AN IN-DEPTH DEER STUDY--

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Deer caught in the crosshairs as their population grows

by Ad Crable, BAY JOURNAL

    Deer stroll across a street on the campus of the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, MD. (National Institutes of Health)

    White-tailed deer, once nearly gone from Chesapeake Bay drainage states, are now so plentiful that they threaten landscape vegetation and human safety. As a result, they are increasingly in the crosshairs of rifle scopes.

    Often reluctantly, dozens of communities and state and federal agencies, including the National Park Service, are hiring sharpshooters to reduce deer populations. Their calls to arms are invariably prompted by one or more of these concerns: overbrowsing in natural areas, which decimates native plant species and young trees; collisions between deer and vehicles; tick infestations (deer are the primary hosts of ticks that carry Lyme disease); and damage to gardens and landscaping.

    Gettysburg National Military Park was the first national park to cull its deer herd. The park has been hiring sharpshooters since 1996 because the impacts of grazing deer were preventing the mandated preservation of historical woods and crop fields. A lawsuit by an animal rights group halted the program temporarily in 1997 but failed to end it.

    After community officials or park managers decide that a deer population has to be thinned, with few exceptions the choice is to shoot the deer, rather than use more difficult and expensive methods that involve contraceptive drugs or surgical sterilization. The decision is almost always controversial.

    Game managers in Pennsylvania and Virginia generally consider contraceptives and sterilization to be unfeasible and too expensive, much to the chagrin of animal rights groups. Virginia and Maryland, though, have allowed several small projects for research purposes. Phoenix, MD, a small community north of Baltimore, is the only place where a nonhunting general permit has been given to reduce deer through surgical sterilization.

    “Research has shown nonlethal methods are limited in applicability, prohibitively expensive [and] logistically impractical,” said Katie Martin, a deer, bear and turkey biologist for the Virginia Department of Wildlife Resources. “In our experience, hunting and sharpshooting have been the only practical means available for deer management in urban areas with high deer populations.”

    In most cases, trained sharpshooters have been the preferred choice to bring down deer numbers in Bay states. But many state game and wildlife agencies would rather see hunters, with increasing help from bow hunters, perform the service.

    The states’ game managers say recruiting new recreational deer hunters in great numbers is not a realistic option, so they have focused on modifying bow-hunting rules — reducing standoff zones in some populated areas — to help reduce the herds. Maryland’s management plan for 2020–34 allows bow hunting in some counties within 50 or 100 yards of occupied buildings, down from the previous 150-yard safety zone. The Pennsylvania Game Commission allows landowners to waive the state’s 50-yard safety zone for archery, and those who allow their land to be used for deer management are protected from liability.

    Virginia created new safety rules 20 years ago, allowing archers to hunt deer in populated areas if they’re doing so to control the herd. Since then, 56 communities have held such “suburban” hunts.

    Fairfax County, VA, has embraced bow hunting as its preferred way to reduce deer numbers. Last fall, bow hunters were permitted in 103 county parks, taking 823 deer. In 11 other parks, police sharpshooters assisted and killed 56 deer.

    Botanists are seeing rare plant species rebound, according to Katherine Edwards, a wildlife management specialist for the county. Vehicle collisions with deer are on the decline. In the last four years, the culling of 1,642 deer has generated nearly 50,000 pounds of venison for food banks and the Hunters for the Hungry program.

    The sharpshooter solution

    Nighttime sharpshooters have helped bring down deer numbers in dozens of communities in Bay watershed states, such as Fairfax County and Charlottesville in Virginia, and Montgomery and Howard counties in Maryland. Fairfax County and Charlottesville use a combination of hunters and sharpshooters to trim the herd.

    Many national parks in the region, which are prohibited from allowing hunting, also have resorted to nighttime sharpshooters. Among them: Catoctin Mountain Park, Antietam and Monocacy national battlefield parks and Chesapeake & Ohio Canal in Maryland; Manassas National Battlefield

    Park in Virginia; Gettysburg National Military Park, John Heinz National Wildlife Refuge and Valley Forge National Historical Park in Pennsylvania; and Harpers Ferry National Historical Park in West Virginia.

    Federal properties in the District of Columbia and surrounding suburbs have also used lethal means to keep deer from denuding the landscape and reduce crashes with vehicles. Included are the Goddard Space Flight Center, Randall Cliffs Naval Research Lab, National Agricultural Research Center, National Arboretum, National Zoo and Rock Creek Park.

    The hard truth, many wildlife officials and game managers say, is that humans have only themselves to blame for needing these unpopular lethal control methods. That’s because residential areas, farms and fields are vastly better habitat for deer than wilderness.

    “Deer are attracted to suburbs for the same reason as people,” notes the Pennsylvania Game Commission’s A Guide to Community

    Deer Management in Pennsylvania. “There are natural areas, greenways, parks that provide bedding areas, escape cover and birth sites. Homes are landscaped with trees, shrubs and herbaceous cover, which are appetizing and nutritious to deer. [And] predators have been extirpated or controlled. These conditions lead to high reproductive rates, low mortality rates and small home ranges for deer.”

    Under these ideal conditions, female deer as young as 6 months may begin breeding, and some will produce triplets instead of the twins typical among forest deer.

    In the early 1900s, deer were scarce in the Chesapeake watershed. Their habitat had been diminished by mass timbering and their numbers greatly reduced by unregulated market hunting. But deer have come roaring back, thanks to reintroduction programs and accommodating suburbs.

    Pennsylvania’s deer population is estimated at 1.5 million, with approximately 50,000 deer-vehicle collisions each year — among the most in the nation. Virginia has between 850,000 and 1 million deer, and Maryland has an estimated 220,000.

    A case in point on Rock Creek

    A prime example of the problems caused by the overlapping of deer and human populations and the thorny dilemma that follows is embodied in DC’s Rock Creek Park.

    At 1,754 acres, it’s one of the largest swaths of urban green space in the country, with ravines, rolling hills, mature forests and miles of trails that bisect the northern corner of the city. The park also sees considerable vehicle traffic, and collisions with deer are common.

    Until 1960, no deer had been reported in the park. By 2012, there were typically more than 100 deer per square mile — about five times the limit scientists have pegged for native plants to survive and seedlings to grow into trees.

    Deciding that deer number had to be reduced, the National Park Service conducted extensive explorations of lethal and nonlethal options. It ruled out nonlethal options because the herd needed to be thinned promptly and there were “no reports of vegetation recovery where [nonlethal methods were] being used,” said Megan Nortrup, an NPS spokeswoman for natural and cultural resources.

    Using firearms experts from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Wildlife Services, which is responsible for reducing wildlife conflicts, the first Rock Creek cull took place in 2013. Once each year, the park is closed overnight to everyone except permitted shooters fitted with night vision goggles, silencers and heat-seeking sensors to locate deer in the dark. Sometimes they use bait to concentrate the deer.

    The hunts have been unpopular, and protests are so common that the park has a designated “First Amendment area” for gatherings. The group In Defense of Animals, which once sued to stop the hunt, describes the killing of “gentle ungulates” as unnecessary and says Rock Creek Park has been turned into “killing fields.”

    “Our urban deer are now essentially war refugees seeking a place they perceive to be safe to raise their families and live their lives,” the group said.

    But NPS officials, who say 505 deer have been killed, say the program has revived plant life in the park. The density of native tree seedlings has almost tripled.

    Roughly 17,000 pounds of venison from culled deer have been donated to DC Central Kitchen, an award-winning nonprofit that provides healthy food to the low-income people, as well as offering culinary job training.

    Since fall 2020, deer culls with sharpshooters have been added to 27 other park service units in the DC area. The sites range in size from 18 to 187 acres.

    The NPS points to even greater recovery of seedling growth in other national parks under deer-reduction programs. At Catoctin Mountain Park in Maryland, 1,489 deer have been shot since 2010 and seedling density has increased 13-fold.

    The argument for co-existence

    Animal rights groups and others think people are being selfish when they push deer out of their native grounds, only to kill them when they are perceived as a nuisance elsewhere.

    “We are so quick as a species to choose vigilantes,” said Cynthia Fain of Culpeper, VA, an activist who fought lethal deer controls in Charlottesville.

    People should try to co-exist with deer, she said, by fencing in gardens, landscaping with plants that don’t entice deer, keeping watch for deer crossing roads, and wearing protective clothing to avoid tick bites. When deer herds need trimming, it should be done with nonlethal fertility controls, she said.

    Johanna Hamburger of the Animal Welfare Institute thinks the NPS has gone down the wrong path by killing deer. She maintains that invasive plant species, not deer, are the main cause of declining native vegetation in Rock Creek Park.

    “NPS is looking for an easy way out,” she said, “and that’s to blame deer. It’s harder to take a more holistic approach and deal with things that are harder. … The responsibility for us is to adapt our lifestyles to live in harmony with wildlife.”

    Nonlethal approaches such as contraceptive drugs and surgical sterilization, she added, have proven to be effective in many places if given time.

    A tranquilized female deer undergoes surgical sterilization in Phoenix, MD, while two more await their turn. (Enid Feinberg)

    As proof that nonlethal means can work, The Humane Society of the United States cites its 27-year effort to bring down the deer population with the contraceptive PZP. The drug is injected into captured deer at the National Institute of Standards and Technology’s fenced, square-mile office complex in Gaithersburg, MD. More recently, deer there also have been captured and surgically sterilized.

    Deer densities and deer-vehicle accidents have both decreased from these methods. But wildlife agencies remain doubtful. Immigrating deer will eventually offset progress, they say, and the contraceptive needs to be administered repeatedly.

    Another well-publicized nonlethal experiment is the sterilization of deer at the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, MD, since 2014. Female deer are captured for surgery using tranquilizers darts.

    The deer population has declined 70%, and the population has been stable since 2016. But critics note that the density is still high and incoming deer have prevented further decreases.

    Among Maryland, Pennsylvania and Virginia, the only place given free rein — other than for research — to manage deer with birth control is Phoenix, MD, an unincorporated exurban community of about 7,400 people approximately 20 miles north of Baltimore.

    There, since 2015, Enid Feinberg, president of the nonprofit group Wildlife Rescue, Inc. has headed periodic sterilization operations. Volunteers “hunt” female deer in the area with tranquilizer guns, then take them to a makeshift surgery center in Feinberg’s garage. There, volunteer veterinarians perform the 20-minute operation that renders female deer infertile.

    The surgery doesn’t just limit deer population. Feinberg said it also changes some of their problematic behavior. “If they are not pregnant, does eat much less,” she said, meaning less damage to people’s gardens and landscapes. “And since they don’t go into heat, they’re not being chased by bucks and there are less deer-vehicle collisions.”

    Over 11 years, the group has spayed 110 deer. “It’s absolutely the most humane way,” she said.

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