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Lawsuit Over Deer Culling At Valley Forge Highlights Troubles Of Squeezed National Parks

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What are the odds that coyotes can control Valley Forge National Historical Park's deer populations? Pennsylvania Game Commission photo.

As urban sprawl squeezes in tighter and tighter around some national parks, it can turn some parks into wildlife sanctuaries that create their own problems. At Valley Forge National Historical Park, efforts to control a booming population of white-tailed deer have spurred a lawsuit from a group that believes a prey-predator relationship should be allowed to play out. But how realistic is that?

No longer the sleepy, bucolic landscape that existed when General George Washington and his troops wintered here in eastern Pennsylvania in 1777-78, Valley Forge today is surrounded by development, not the least of which is the King of Prussia Mall, one of the largest malls in the country in terms of commercial space.

With its 3,500 acres, many lush and green with vegetation, the park has become a magnet for white-tailed deer, which officials say are overrunning the vegetation.

The issue of too many deer did not arise overnight. While in 1983 there were an estimated 165-185 deer at Valley Forge, according to park research, by 2000 the herd had grown large enough that Congress directed the National Park Service to begin assessing the problem. Three years ago the park launched efforts to develop a deer-management plan, an effort that recently led the park officials to decide to employ sharpshooters and birth controls to cull and contain the herd, which peaked at 1,647 animals in 2008 before dipping to 1,277 this year, at 165-185 animals, according to Kristina Heister, the park's natural resource manager.

"We've said many times that this park is really a refuge in the middle of suburban Philadelphia," she said Friday afternoon during a phone conversation. "And as such it becomes even more important that the habitat that we have here is in good condition. ... We have to strike that balance. We know that we can't achieve that with the number of deer that we have today."

The culling decision hinged in part on over-browsing of vegetation in the park and associated concerns for the park's overall habitat and impacts to other animals. And while it has not yet been detected in the park, the threat of Chronic Wasting Disease, a contagious neurological disease, reaching Valley Forge also contributed to the decision. Though not directly tied to the park's decision-making, deer-vehicle collisions -- of which there are nearly 90 every year within the park's borders -- also are a concern.

Members of the surrounding community also have voiced concerns over deer devouring their gardens, the possible spread of Lyme Disease, and deer droppings. But they also have mentioned how nice it is to have such highly visible wildlife. In 2007, a study performed for the park by Cornell University researchers touched on the issue of urbanization of the area and its impact on wildlife.

Anthropogenic factors such as human population growth and land development often were described as the ultimate source of deer issues. Many interviewees perceived human-deer interactions as a symptom of broader ecological disruption (e.g. habitat loss, fragmentation) that concentrated deer in undesirable locations:

“Development has created the problem, we, mankind has (sic) developed the problem. The deer are doing their best to survive, they’re coming back at us and eating our shrubbery. What are they supposed to do, lay down and die?”

“We’re choking out the whole landscape by building up developments. There’s nowhere for them to go.”

“I usually see herds. It wasn’t like that when I was a kid. A couple of new developments were built, that’s when I noticed the difference. I attribute it to human encroachment. The zoning around here is out of control. There’s too much development bordering the park.”

While park managers believe culling and using birth control are the best approaches to managing the deer, two animal advocacy groups filed a lawsuit this week to stop that plan. In their filing, the Friends of Animals and Compassion for Animals, Respect for the Environment argued that the Park Service's approach violates the National Environmental Policy Act, as well as the National Park Service Organic Act, and even the Valley Forge National Historical Park's enabling legislation.

“Decisions under the National Environmental Policy Act cannot be based simply on seizing upon the apparently easiest answer to a perceived problem,” said Lee Hall, legal director for Friends of Animals. “Killing deer is not the answer to the decline of plant life in a sprawling, concrete-covered suburb.”

Allison Memmo Geiger, president of CARE, added that she didn't know what was worse, “shooting deer or compromising their social and reproductive interactions by imposing birth control on them.”

And Michael Harris, a law professor at the University of Denver's Environmental Law Clinic that filed the lawsuit, said the decision runs counter to the National Park Service's preservation mission.

“For the National Park Service to enter Valley Forge National Historical Park in the cover of winter to slay white-tailed deer is not only an appalling twist on the park’s history, it is another sign that the Service has abandoned its century-old mission to strive for parks in which conservation of nature is paramount,” he said in a release.

What those groups would like to see, according to Ms. Hall, is for the park to allow coyotes to control the deer population.

"The coyotes are making a comeback in the park. It seems to us that the biologist who put the papers together, who put the proposal together, would want to cultivate more respect for the coyotes," Ms. Hall told the Traveler on Friday. "You might know that the Pennsylvania Game Commission basically treats them as vermin ... I think that just makes people feel that there is something wrong with them, they are dangerous. They do live in the park, and they do have the capability of being able predators, particularly against the sick and the young deer."

In arriving at their preferred solution, Valley Forge officials did in fact consider using predators to control the deer numbers, but discarded it as unrealistic, said Ms. Heister, who added that past research has demonstrated that predators are not capable of controlling suburban deer populations.

"There is no expectation that a coyote population would be capable of regulating deer populations at this level," she said Friday. "We'd have a lot of fat, happy coyotes, but we'd probably have a similar number of deer."

While Ms. Hall was unfamiliar with a recent incident in a Canadian national park in which coyotes were said to have fatally mauled a young woman, she didn't think a coyote population in Valley Forge would pose a serious threat to visitors.

"They’re in our area. I think you have to be careful with your animals, if you have cats and dogs you have to be careful," she said. "But they’re indigenous to this area, and they belong here.”

Ms. Hall also said Valley Forge's deer population has stabilized -- a contention Ms. Heister disputed -- and that the animals are really not a problem, "other than eating people’s flowers in the area."

"I jog and hike in there and I don’t see them as a problem," she said.

Some problems created by the deer might not be obvious to all observers, though. According to Ms. Heister, the heavy foraging by deer impact ground- and shrub-nesting bird species such as black-and-white warblers and thrushes, which, she said, are in decline. And when oaks lose their acorns in fall, voracious deer eat them with relish, depriving squirrels and other ground foragers, she said.

The park is suffering "not only the indirect effects of complete removal of habitat, but direct competition for resources," said Ms. Heister. "The butterfly can't have the flower if the deer ate it already, and the squirrel can't have the acorn if the deer ate it already."

Comments

I live in Chesterbrook, a neighborhood right next to VF park. I know atleast 20 neighbors that have been diagnosed with lime disease - it's a huge concern of mine. The way I see it is this... if the food chain had its way, we, as humans, would hunt the deer for food if we couldn't drive to our local store to purchase meat. Since we're not hunting the deer for meat, the population needs to be controlled in another way. There is a huge problem here and it needs a solution.


Well said!

People have just been assuming that our conflict with the deer is the result of commercial development of more and more land, but really the deer population has burgeoned incredibly during the past fifty years. Our forests are paying the price, and there is no way that people will put up with having packs of wolves roaming around near neighborhoods. Deer population levels have to be artificially contained in and around places where people live and predators (like wolves, not mere coyotes) are not welcome.


I agree with what was said in the last few posts and would like to add something. Barbara, in your last post you commented about forest regeneration studies then commented about the wildflowers being abundant. Well, forest regeneration does not really have anything to do with wildflowers. Most forest regeneration studies look at the number/size/abundance of replacement stock growing to replace the overstory. Wildflowers, present or absent have nothing really to do with forest regeneration other that in there are plentiful wildflowers, there is an alternative food source for deer other than newly sprouted saplings.

I would challenge you to look in VF for wildflowers throughout the year, you might find some as they initially grow, but are quickly consumed by the over abundant deer.

One public property not far from VF did document species of wildflowers growing again on the property after 10+ years of not growing, only after removing a large number of deer from the ecosystem.


Barbara,

Those solutions and actions might work in Evergreen, CO. But VF is not in Evergreen, CO, it is in south eastern PA. There are probably more deer in VF than are in Evergreen CO. What is the density of deer in Evergreen, CO? The deer population in SE PA has been documented in several areas at over 140 deer/square mile, or 1 deer for every 4.5 acres. The current number of deer in VF, using the data in the article, is 233 deer/square mile. Ecologically speaking, Evergreen, CO and VF and two very different and distinct ecosytems and biomes.

Nature will eventually take control of the situation in VF if allowed, but that will take a long time. Nature will cause the deer starve, before and after birth. Nature would introduce a disease to assist in controlling the deer, and they will die a slow, painful death. Coyotes will take and eat deer (young, sick, or injured), but most likely not enough to have a large impact. While VF is waiting for nature to take over, the rest of the nature in the park will continue to suffer, humans will continue to hit them, humans will continue to contract lyme disease and suffer.

"Thank God someone had enough courage, intelligence, correct research/studies, motivation, and just plain respect, for both animals AND people, to bring about this suit."

I pose this question to you, what is "correct" research/studies??? From what I have been taught, practiced, and read, pertaining to scientific research, there is no such thing as research or studies being "correct".. Research or studies present their findings on a particular question posed, whether the findings support or fail to support the original question. I'm sure what you meant is that the people that brought this suit about, will only use, quote, or point to research/studies that support their mis-guided thoughts about what should be done in VF, and ignore the research that was conducted directly in VF. They will use, quote, and base their opinion on science that was conducted 20 years ago in some part of the country that has no bearing on what is going on in VF.

So let me ask you this, killing is OK as long as nature is doing it, the coyotes, the mountain lions, the bears, etc??

"The famously-gifted Alice Walker once wrote, "The animals of the world exist for their own reasons. They were not made for humans any more than black people were made for white, or women created for men." How incredibly honest...and how profoundly TRUE!". I say this is partly right. They were not made for humans, as much as we were not made for them.

According to your logic, VF has to just deal with the situation and do nothing about! I say that is irresponsible, for the deer and for all other beings in nature, including us humans, the small mammals, the birds, and the plants.


For those of you that think deer populations are hurt when areas are developed, you are wrong. Deer are an 'edge' species. They don't prefer large un-broken tracts of land, because those areas don't produce large amounts of food. Edge areas receive more sunlight, often grow more dense, with species of plants that provide berries, leaf buds, and other soft mast, aka browse. So when areas get developed, it increases the amount of edge, creating more food. Deer are more likely to use these areas because they are protected from any and all hunting pressure. So no hunting, more food, more reproduction and more deer surviving the winter to reproduce next year. After a few short years, the population starts growing and doubling itself every year. Then they pass the carrying capacity of the habitat, this is when the damage to the forest starts to really show. A few years later, no new trees growing from seed (aka regeneration), ferns start taking over putting chemicals in the soil to discourage further growth by deciduous trees. In the meantime, forest dwelling birds that use the shrub layer and midstory start disappearing. Small mammal populations decline because the deer eat all hard mast rather quickly. Pretty soon, all you are left with is a huge population of deer, and little if any other wildlife.

Racheal Carson wrote a book called "Silent Spring". How many of you are familiar with this book? Bascially, she says that chemical insecticides would eventually reduce bird populations to a point were they would be a "silent spring". She was close to being correct except that we prevented the continued use of chemicals that were detrimental to the birds. Now we face another potential cause of this "silent spring", the deer. And now we someone tries to manage to prevent it again, all the "armchair naturalists", Felix Sulton praising deer lovers, don't want the deer killed because the deer are "nature"!!! Well, deer are part of nature, and should continue to be part of nature. However, nature also includes other mammals, numerous song birds, all of which are negatively affected by the overpopulation of deer.

I personally applaud the efforts of the NPS to try and remedy the problem of too many deer in VFNMP. Keep up the good work!!


If you are a naturalist, you would truely know the impact that an overpopulation of deer has on the habitat. Other animals, both birds and mammals, have suffered, and will continue to suffer because of the current population of deer in Valley Forge. A true naturalist would understand that, and would understand the management decisions for the good of the whole ecosystem, not just worry about one aspect of the ecosystem. I would rather see the deer humanely shot and die a quick death, than to suffer a very slow and painful death from a disease or a dvc.


The only point is the deer hunting will not significantly reduce the regional deer population, and therefore is an empty gesture if the real policy objective is dealing with road hazards or impacts on gardens.

If it is true that the NPS was only pushed to think up a park purpose for the deer reduction in order to deal with gardens and fear of accidents, then the park-policy justification is a joke. RodF, don't you ever get to the point where pious double-talk is unacceptable? The real public safety issue is the state road through the park, which has been allowed to become a commuter road. So, should the park be managed to permit the ever-increasing expansion of thru-traffic in the park?

Personally, I am all for healthy, and natural, wildlife populatons in parks. Ideally, this would be accomplished by an effective and imaginative reintroduction of predators. If this (really) is not possible, then I believe hunting by park agents is often the only real and effective method. But in Valley Forge hunting deer will have next to no impact on the reason visitors come to this park, and no impact at all on what is seen as 'the deer problem' by surbanites in eastern Pennsylvania.

It is only the illusion of action by local elected officials. Why pretend it is science, or the responsibilities of park management?


d-2, the NPS is responsible for managing VFNP, and is not responsible for managing the rest of suburban Philly nor the rest of eastern PA.

This entire conversation is so perfectly typifies many we read here.


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