Outfitted with night-vision goggles and armed with rifles fitted with silencers, marksmen any day now will begin culling deer from Valley Forge National Historical Park in an operation intended to keep the animals from overwhelming the park.
A federal judge last week cleared the way for the shooting to commence, ruling that there was nothing "arbitrary or capricious" in the path park officials took to adopting that method of culling deer.
The Park Service, wrote Judge Mitchell Goldberg, has "carefully evaluated potential solutions to this problem and determined that a culling of the deer population over the span of four years is necessary to achieve the desired population density and prevent further damage to the park."
Friends of Animals and Compassion for Animals, Respect for the Environment, had asked the judge to block the sharpshooters from taking aim on Valley Forge's deer. They wanted coyotes to rein in the deer population, which has grown from 31-35 deer per square mile in 1983 to nearly 250 per square mile currently.
Under the park's plan, the goal is to reduce the deer population from about 1,200 animals to about 165-185 during the next four years.
After losing their bid to block the culling, Friends of Animals announced they would both appeal that decision and stage a protest on November 7. The demonstration is scheduled to be held from 2:00 p.m. - 4 p.m. in the park's Lower Welcome Center Parking Lot, according to the Friends of Animals website.
Lee Hall, the vice president of legal affairs for Friends of Animals, called the park's approach to deer control through the use of sharpshooters and, when they become available, birth-control drugs, a sad commentary to how the Park Service chooses to manage wildlife.
“In five to six years, are we going to have every animal on public lands controlled the way we want them to be controlled? Because I think there’s a macabre, Disneyesque aspect to that," Ms. Hall said in a prepared statement.
Approaches considered by Valley Forge officials, but rejected, to lower the deer numbers included fencing 10-acre portions of forest on a rotational basis to protect them from the ravenous animals. Judge Goldberg also pointed out that park officials did study the use of coyotes to reduce the deer numbers, but that they found that even with coyotes already present on the park's grounds the deer population "swelled to an unsustainable number."
The approved plan will deploy sharpshooters at night, place them in elevated positions so they're shooting down onto deer, and use baits to lure deer to the shooters.
"These measures will be undertaken to create the safest culling environment while being the least disturbing to park visitors and neighbors," the judge noted in citing details of the preferred operation. "While capture and euthanasia will be used in situations where sharpshooting is not safe, this scenario occurs in approximately less than 1 percent of the deer culled.
"Does will be targeted over bucks to more efficiently reduce the herd size by limiting its future reproductive capacity," Judge Goldberg continued. "In addition to the culling, when an acceptable chemical reproductive agent becomes available, the alternative includes provisions to implement this part of the plan. Alternative D also contains CWD (chronic wasting disease) monitoring and prevention provisions.
"Finally, the selected plan includes provisions for butchering and donating the venison of all suitable culled animals to food banks."
Valley Forge, which is located just 18 miles from Philadelphia, 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.
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, they've said.
The park also is not the first to turn to sharpshooters to manage deer herds. In 1995 officials at Gettysburg National Military Park further west of Valley Forge implemented such a plan that continues today. Indeed, last month the culling was scheduled to continue at both Gettysburg and the Eisenhower National Historic Site.
"Managing white-tailed deer is unfortunately a necessary part of preserving the Gettysburg and Eisenhower parks," said Superintendent Bob Kirby back in September when he announced the culling schedule. "The intense browsing by high numbers of deer compromises our ability to protect historic woodlots and farm fields, as well as our ability to tell the story of these two parks."