Swartz is on his last sharpshooting mission of the year at Bull Run Regional Park, a 970-square-acre forest at the county’s southern edge. The county’s biologist estimates this park contains 400 deer per square mile — an area that in the wild would sustain about 15 animals.
Short on food and space, the swelling deer population is a threat to man and nature alike. Animals leap in front of cars speeding along nearby I-66. And they have upended the ecosystem by gobbling some plants to the point of extinction. Something must be done, the county says; in this forest, the deer have no natural predators. What they have instead is Swartz.
“I try to do it as humane as possible,” says Swartz, a stocky man of great experience and enviable eyesight. A hunter since he was a teenager, he views population reduction as a job that must be done.
Not everyone agrees. When Fairfax first proposed sharpshooting Bull Run deer in 1998, animals rights activists objected, and members of the public pushed back, citing safety concerns. A quarter of Montgomery County residents surveyed logged disapproval for the county’s plans to shoot deer in more urban areas like Chevy Chase, a project that began in February. Plans to shoot deer in Rock Creek Park in the District were put on hold all season by a lawsuit saying that the National Park Service should explore other ways to cull herds; the suit was thrown out last week.
Swartz steps into a lift that raises him 18 feet in the air; he pulls a camouflage ski mask over his head. He gazes through night goggles that sharpen the outlines of objects emitting heat.
Three objects with shoehorn-shaped ears spring into Swartz’s vision. They form unmistakable silhouettes.
The deer killed tonight are about to embark upon an improbable journey from the rapidly expanding exurbs to the nexus of a rapidly changing city. It’s a journey they will start as a suburban menace and end as an urban solution — albeit a temporary one. In between, they will connect the lives of a police officer and an ex-convict, a butcher and an artist, a poor man and his soon-to-be wife. Disparate people in a disparate region, where city and country collide and — sometimes — connect.
Swartz pulls the trigger.
When he shoots, he doesn’t miss.
Collecting the kill
In the distance, Forrest Higginbotham’s BlackBerry buzzes.
“Swartz has downed six so far,” he reads aloud. “It’s time for us to go collect.”
Higginbotham, the animal control officer who coordinates this operation, had been driving his pickup truck through the park with two volunteers, telling tales of wrangling feral pigs and removing pythons wrapped around car motors — animal control adventures from other seasons.