Too Many Deer in the Nation's Capital? Rock Creek Park Holds a Public Meeting on Wednesday


Photo by windbender via Creative Commons and Flickr.

What's a manager to do when a park has more deer than the area can support? That's a common dilemma in a growing number of areas, but... in Washington, D.C.? Rock Creek Park is holding a public meeting this week to discuss a deer management plan for that site.

Rock Creek Park includes over 1,750 acres in the District of Columbia; park headquarters is located only about three miles north of the Lincoln Memorial. A park publication notes the area

offers visitors an opportunity to reflect and soothe their spirits through the beauty of nature. Fresh air, majestic trees, wild animals, and the ebb and flow of Rock Creek emanate the delicate aura of the forest.

Those "wild animals" include a herd of white-tailed deer that has grown steadily in recent years. A park report described the current situation:

The increasing numbers of white-tailed deer within the park are resulting in a substantial effect on the park ecosystem due to the deer’s heavy browsing of vegetation. Studies being conducted by the park indicate that deer are having adverse effects on shrub cover, tree seedling regeneration, and herbaceous cover, which affect habitat quality for other wildlife within the park that are dependent on this vegetation for food, shelter, and cover.

In short, too many hungry deer are not only eating themselves out of house and home, they're also eliminating the natural habitat for lots of other critters as well.

Although NPS sites tend to focus on ecosystem impacts as the impetus for a deer management program, there are plenty of related issues. Two common ones: traffic safety (deer-vehicle collisions) and complaints from property owners about damage to landscaping from browsing deer.

Life in the city isn't always an easy one for deer. In 2002 four people were injured when two deer smashed through the window of a McDonalds in Washington, D.C. In March of this year, a young buck being chased by a dog crashed through the window of a restaurant in Silver Spring, Maryland.

Those particular deer may not have wandered over from Rock Creek Park, but the incidents illustrate the challenges that arise when wildlife populations continue to grow in urban areas, and there are a lot of deer in the D. C. metro area. In 2005 there were an estimated 7,000 collisions between deer and vehicles in just two of the city's suburban counties: Frederick in Virginia and Montgomery in Maryland, and authorities believe some such crashes go unreported.

There certainly aren't anywhere near that number of deer in Rock Creek Park itself, so what's the situation on NPS property?

In 2007, the park's population had reached an estimated 82 deer per square mile. That number doesn't mean much without some perspective, so here are a couple of reference points: Some experts estimate the density of deer in North America prior to the arrival of Europeans was about eight to eleven deer per square mile, and a good estimate of deer density at Rock Creek to allow a healthy forest ecosystem is about 15 to 20 deer per square mile.

Based on those numbers, park managers at Rock Creek share two common questions with their counterparts in federal, state and local parks across much of the country: are there really too many deer in the park, and if so ... what should be done?

That discussion is now officially underway at Rock Creek Park, and the park is preparing an Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) and deer management plan. As part of that process, the park will hold a public meeting from 6:30 p.m. to 9:00 p.m. on Wednesday, September 2, 2009. The meeting will be conducted at the Rock Creek Park Nature Center, 5200 Glover Road, NW, in Washington, D.C. You'll find driving directions on the park website.

You don't have to attend the meeting to comment on the Draft EIS, but you need to know what's in the document before weighing in with an opinion. You can download a copy or pick up a printed version at the Rock Creek Park Nature Center, 5200 Glover Road, NW and at Rock Creek Park Headquarters, 3545 Williamsburg Lane, NW, in Washington, D.C. Additional printed copies are available for review at public libraries near the park in Northwest and Northeast Washington, D.C.

When you're ready, you can send you comments by U. S. Mail or on-line. You'll find the mailing address for written comments here; to submit them on-line, go to this site and click on the "comment on document" link at the upper right corner of that page.)

The comment periods ends on October 2, 2009.

Deer management for the park is a very important decision, but when it comes down to the options available and the opinions that are likely to be expressed, it's a case of rounding up the usual suspects.

The animal rights folks will likely prefer "no action" or non-lethal steps such as sterilization and doe birth control; the pragmatists will likely support the use of proven methods such as trained sharpshooters. It's a problem with no easy answers for the park staff.

If you have an opinion—here's your chance.


The one real answer will, of course, not be explored. Utilize the natural method. Predation. Historically the most active predator, of white tail deer, has been humans.

I'm in the Kansas City area, where a nearby county park has 200 deer per square mile. Research has shown that up to 80% of deer die during relocation and birth control is expensive and takes several years to be effective. The county has decided to use sharpshooters, not a popular idea with many, but it is the most effective and the least expensive alternative.

the realistic solution is to allow a small number of hunters to solve this problem. hunters enjoy the procedure are trained in safety and love eating there harvest. Public land deserves public solutions. I envision a lottery for bow hunters.

May I suggest that we relocate some of the Yellowstone wolves? Not only would this thin the deer population but would also improve the split times for runners and cyclists.

Seriously, bring in local bow hunters.

1. During my many years in DC, it was not uncommon to see deer on the road, either within Rock Creek Park, on Military Rd., or as far as 16th Street outside the park. It's still not something that most drivers worried too much about, however. You were more worried about being car-jacked, or much more likely, somebody - usually a taxi cab - doing something dangerous beside you; of course, I didn't spend most of my years driving in DC (I biked and took the subway).

2. Rock Creek Park is a very long, thin park. Wherever there are deer, they are going to be very nearly outside the park. Whether there are too many or too few, there will be deer potentially on the roads of NW DC.

2. As for wolves, I would have loved to have seen them reintroduced. I don't know how the people there would have reacted; my sense is that there are far more dangerous things to worry about in DC than wolves. Most people in DC don't have lawns or yards (even the rich), and so dogs aren't being left outside within the city (though Maryland is a different story); most people don't have outdoor cats. It would certainly produce some changes; frankly, they'd be welcome. The wolves would have corridors to travel, as a lot of the parks nearly connect with one another such that wolves could potentially move up the Potomac and into West Virginia, perhaps, even reach the Shenandoahs with some luck. But, in DC, you worry about crime, you worry about the high cost of living; it would have been probably more amusing than anything to watch people worry about wolves (it would have made national news for sure, and that would be a good opportunity to educate people about wolves).

3. Hunters in Rock Creek Park is not at all practical; it's just not a park where you can at all safely do that; civilization is all around you; there isn't a place in the park where you can escape the roar of cars; people are everywhere, even living in the woods (I knew a guy who was squatting in a cabin for years).

4. It's a good set of neighborhoods to do this; generally the area around Rock Creek Park is affluent. Any adverse effect from wolves - and there aren't many - would affect the richer residents of the city. So, an ecological experiment would not be foisted on people in the city who generally otherwise have the least say.

5. So, yeah, wolves ... why not? The only real issue I can think of is that it's not particularly humane to the wolves to reintroduce them (and it wasn't in Yellowstone, either, but what's done is done). And, I think you'd be surprised to find a stronger level of support for it than you might imagine - though it would be an uphill fight at first. Ultimately, it would be good for DC to have that conversation and good for the nation to learn more about wolves and their role.

Jim Macdonald
The Magic of Yellowstone
Yellowstone Newspaper
Jim's Eclectic World

While we're at it, drop some wolves off on K St, NW and on Capitol Hill. There are overabundant leeches in both places.

We've got all sorts of conflicts with deer here in Northern California.

I live in a wooded suburban area with lots of black-tailed deer. There are issues with the deer eating the contents of people's gardens. Of course the natural population control that used to be here (mountain lions and bears) were wiped out or heavily reduced. There are occasional reports of a startled buck goring someone, and there was one deer in my county that was shot after it showed clear signs of aggression towards people. There are also a few mountain lions here, and there have been sensationalized accounts of their sightings.

Try Point Reyes National Seashore and the problems they had with escaped exotic deer from hunting ranches. Their worry is that they are out-competing the native deer/elk for resources. The NPS answer has been to hire professional sharpshooters to kill them from helicopters. For the most part they've been efficient, but there have been reports of some winged deer that have been limping near residences. The ones that weren't taken down quickly sometimes died on private land or got defensive around people since they couldn't effectively run away. There's a big sign on CA Highway 1 calling for control methods rather than hunting.

Controlling the deer population in Rock Creek Park or along the C&O Canal is extremely complicated and politically sensitive. In addition to those who simply love the deer and cannot abide with the killing of the animal, there is the obvious issue of safety. A closely managed hunt when the areas are closed to visitors might briefly reduce the resident deer population, but more would quickly move in from adjacent areas. Chemical sterilazation might help, particularly if it did not decrease the sex drive in target males. Bringing in wolves is probably not a good idea given the density of human use. Wolves are opportunists and would undoubtedly feast on pet dogs and cats as well as deer. Without natural predators, the populations will probably grow beyond the carrying capacity of the areas eventually resulting in disease and/or habitat deterioration and a population crash of the deer.

I can understand the concern for the over population of deers. However, has anyone thought of why the deer are becoming more populated in this area? With all the new construction in the outer regions that surround DC, deer have no where else to go. A place like Rock Creek park is a safe area that will not have its trees torn town any time soon. Other places that continue to chop down small bits of forrest are forcing animals, including deer, to look for homes elsewhere. My mother's garden and other gardens around her are having the flower beds torn up because deer are now coming in to look for food. And she lives just outside Tysons!

Look for the source of the problem...not just the problem itself.

Birth control would be a much better solution, if this is really about reducing the deer population. Personally, I suspect there is something more sinister agenda behind this suggestion.
But in response to the concern raised, hunting does not guarantee a reduction in the population of an animal species. According to the article below, Maine tried this approach with Moose. The result is am increase in the Moose population from 20,000 to 60,000.

I read that article, anon, and it doesn't say there are 60,000 moose in Maine. It says they don't know how many moose there are in Maine. There could be as few as 25,000 or as many as 60,000, depending on how you count. That said, there's plenty of anecdotal evidence that the moose population of Maine has increased substantially. It does seem a bit simplistic to attribute that to hunting.

... but not simplistic to conclude that the hunt did not effectively reduce the moose population, which continues to grow.

No, please don't bring in local bow hunters -- or any kind of hunters whatsoever. Remember this is a thin little sliver of a park (not a forest by any definition) in which people live and use roads to commute. Children go to the planetarium and get pony rides at the horse center. Are you proposing to close down local roads such as Beach Drive for such a hunt? During rush hour or on the weekends?

Birth control is the most sane choice. It won't pose any danger to the neighbors or our kids -- those of us who actually use Rock Creek Park.

Deer have become so tame in DC and MD. I was walking on my front yard and a fawn and mother stood 10 feet away. I finally shouted and stepped forward and they moved off. I was at a trap range and two deer stepped right onto the range and grazed. They do not care about the shots nearby. Obviously these deer are not hunted and too used to humans to have much fear.

Rock Creek Park is denesly used park with bikers, hiker and cars. It is too small to allow hunting safely.
The deer population has risen with dogs being leashed so they have less to worry about being chased by dogs. Lack of human hunting and landscaping and cleared land with strips of woods allow deer good grazing and access to the land.

Really the only limit on deer are car crashes and starvation. Cars probably account for the largest deer killed than any other cause.

Both Mr. McDonald and you are correct in describing Rock Creek Park and it's layout and what will happen with selected sharpshooting. Trust me, there is plenty of illegal hunting going on throughout the Washington metro area (we certainly have it in our park which is off limits to hunting and someone recently circulated a flyer asking to bowhunt from properties in the neighborhood!). Sadly, this entire problem is not a deer problem, but a human problem. Deer were obliterated from the State of Maryland with far less population than we have today. They had to be reintroduced. Bear were hunted so severely (predator of fawns) that a moratorium was held on hunting them (although Virginia just opened season on Black Bear). This all speaks of mismanagement to me. Gee, coyotes tried to get a foothold in Montgomery County and were wiped out. They would take a fawn as well, but are not effective against adult deer, but they would benefit from roadkill. Actually, Maryland and Virginia have all out war against coyotes.

The deer are being managed like they were cattle in a stockyard. These are animals that have routines that follow the seasons. They have effectively adapted to our encroachment of what used to be their territory. And they will continue to do so. Contraception works with feral dogs and cats (and coyote...effectively in AZ). In herbivores, it is more difficult. I understand the hesitancy there by officials to spend the money on an animal that will most likely expire from the tranquilizer. In addition the last injectible/implantable contraceptive was only effective for a year and it would be a waste of manpower and money to trap and tranq these animals annually. Castration might be solution. Both goats and cattle grow horns when castrated, I can't see how much impact that would have on deer. A 'true' hunter shouldn't be hunting for the antler anyway, but the meat.

My worry is in this random removal of deer, the impact it has on the overall herd health. You are killing adult animals that know how to safely maneuver roadways with fawns (because if they don't, they are all dead) and it is true, once established deer are killed, new deer who have been run off their property (ICC) will relocate happily and won't know their way around. So you are in fact creating a vacuum effect.

I once suggested to MCNPPC about tagging fawns to follow, vs. the random radio collar (too expensive to track many deer). They don't have to be tranquilized, males could be castrated on the spot, the plastic ear tags are easily seen by anyone, it would tell you where deer go and how far and with whom. Blood samples drawn from fawns would correlate maternity/paternity and keep an eye on Chronic Wasting Disease (not established in MD yet). Besides the price of the ear tags, applicator, lab supplies and blood spin/test, this could all be done by Biology and Veterinary students from UM, Tech, etc.

On the bright side, with a virtual CWD-free population, other states may have to kill off their deer. This is not an optimum solution as it narrows the gene pool down to zero. Of course when you only think of deer as meat on the hoof, who cares, right?

For the Lyme proponents who want deer killed because of the ticks. This doesn't get rid of the ticks (still in the woods, folks) or the real villains (mice and rabbits whome you shouldn't eradicate because that will really offset the whole scheme of things) who carry the bacterium. NY/NJ/CT States tested a new paracitide (acaricide) along the lines of CO/NM/AZ with their Bubonic Plague issues. This didn't involve killing either...except fleas, and in our case ticks. Food stations were established and posts with 'drip baffles' (used with livestock) were treated and the deer applied the insecticide themselves...taking it back to their beds and causing a 68% drop in Lyme in the area. This was a 6 year study conducted by Yale University.

I think we need to learn more about deer and their real habits vs. what we are spoon fed by the media to make an educated decision on their future.

Attempting to artificially control the population of deer in Rock Creek is an exercise in futility. Even if possible the cost would far outstrip the benefit. Deer and other wildlife do not recognize human boundaries and will fill whatever favorable ecological niche is available. The removal of wolves and woodland panther reduced natural population controls on deer and other game, leaving only humans, disease and periodic starvation to cull the deer herds. Unfortunately, these controls are less effective and fail to select for the maintenance of healthy populations. The coyotes are simply moving in to take advantage of the vacuum created by the removal of other predators.

I used to think of Nature as fragile. In the short term it often is. However, over the long haul nature will virtually always win. Attempting to create and maintain a "civilized" wilderness with an artificial mix of wildlife compatible with human ideals is ultimately a loosing proposition. It would be far more effective and efficient to simply let nature takes its course along the Rock Creek strip and learn to live with the natural dynamics. It will eventually happen anyhow.

The idea of introducing natural predators in Rock Creek Park would be highly protested because of the danger to the horses at the Rock Creek Park Horse Center and the danger that wolves and bears would be to visitors of the park. The use of birth control and sterilization, although its expensive would be a much better and effective solution. The deer herd will also begin decreasing in size because as deer herds increase in size they decrease in fertility, so in combination with the famine that will occur, some of the population will be naturally eliminated and the rest can be controlled through artificial methods.

While many people may think it's wrong to kill the deer, there are certainly situations that it's just necessary. If they're damaging the ecosystem or putting anyone in danger, then something has to be done. Of course, I'm all for somehow herding them or controlling their reproduction to a point if it's possible. Hunting ranches never have environmental problems that are due to deer!

The problem is not with the native species, in this case the whitetail. The problem is with the invasive species, in this case humans. Why not expand the park boundaries and begin dis mantling houses?? Deer are a more than welcome presence here and the thought of killing them is just wrong. If we must tangle with nature, contraception is the way to go.Bow hunting is an unsatisfactory solution ....have any of you ever come upon a deer that was shot and not killed ??????? I often hike in Rock Creek alittle before dawn and would rather not encounter some blood thirsty killer who mistakes me for his enemy. Back to the drawing board...PLEASE !! Do we have to interfere in everything ????

I spend more time in the woods then anyone I know. I'm a hunter/ naturalist. I understand more then anyone the balance of nature. Wolves? You guys really don't know what you are talking about. Wolves would be just a succeptable to vehicle collisions as the deer them selves. If they lived long enough to breed, long enough to maintain a steady population (Not!). It would only take a few bad inscidents with people or their pets for the wolves to be just another bad idea by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Officials. No disrepsect to them, but the have always made bad decisions. As for the park being too small to hunt safely. You obviously have not been introduced to hunters like myself. When is the last time anyone has seen a trilium in Rock Creek Park. After all, we control the population of every animal on the planet but our own!