I live in a big city but also just a few blocks from Rock Creek National Park. This means I’ve been fortunate to see many species of local wildlife up close and personal, like this fawn whose portrait I took last week. Not everyone that lives in my area feels “fortunate”, because some of the wildlife include deer that like to browse (eat) nicely landscaped gardens and yards. For the most part, we’ve learned to peacefully coexist with the local wildlife by learning about their behavior and diets, which means learning what they don’t like to eat. Peaceful coexistence doesn’t mean we have no wildlife moving through our yard, rather, it means we’ve learned to manage the potential conflict between us and them. I wouldn’t have it any other way. The opportunity to see wildlife up close and personal is priceless, educational, inspirational, and something everyone should have a chance to experience.
The story of white-tailed deer in our neighborhood is not without controversy. Prompted by a decline in forest regeneration, Rock Creek Park officials initiated a public process to create a plan, finalized in 2012, for quickly reducing the density of deer in the park to support long-term protection and restoration of native plants and to promote a healthy and diverse forest (https://www.nps.gov/rocr/learn/management/white-tailed-deer-management.htm). As part of implementing the deer management plan, this past winter, parts of the park were closed off at night and sharpshooters entered to cull (shoot) the deer down to numbers the Park determined were feasible.
Wildlife management specialists recognize that shooting animals (“lethal control”) is one means of managing conflicts with them; others include fertility control; moving animals to other places where their numbers are lower (translocation); using repellants; and putting up fences, among others. All of these methods have various tradeoffs, risks, costs, and levels of effectiveness. Culling deer is not uncommon in the United States. Perhaps it’s a culture of hunting that makes it so common. There’s a group in Michigan that maintains a list of many areas in the U.S. that have resorted to lethal deer culling methods (https://www.wc4eb.org/what/herd-reduction/culling/).
As a wildlife professional, I recognize that wildlife management decisions often have to be made, and sometimes they’ll involve lethal methods that are very difficult to contemplate. For example, official documents describe the lethal methods that were used in Rock Creek Park as follows:
“Every effort will be made to conduct the shootings as humanely as possible. Deer injured during the operation will be euthanized as quickly as possible to minimize suffering…. Bait stations will likely be used to attract deer to safe removal locations, concentrate deer, improve removal success, and allow the maximum use of ground as a backstop (i.e., shooting will be directed downward toward the ground). ...In very limited locations, deer removal may be done using archery (bow and arrow). ...Deer will be captured with nets, traps, or chemical immobilization by dart gun and euthanized as humanely as possible. If trapped or netted, deer will be immobilized prior to any type of euthanasia being administered. Euthanasia methods would include those approved by the American Veterinary Medical Association and could include use of a penetrating captive bolt gun, chemical injection, or exsanguination [the action of draining a person, animal, or organ of blood]. Several methods of wildlife trapping could be used, including but not limited to drop nets and box traps. Most trapping methods involve using bait to attract deer to a specific area or trap." (https://www.nps.gov/rocr/learn/management/upload/ROCR-Deer-Management-Plan-ROD-May-1-2012.pdf)
We have to trust that the cull was carried out humanely and that difficult actions like this result in preserving opportunities for future generations to experience and benefit from the natural world.