Deer Dilemma Part 1: A Rock Creek Park hunt on hold

Editor’s note: This is the first part of “Deer Dilemma,” a WTOP series about the controversial deer hunt planned for Rock Creek Park.

Michelle Basch,

WASHINGTON – For the first time, plans are in motion to shoot and kill dozens of white-tailed deer in Rock Creek Park.

It would be the first deer hunt in the park since it was founded in 1890.

The goal isn’t to shoot all the deer, only to thin the herd throughout a period of several years.

But those plans are on hold until the middle of March at the earliest because opponents have filed a federal lawsuit.

Both sides are expected in court this week to present oral arguments.

After that, a judge could make a decision at any time.

The National Park Service declined to be interviewed for this series because of the pending lawsuit, but Park Service documents say action needs to be taken because deer are doing major damage to native plants and taking away habitat for other animals in the 4 square miles that make up the park.

“We feel that the deer in Rock Creek Park are special. Deer are a native species to our region. They belong in Rock Creek National Park,” says Carol Grunewald, a resident who lives near the park and opposes the planned hunt.

Grunewald is one of the plaintiffs in the lawsuit aimed at getting the Park Service to look at other ways to control the deer population.

“What we hope to accomplish with the lawsuit is to show that the National Park Service ignored the law and its rules for Rock Creek Park in approving this extermination plan for the deer. Once that legal case is cleared, we would like to persuade the National Park Service to engage in a completely non-lethal deer population control program for the park,” she says.

As the fight continues in the District, hunts to control deer population have been going on next door in Montgomery County since 1996.

“I think nobody can see a deer run across a field, or a deer with a fawn and not (say) ‘Aw – isn’t that beautiful.’ It is, and nobody’s trying to get rid of that. We’re just trying to create a balance,” says Rob Gibbs, natural resources manager for the Maryland- National Capital Park and Planning Commission – Montgomery Parks.

How did we get here?

It may be hard to believe, but at one time deer were rare in D.C. and Rock Creek Park.

“It’s important for people to understand that by the end of the 1800s there virtually weren’t any deer in this area. They had been hunted pretty much to extinction,” Gibbs says.

WTOP’s Garden Editor Mike McGrath says later, in an effort to repopulate them, deer were placed on railroad cars and sent to different parts of the country.

“Hundreds of mated pairs of deer (were) pushed off every couple of miles, so that a new herd would be built up for hunters. So these are not native animals. Our ‘Virginia whitetails’ are actually originally from Missouri,” he says.

Gibbs says deer were actively reintroduced in parts of Maryland from the 1930s through 1950s.

“The reason that we have so many deer is that we don’t have the natural predators that should be here controlling a deer population. We no longer have wolves or mountain lions or other predators that would do that,” Gibbs says.

Something else that’s allowed deer to do so well around here is the landscape.

“Deer are not a species of the deep forest. Deer are a species of the edge, and we basically in Montgomery County and every place else that’s been developed, we’ve taken what was a huge forest and chopped it up into little pieces and every time you do that you get edge,” says Gibbs.

“If you add to that the wonderful plants that we plant in our yard, around our houses, our gardens, our farm fields, which is much more food available than in the forest in general, we’ve created much better habitat than what existed here prior to European contact.”

Additionally, Gibbs says, deer are a prey species that reproduces quickly.

“Without predators to keep that in check you end up with a high deer population that right now is only being controlled for the most part by being hit by cars, which is not the way you want to control a deer population.”

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