Skip to content
Link copied to clipboard

Call to arms over deer

Valley Forge joins fight to reduce herds and damage.

The deer herd in Valley Forge National Historical Park has multiplied eightfold in 25 years, and officials say a thousand acres of forest are being eaten alive by deer.

That is why, to the horror of animal-rights activists, federal sharpshooters with rifles and night-vision goggles aim to cut the herd from more than 1,200 to fewer than 200 during the next four years. The carcasses are to be given to food banks.

Citing public-safety concerns, the park has been secretive about revealing the timing of the shoots, saying only that they would happen between November and March and that the park would be closed off when they occurred.

But the shooting evidently has started. A federal judge gave it the go-ahead last month, and on Friday animal-rights activists filed an emergency request to stop it.

Iconic Valley Forge, one of the nation's most revered Revolutionary War sites, is the latest battleground in the escalating tensions between white-tailed deer and human beings. But only the latest.

The conflicts are raging all over the country along the borders of woods and development, where a species once on the verge of vanishing is now deemed overabundant.

One may think deer would prefer wilderness to the vicinity of highways and high-rises. But wildlife specialists say that's not necessarily so.

They hold that creeping urbanization - which has routed predators, inhibited hunting, and provided a herbivore's smorgasbord of backyard plantings - has been the biggest boon to whitetails since the retreat of the North American ice sheets 10,000 years ago.

The fallout from the inter-species encounters includes a harvest of traffic accidents. An estimated 130,000 deer-vehicle collisions occur annually in Pennsylvania and New Jersey - with more than 2,400 human deaths nationwide since 1993, according to insurance experts.

November is a particularly perilous time: Deer-vehicle crashes are three times more common than in other months, according to the Highway Loss Data Institute.

It is more than coincidence that this also is a peak period for "culls" - in which deer are lured to baited sites and shot by U.S. Department of Agriculture marksmen at night - and controlled hunts, in which the animals have a greater opportunity to escape archers and riflemen.

Deer find themselves in the crosshairs this month for the same reason that they so often wander into the paths of cars: hormonal intoxication. The does are in heat, the bucks driven to distraction.

"They're really not watching the cars," said Larry Herrighty, assistant fish and wildlife director for New Jersey. "They're crazed. They're not thinking straight."

About half of all deer deaths occur in fall, but the survivors do breed. Bucks have multiple partners. They may lack commitment and tenderness, but not zeal. By human standards, the birthrate is extraordinary: Almost every doe that survives the winter has at least one fawn in the spring, sometimes twins or triplets.

The deer proliferation has raised other concerns. Ticks commuting on deer are prime suspects in spreading Lyme disease, and the deer appetite for precious residential plantings is legendary.

But at Valley Forge, park officials say human health and safety considerations are ancillary; the issue is survival of other species, and the evidence is plentiful.

Japanese stilt grass, brilliantly green in spring and gentle underfoot in autumn, sumptuously carpets the forest's floor. And in the view of Kristina Heister, the park's natural-resource manager, that carpet is a nightmare, invasive and ubiquitous. It's thriving because all its competitors, from native wildflowers to young trees, are being devoured by deer.

The whitetails don't eat the stilt grass.

The deer, Heister said, are altering the park vista. "People forget what it should look like," she said.

Deer are devouring native plants and crowding out other animals, including rabbits and ground-nesting songbirds - literally eating up those smaller creatures' houses and homes.

That explains why the only bird you're likely to hear in the park in April is the woodpecker, said Heister's boss, Deirdre Gibson.

When the sharpshooters are done four years from now, officials want to try birth control.

Under a 15-year program, with the cost estimated at anywhere from $1.8 million to $2.9 million, Valley Forge would try to limit the herd by injecting deer with chemical birth-control agents - should one that the National Park Service deems "effective" become available. Otherwise, the park would revert to sharpshooting.

Animal-rights groups see the shootings as cold-blooded mass executions, cruel and unnecessary, a betrayal of the "deer-human relationship." In seeking a court order to halt the shootings late Friday, Friends of Animals and another group - Compassion for Animals, Respect for the Environment - argued that "people visit the park to experience the rare trust these deer have in humans."

They contend that the Park Service gave little more than lip service to alternatives, that it would be better to introduce more coyotes to control the deer herd.

Park managers at Valley Forge and elsewhere counter that deer overpopulation near developed areas is an ecological crisis, that they've thoroughly examined other strategies, that a coyote appetite also includes dogs and cats, and that the lethal solution is the most efficient and humane one. "We have looked at a full range of reasonable alternatives," Heister said.

"I completely support what they're doing," said Bruce Davis, a lawyer who lives in the Glenhardie development that abuts the park and is a popular deer grazing ground.

The USDA marksmen's nighttime culls, along with daytime hunts, have "increased significantly in the past decade and even the past few years," said Bryon P. Shissler, president of Natural Resource Consultants Inc.

Valley Forge is a cull operation; another is under way in Lower Merion. Solebury Township in Bucks County had one a few years back, and one is scheduled for Swarthmore College grounds.

The Lower Merion cull is about human lives, said Police Lt. Bernie D'Amour, who runs the program. "It's not designed to eliminate deer," he said. "It's designed to make the township safer."

Shooting began last week, D'Amour said, and has been "highly successful."

The motives are similar in Solebury, Township Manager Dennis H. Carney said.

Controlled hunts have occurred in several venues throughout the region, from Ridley Creek State Park in Delaware County to Lorimer Park in Huntingdon Valley. Wharton State Forest, in Burlington County, is a popular hunting ground.

Scott Morgan, manager of Lorimer, a bow-shaped parcel along Pennypack Creek, said his hunts started in 2002, at the behest of nearby residents. "I haven't had one complaint," he said. The media have even lost interest: "I haven't had a TV truck here in five years."

Since the hunts began, Morgan said, deer-vehicle collisions in the area have dropped by two-thirds.

Overall, in the last two decades, 35 hunts or culls have taken place in Philadelphia and the four neighboring Pennsylvania counties, the Park Service said.

To encourage more hunting in deer-populated areas, the Pennsylvania Game Commission has extended hunting seasons and granted more licenses in the Philadelphia and Pittsburgh regions, commission spokesman Jerry Feaser said.

The result: While overall deer-kill numbers have dropped statewide, they are up in the immediate Philadelphia region, where more than 5,000 deer were killed last year.

Incredible as it may seem, at the beginning of the 19th century, the whitetail was nearly extinct as a result of hunting and predation. To increase the herd, the Pennsylvania Game Commission imported 1,200 whitetails from 1906 to 1925.

Today, about 20 million whitetails inhabit the United States, according to a Cornell University estimate; in Pennsylvania, hunters killed more than 300,000 last year.

At Valley Forge, a green island among highways, houses, and commercial developments, the deer count has soared in the last quarter-century.

When Heister arrived to work at Valley Forge in 1992, she recalled, right away she saw a distinct "browse line" along the trees, about six feet above the ground, or roughly the distance from a deer's hoof to its lips.

Now, she said, "everything from six feet down is completely gone."

Heister defended the park's deer strategy. "This plan is about restoring and protecting native plant communities," she said, adding that she bore no animosity toward deer.

"I didn't get into this because I hate wildlife," Heister said. "I love wildlife."

Jeffrey Houdret, who lives close to the park on Richards Road, said he did not share some of his neighbors' enthusiasm for the park's plan.

On the night of Nov. 4, as he was walking his Yorkshire terriers, he noticed that the covers had been removed from detour signs posted along park roads, and he heard what sounded like gunfire.

The killings make him uneasy, he said. Nevertheless, he is sympathetic to the park's situation.

"I just hate killing them," said Houdret. "They're wonderful animals. But, boy, there are a lot of them."