This post has been updated.
The National Park Service’s plans to cull the white-tailed deer population in Rock Creek Park this winter are on hold pending a federal court case, animal rights activists announced Wednesday.
Amid fears that deer are destroying the park’s vegetation and spilling out into surrounding neighborhoods, the National Park Service announced earlier this year it would use sharpshooters to kill as many as 157 this winter.
But several animal-rights activists have filed suit, alleging the controlled hunt runs counter to federal law governing the establishment of the park. Until the case is resolved, animal rights activists say they have won assurances from the Park Service that no deer will be killed.
“We are pleased the National Park Service will not be killing deer in Rock Creek Park in a few weeks as originally planned, and hope that the agency will rethink its decision to kill any of this native wildlife and instead use less drastic measures to control any perceived overpopulation problem,” said Katerine Meyer, an attorney for the plaintiffs, including In Defense of Animals.
Park Service officials declined to comment Wednesday and referred question to the Justice Department. An attorney with the department made a copy of the order available. According to the order, there would be no baiting or hunting of the animals until March 15.
The fate of the deer in Rock Creek Park has been a long- running battle in Northwest as officials and residents consider how best to control the population.
Until the 1970s, there were only scattered reports of deer in the 4-square mile park that cuts through Northwest. Since then, the deer population has exploded to about 80 animals per square mile. Some residents complain the deer devour their shrubs and flowers each spring and summer. And Park Service officials say deer are damaging the park’s native vegetation.
After a year-long study, the Park Service concluded this summer that a controlled harvest of the population was needed through a combination of sharp shooters and birth control methods. The deer hunt, which would take place at night, was scheduled to start start next month. Eventually, Park Service officials hoped to reduce the herd to about 20 animals per square mile.
Plaintiffs in the lawsuit are trying to persuade the Park Service to instead consider non-lethal options for controlling the herd. They expect a court to rule on the matter by March.
Over the years, animal-rights activists have suggested a range of solutions for thinning the herd, ranging from trapping and relocating to reintroducing more predators into the park.
Animal-rights activists said they believe the order in effect delays any baiting and hunting of deer for at least a year because of the spring birthing season as well as the busy summer season.