Tuesday, September 12, 2006

MARYLAND NEWS: Exotic Sika Deer Accelerating Beach Erosion

Assateague State Park, famous for its wild ponies, is being overrun by another small, hoofed animal that is eating the plants that hold back beach erosion: sika deer.

To save vegetation, state wildlife managers want to whittle the population through an archery-only hunting season from Nov. 13 to Jan. 31. "We've got to do something out there," said Paul Peditto, director of the Wildlife and Heritage Service of the Maryland Department of Natural Resources. "Assateague is a unique and valuable resource, and it would be irresponsible to stand by and let it be eaten alive." The agency is asking for public comment.

Although the 680-acre park south of Ocean City is just a sliver of the 37-mile-long barrier island, it is among the top-five busiest state parks each year, attracting 14,000 campers a week and thousands of day trippers.

"It's a confined area. You see the deer far more now than you did several years ago. The ponies eat vegetation, but that population is stable and easy to count. You can see the increase in destruction," said Col. Rick Barton, head of the state parks.

Hunting already is used by the National Park Service to keep the deer population in check on the portion of the island it manages.

Sika deer are much smaller than white-tailed deer, weighing from 50 to 100 pounds and standing about 2 1/2 -feet tall. Introduced to Maryland from Asia in 1916, their numbers have increased and herds have taken hold in the four southernmost counties on the Eastern Shore.

The proposal would allow 12 bow hunters in the park each day, with two of the locations reserved for disabled hunters. Hunting would be allowed from 30 minutes before sunrise to 30 minutes after sunset. "This has been under consideration for a long time," said Barton. "We wanted to be confident it could be done carefully and perfectly. We have hunting at a lot of state parks. ... Why not Assateague?"

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