Barring a court order, shots will again ring out across the landscape of Valley Forge National Historical Park beginning in November as the National Park Service embarks on an effort to cull the park's white-tailed deer population.
The sharpshooters are tasked with reducing Valley Forge's deer herds from some 1,200 animals to about 165-185 during the next four years. The current phase calls for the sharpshooters to work from November through next March.
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 last year.
Park officials say the culling, along with birth-control methods, should allow Valley Forge's native forests to grow and mature and at the same time improve habitat for native wildlife species such as ground- and shrub-nesting black-and-white warblers and thrushes. Fewer deer also should improve the availability of acorns in fall that help feed squirrels and other ground foragers, according to park officials.
"Over four years, sharpshooting, plus capture and euthanasia, will achieve an initial deer density goal of 31 to 35 deer per square mile from the current density of 241 deer per square mile," a park release said. "Subsequently, the park will maintain the park deer population level though reproductive control, once an acceptable agent becomes available."
While park managers believe culling and using birth control are the best approaches to managing the deer, two animal advocacy groups filed a lawsuit last November 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,” Lee Hall, legal director for Friends of Animals, said in an interview a year ago. “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.
Those groups would rather see the Park Service rely on coyotes to reduce the deer numbers. But Valley Forge officials have said they did in fact consider using predators to control the deer numbers, but discarded it as unrealistic, noting that past research has demonstrated that predators are not capable of controlling suburban deer populations.
If the culling begins in November as planned, park officials say they will employ "extensive measures to ensure a safe, humane, and successful operation include using highly qualified and experienced marksmen familiar with the park’s geography and with conducting reduction activities in a highly suburbanized environment."
"The National Park Service will work with biologists from the United States Department of Agriculture, Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service, Wildlife Services. This agency has a long history of conducting safe and effective actions to reduce wildlife populations, including the reduction of deer populations at multiple locations in the Philadelphia region," the Park Service added. "Additional safety measures include conducting population reduction actions when the park is closed, establishing safety zones, using bait to attract deer to safe removal locations, conducting shooting actions from an elevated position, and utilizing specialized, non-lead ammunition that is safe for use in urban areas and the environment."