up, said Fairfax County wildlife biologist Earl Hodnett. "But nobody ever gives an example of where that happened. I can't find any record of a non-participant injured in a bowhunting accident." Hodnett said accidents generally injure only the hunters themselves, when they fall out of trees or onto their own arrows.

"I can understand the concern, but usually the concern comes from not understanding about archery," he said. He explained that bowhunting is done at close range, so wide misses or cases of mistaken identity are hardly a possibility.

Hodnett said he is more worried about the dangers posed by deer overpopulation than by hunting. "Probably the most serious threat to the public are crashes," he said, noting that an estimated 3,000 to 5,000 such accidents are occurring in Fairfax County each year. "When the county first started its Deer Management Plan, we were able to bring the number down some, but over the last few years it's started to creep back up again," he said.

The Fairfax County Deer Management Plan, adopted in December of 1997, included exploring options for reducing collisions, hunting deer in parks to thin the population, working with the county's health department to identify diseases spread by deer and educating the public about deer overpopulation.

Efforts to curb accidents included special, prism-like reflectors that bounced light from oncoming headlights across the road in order to deter deer from crossing. However, said Hodnett, the reflectors did not produce any definite results. Also, deer underpasses were installed under some roads, including two under the Fairfax County Parkway. "But the cost of retro-fitting something like that on a nearly endless number of deer crossings makes it almost not a viable choice," he said, although he noted that underpasses ought to be included in new road construction.

Hunting efforts included organized deer hunts in larger parks and snipers from police tactical teams working after dark in smaller parks. These hunts still continue.

Aside from automobile accidents, another danger of deer overpopulation is disease, said Hodnett. "I think we're already at the stage where there's a serious problem with Lyme disease, as far as the public goes," he said. As the population density increases, he said, so does the possibility of serious outbreaks of disease. "Nature doesn't allow that to continue indefinitely. Lacking any natural predators, that really leaves disease as the only option" for nature to thin the population, he said. "The stage is set for diseases to be transmitted rapidly when they're in close contact."

Most of these diseases, he said, would not pose a direct threat to humans. However, he said, some do have a human variant, and it is still undetermined whether many of these human variants can be contracted from the deer variants.

THE FAIRFAX COUNTY Web site also notes that an overabundance of deer poses a threat to the ecosystem, as deer destroy native vegetation and open the way for invasive species, and it inhibits forest regeneration, as deer wipe out young tree shoots.

This is not to mention the most common complaint — that deer make ornamental plants almost impossible to maintain in some areas.

While the land available to deer in the county is diminishing, said Hodnett, the population is "higher than it's ever been in history — higher than before the settlement of America."

One option that has been floated for reducing the population is the use of deer food laced with birth control. Hodnett said such drugs have been researched and have proven successful when applied to a captive herd. However, he said, "You can't take that technology and apply it to a free-ranging herd on a tremendous scale." For one thing, he said, many other animals might eat the food. Populations of rodents, birds and other animals would likely be affected, and there is always the possibility of a child eating the substance.

The Fairfax County Web site also notes the possibility of using contraceptives injected through darts. However, the site says, "Because this method requires yearly injections, its practical use at this time is limited to confined herds that can be appropriately controlled and monitored."

Another option is trapping and relocating the animals, but Hodnett noted that there is only one county in the state where the deer population is under capacity. Such relocation can also facilitate the spread of disease, he said.

"Right now, there is no alternative that addresses all the problems, other than direct reduction of the herd," said Hodnett. Residential deer hunting makes up a significant — although by no means overwhelming — portion of this reduction. Hodnett estimated about 1,000 deer are killed in the county each year by hunters on private property.

During the hunting season, he said, neither property owners nor tenants even need a hunting license to kill deer on the property where they live. If residents can demonstrate that they have property damage resulting from deer, "which, if you live in Fairfax County, you probably do," he said, they can apply for a kill permit out of season.

However, if a homeowner allows others to hunt on his or her property, the hunters must have a hunting license and a big game license. As long as no money changes hands, the hunters, not the property owner, are liable if anything goes wrong, said Hodnett.

He also noted that Fairfax County has an extended deer hunting season, which begins about a month early, in September, and encompasses the "urban archery" season, which runs about 12 weeks after firearms season ends in early January.

FOR NOW, said Manalo, he has suspended his permission for hunters to hunt on his property. "I want to work with her," the professional gastroenterologist said of Black. "I don't want my neighbors upset with me." He said he will also be taking down the tree stand between his house and the Blacks' playground.

Manalo said he has allowed hunters on his property during hunting season for five years and still sees about seven deer on his property each night. They have devastated his plants and those of his neighbors, he said. Moreover, said Manalo, he is concerned about the dangers of automobile accidents. He said he knows a number of people who have been involved in such accidents.

A classmate of his son's was killed about six years ago when a vehicle ahead of her family's vehicle hit a deer and decapitated it, sending the head through her family's windshield. Manalo's niece ran off the George Washington Parkway in an accident with a deer, and one of his neighbors recently hit a deer on Beulah Road. He said his brother-in-law hit a deer about three weeks ago.

"I think people should do what they can to cut down on the deer population," he said, adding that if there were any other way to do it, he "would be very much in favor of that."

Manalo said he thought the hunters who had been on his property were less dangerous to his neighbors than the deer were. He said they were all licensed, veteran hunters who had taken training and safety courses. He also noted that they generally hunted in the early morning, when children were not out playing. "I never see them," he said.

However, Black said the first time she saw a hunter on the property it was "in the middle of the day."

"If I ever allow my hunters to come back, I will make sure it's when it's still dark and it's far from the property edge," said Manalo.

Robert Bowe, who owns a hunting store called Bowe's and Arrows in Alexandria, said that at one point he and other bowhunters were hunting on four properties along the Wind Haven Way, the quarter-mile-or-so road on which Manalo lives. "So far this year, we've taken three deer off that street," he said, noting that he had also been hunting recently at another house a few doors down, although he had not been in contact with that property owner since Black's flyer circulated.

"Everybody who's hunted there has been someone who's attended the International Bowhunter Education Program," said Bowe, who is a licensed hunter education instructor. "I've even taken a few ladies out there to let them get a shot at a deer." He also noted that the hunters were shooting downward from a tree, not across the yard, and that they were only there in the morning, no later than 9 a.m.

On a store computer, he pulled up a picture of a 230-pound buck that had been killed on the property. "The kids would probably be more in danger from an animal like this than from any bowhunter," he said. "A buck deer during the rut is one of the most dangerous animals you can run into."

Bowe said he has been bowhunting since age 17 and has been hunting in residential areas for about 15 years. Aside from Manalo's neighborhood, he said, he hunts in Oakton and Clifton and has had offers to hunt in Fairfax Station. He said suburban hunting seems to be gaining popularity, and he noted that Virginia recently made crossbow hunting legal without a doctor's note stating that the hunter is unable to use a bow.

Dave Gilbertson of Burke, who happened to be in the store getting his 6-year-old's bow fixed, noted that he and several others hunted in a neighborhood in Maryland, where they killed 90 deer last year. "Needless to say, when we started, the deer were all emaciated and starving," he said, adding that some neighbors had contracted Lyme disease. This year, he said, they had received many more offers from property owners in the neighborhood.

BUT WILL the problems posed by the deer population do anything to help many suburban residents become comfortable with hunters perching overhead with bows and arrows?

"I am very unnerved by that," said Julie Porter, one of the neighbors who responded to Black's petition. Porter said she had once seen a hunter in the area. "Seeing a sniper in camouflage in a tree in a neighborhood ... it was shocking," she said.

She noted that the neighborhood had seen a sharp influx of deer and that the animals had become a serious nuisance, but she said she hoped the county could come up with another solution.

"I sympathize with the people who have hired these hunters, but I think there's been a lack of discrimination as to how much space should be allowed between properties" on which hunting takes place, she said. "It just seems to me it's a step that's a little bit risky."