Undated (AP) _ Exotic Asian elk can be found on Maryland's Eastern Shore.

They are Sika deer, reportedly excess animals from the National Zoo that escaped James Island in Chesapeake Bay shortly after World War I and made themselves at home in the marshy portion of the Delmarva Peninsula, said National Wildlife Service biological technician Bill Giese.

The peninsula includes Delaware and parts of both Maryland and Virginia.

''They're mainly a wetland deer. They seem to love to keep their feet wet,'' said Giese, who works at the Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge in Maryland.

''The bucks are very pretty, chocolate brown,'' Giese said. ''Some have a little bit of a mane. The rack sort of comes back parallel to the head.''

A big buck weighs 110 pounds and a nice rack has six points. Females are about half that size.

The Sikas spread all the way across the peninsula, through Dorchester and Worcester counties and to Assateague Island in the Atlantic.

There are hunting seasons on the refuges and in Maryland. Virginia does not want the Sika because they do better than native whitetail deer in the area, said Irvin Ailes, wildlife biologist at the Chincoteague NWR.

''Studies have shown in Texas and based on what we found here, too, given equal numbers of animals in an area, Sikas will remain and whitetails die out over a period of time,'' Ailes said.

''When we do a health check on Sikas on Assateague Island, we find the Sikas do not have any major internal parasites and are relatively disease- free.''

He said Sikas can handle a wider variety of foods than whitetails. ''Whitetails are mostly browsers (nibbling off trees and shrubs), but Sikas are grazers, browsers, anything in between. They'll eat poison ivy, pine needles, most anything.''

There was a time Maryland didn't want them either.

''But the hunting's turned so popular the state has taken a different view and wanting to manage them. There's a lot of folks coming in wanting to hunt Sika deer. They're an impressive little deer, they really are,'' Giese said.

Although thriving, they don't seem to be spreading, he said. ''There's a relatively distinct line where these deer have gone.

''The area's changing, with rising sea levels and increased salinities'' in water, Giese said. ''Old farms and fields have kind of faded out, so we don't have a whole lot of agriculture in the lower end. Sika appear to have out- competed the whitetails in this type of habitat.''

Originally from Formosa, Japan and eastern Asia, the Sika are quite capable of handling a Maryland winter.

''It doesn't matter how cold it is. You can hear them slushing through the swamp, breaking the ice,'' Giese said.

Hunters took 1,135 Sikas and 1,998 whitetails in Dorchester County last year, Giese said. There's a firearms season around Thanksgiving, a muzzleloader season around Christmas, and an archery season from September to January.

It takes a permit to hunt on Blackwater refuge.

There are two state hunting areas, Fishing Bay and Taylor's Island, which have Sika and plenty of private land. Commercial outfitters will book hunts.

''The population appears stable,'' Giese said. ''We had a little concern we were punching these Sikas a little too hard. Twins (fawns) are pretty much a rarity on Sika, unlike the whitetails. But the kill seems to be staying up there, there doesn't seem to be any major shortfall.''

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