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.