BOWIE – The city of Bowie and the Maryland Department of Natural Resources (DNR) want to take another shot at regulating hunting in the Belt Woods Natural Environmental Area. Following a lengthy conversation at the Nov. 21 city council meeting, DNR and the city agreed to hold meetings with city and DNR staff alongside representatives […]
BOWIE – The city of Bowie and the Maryland Department of Natural Resources (DNR) want to take another shot at regulating hunting in the Belt Woods Natural Environmental Area.
Following a lengthy conversation at the Nov. 21 city council meeting, DNR and the city agreed to hold meetings with city and DNR staff alongside representatives from community and environmental groups to come up with a plan for managing the deer population in Belt Woods, located at the corner of Church Road and Route 214. The discussion came in the wake of citizen and councilmember concerns over DNR’s decision to open up the property for public hunting for the first time this October.
“What I’d like to do is for the city of Bowie to present to the Department of Natural Resources, or even to me, their recommended plans for what they’d like to see at Belt Woods, and then let me take it to the secretary of the Department of Natural Resources and to the superintendent of the Maryland Parks Service, and then see if we cannot marry a plan together,” said Steve McCoy, central regional manager with the Maryland Park Service.
Such a plan, and an accompanying Belt Woods Management Board, had been in the works in 1997, but had fallen by the wayside. The city council agreed to direct staff to look into the process of reforming that board and approving a new management plan that included provisions for the city’s residents to make their opinions known.
“It’d be nice for us to be able to have some sort of mechanism to either lodge a complaint that would be acted on, or at a maximum, shut down the hunting, which I don’t think has to happen at this stage,” said Councilman Michael Esteve.
However, some residents did call for hunting on the property to cease. Belt Woods is an old-growth forest that, according to Dennis Brady, a former member of the city council, predates the American Revolution. He and other environmental advocates spoke before the council about the property’s history and the importance of the forest.
Pam Cooper, president and founder of Western Shore Conservancy, said she leads tours of the property to educate students about forest ecosystems and endangered species. In the past, she also invited off-duty police onto the land to cull deer, she said, and questioned why the change to allow public hunting – which can endanger sensitive wildlife – was necessary.
“They trusted me to manage this property according to the management plan that we drafted in order to keep it safe. Their change in management plan will not keep it safe. I just hope that they realize it before the damage is done and irreversible,” she said.
Brady agreed the increased human presence in the park could harm the ecosystem.
“Belt Woods is a very unique environment, and I have to ask the question: what evidence would demonstrate that the solution they are proposing will actually minimize destruction of the environment?” he said.
David Heilmeier, Maryland Wildlife and Heritage Service regional manager with DNR, said overpopulation of deer can itself damage plant diversity in ecosystems, as well as endanger drivers who may hit the animals.
“There haven’t been any formal surveys of the deer population in recent years, but it’s really not necessary. Anecdotal evidence indicates that the deer population is maintaining, but still at a high level on the property,” he said. “At a level that needs to be actively managed to control… ecological damage on the property.”
Councilmember James Marcos said he understood the concerns of the environmental groups, but was also aware of how destructive herds can be to vegetation and vehicles.
“The 100 and some acres that I have, the deer destroy everything from eye level down. They’ll eat anything. I’ve seen that firsthand,” he said. “I understand the concern, but I don’t think – humans or deer – I don’t think you have a better one. Maybe less hunters walking on it is probably better than a large deer herd.”
Residents including Brady also claimed hunters were not obeying the rules DNR put in place, including leaving unlocked the gate meant to restrict access to those hunters approved by DNR to use the area – a maximum of eight per day. Brady provided photographs of trash and deer remains left onsite against regulations.
DNR staff said they acted swiftly to address those complaints.
“As soon as we were made aware of the debris that the gentleman showed slides of, I had rangers respond, clean that up,” said Mike Riley, regional manager of the Maryland Park Service. “I ordered a port-a-potty be put on site, which we usually do not do. And then a ranger, the following week, was there Saturday and Sunday to specifically educate the hunters as they came to the site.”
He also said Belt Woods was added to a list of “hot spots” that rangers are instructed to visit at least weekly. However, Riley said the rangers are also responsible for, and based out of, Sandy Point State Park, so response times might not always be rapid.
“We are doing the best we can with the resources that we have,” Riley said.