National Park Service officials have released a management plan to address severe problems with overpopulation of deer in the popular and suburbia-surrounded Rock Creek Park in Washington, D.C.
by Alan Clemons
Deer have thrived in the park located near the nation’s capitol to the point of decimating natural vegetation to unsustainable levels. Due to the suburban development around the park and no predation on the deer, they have put a serious hurt on virtually everything green or edible.
According to the NPS report: “Action is needed at this time to address the potential of deer becoming the dominant force in the park’s ecosystem, and adversely impacting native vegetation and other wildlife; a decline in tree seedlings caused by excessive deer browsing and the ability of the forest to regenerate in Rock Creek Park; excessive deer browsing impacts on the existing shrubs and herbaceous species; and deer impacts on the character of the park’s cultural landscapes.”
Read the full NPS report here: Final White-tailed Deer Management Plan/Environmental Impact Statement for Rock Creek Park
Management possibilities include no action, combined non-lethal actions, combined lethal actions and combined lethal and non-lethal actions. The latter is the preferred choice for NPS officials and would include capture and relocation along with use of sharpshooters to kill deer to reduce numbers toward a sustainable level for them and park vegetation.
A similar problem and management plan are in effect at Valley Forge National Historic Park. The NPS enacted the four-year plan in 2011.
This problem is nothing new throughout portions of the eastern U.S. where development and deer population increases have threatened some parks. Some state wildlife and park agencies have joined together to allow limited hunting in parks, such as in Alabama at Oak Mountain State Park south of Birmingham.
The problem at Oak Mountain was similar to Rock Creek in D.C.: too many deer, surrounding suburban development and no predation that allowed deer to severely impact the park’s trees, shrubs and vegetation. It got to the point at Oak Mountain State Park where deer were eating anything within reach, including cedars, pines and vegetation they normally wouldn’t touch. The browse line was easily distinguishable in the understory and, in some areas, offered a clear view for 50 yards or more into the woods.
Sharpshooters initially were used at Oak Mountain after Alabama officials decided to try to quickly get a handle on the deer numbers, but they also provided bow hunters with limited hunting opportunities. The sharpshooters were used for only a couple of years, with success, but the bow hunting opportunities now have been extended through much of the state’s lengthy season. Bowhunters of Alabama assists with hunter preparation for the hunts and the park’s vegetation is slowly seeing a rebound after eight years.
Protests were mild the first few years in Alabama but now are virtually nonexistent. Through careful planning with the hunts and visible results, the plan has worked. National Park Service officials no doubt will hear outcry from animal rights activists who believe killing the deer at Rock Creek Park is unnecessary, but the simple fact is eradication combined with capture and relocation offers the best management option to help the struggling park.
Should hunting be allowed in some national parks or national wildlife refuges where there are sustainable populations but no seasons? Let us know what you think.