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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.

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