by Anne Barton
Save the Rock Creek Park Deer
Over the last six years residents of Forest Hills may have noticed regular late fall bulletins from the National Park Service (NPS) announcing a “window of opportunity” for sharpshooters to kill deer in Rock Creek Park. NPS claims that the deer need to be killed because they are consuming too many tree seedlings and damaging the ability of the park to renew itself.
At the time it was first proposed, Save The Rock Creek Park Deer opposed this program and took NPS to court, on the basis that we have seen no evidence of any threat to the park from the deer. Instead we believe the threat comes from the non-native and invasive plants that have taken over the park, as reported in many Rock Creek Park documents. The courts ruled that NPS had the legal authority to kill the deer (the courts did not evaluate the desirability of their action). And so, the yearly killings began in 2013 and have been going on ever since.
Now we have some very strong evidence that the basis for the annual kills is false and that the killing is not decreasing the population as expected.
The evidence against the justification given for the kill comes from the most recent report of the study NPS uses to justify the kills. This study, conducted by the US Geological Survey for NPS, evaluates the effect of the deer by comparing plots within the park where deer are fenced out to similar unfenced plots. The most recent update of the study (“Impacts of Deer Herbivory on Vegetation in Rock Creek Park, 2001-2014”) also uses a very direct measure of the potential of the park to renew itself based upon counts of tree seedlings. The study authors found that there is no significant difference between the fenced and matched unfenced plots in the stocking rate, a measure of ability to regenerate the forest. In other words, it made no difference whether the deer had access or not – they did not change the ability of the forest to regenerate.
It is clear that the authorities in the USGS found this to be a devastating result because they went to great lengths to keep the study secret in spite of the fact that it is a purely scientific report which should be released without question. First, in response to a December 2016 FOIA request, they sent documents which appeared to be various drafts and the final of the study. But the documents were totally redacted – only a few headings were left among totally black pages.
When Save the Rock Creek Park Deer protested, USGS gave reasons that were obviously not applicable to a strictly scientific study. In June 2017, Save the Rock Creek Park Deer finally sued USGS under the Freedom of Information Act in order to obtain the report.
In addition, a recent comparison of deer population before and after a kill found that the population had actually increased substantially. In the fall of 2016 the NPS estimated only about 19 deer per square mile in the main section of the park. But in the fall of 2017 the estimaters found there were 55 deer per square mile, about a three-fold increase.
This is population rebound, a common result of lethal methods of deer population control: The deer have twins and triplets rather than single fawns and in other ways increase the birth rate. It is not what NPS envisioned in its plan and likely means that many new fawns born in the spring because of a rebound will be shot down in the fall or orphaned when their mothers are killed. If population control is needed there are methods that avoid this rebound and are more humane and safer.
In September of 2018, Save the Rock Creek Park Deer wrote a letter to NPS outlining our arguments in some detail and asking NPS to immediately halt the killing and re-evaluate their policy. They have refused. We hope this petition, which already has more than 48,000 signatures, will help both directly and indirectly to change the minds of decision makers on this issue and provide a more rational, science based policy. Please help us by signing the petition.
Save the Rock Creek Park Deer was formed in 2012. Anne Barton manages the group’s website, savetherockcreekparkdeer.com, and Facebook page. She lives in Chevy Chase DC and is a retired biostatistican and EPA executive.
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