As deer encroach on Washington suburbs, attitudes about kills shift

Early next year, if all goes according to plan, six cops armed with high-powered rifles will take up positions inside Cabin John Regional Park and begin killing the sweetest looking of creatures: white-tailed deer.

The park sits seven miles northwest of the District, on the edges of Bethesda and Potomac — not exactly hot spots of hunting culture.

“They can’t get here fast enough,” said Ty Tydings, an area resident who ran over a deer last year, has had to slow down to avoid four more this year and is tired of seeing his shrubs get eaten. “Everyone is pretty sick of deer.”

Tydings’s views underscore a continuing shift in public mood as governments in the area — faced with alarming deer populations — have organized deer kills and opened up hunting closer to suburban neighborhoods. In many of these places, the debate often centers not on whether to shoot, but on how best to shoot.

“We certainly are experiencing a turn of our citizens’ opinion,” said Bill Hamilton, head of wildlife and ecology for Montgomery County’s park service. Two of Montgomery’s most recent sharpshooting operations have dipped below the Capital Beltway, closer and closer to Washington’s urban core, according to county reports.

While deer encroachment on populated suburban lands has become a national problem, specific events have driven the shift locally. On a typical day in Montgomery, five motorists strike deer. Sometimes it’s the animals that do the striking — like a 9-month-old buck that crashed through the front window of the Greek Village Restaurant in Silver Spring several years ago, sending diners diving for cover. “Too many deer,” restaurant owner George Bourzikos said last week. “They have to do something about it.”

In Virginia, deer living on the Manassas National Battlefield are eating so much vegetation that it’s getting hard to make the place look like it did in 1861. Fairfax County officials are organizing shotgun hunts and expanding “urban archery” hunts on county parkland. Inside certain areas, officials send in nighttime SWAT officers, who on a good shift can take out more than 30 deer.

Calls to police skew about 4 to 1 in favor of the operations, according to Fairfax Animal Control Officer Forrest Higginbotham. “They want to know how they can get it in their area,” he said.

“They were offering to bring us lunch,” added bow hunter Doug Fisher, recalling conversations with residents as he walked in and out of a Fairfax park nine miles southwest of the District.

On Saturday, Fisher said, he and six other bow hunters took elevated positions in a new management program for the three-county Northern Virginia Regional Park Authority. The meat from three killed deer was donated to a food charity, a common practice for the government-sponsored programs that also boosts public acceptance.

Critics of the killings still enjoy wide support inside the deer-rich District and in pockets around the region, including Fairfax. The activists favor doe contraception (including permanent ovary extraction), the application of deer-repellent sprays to shrubs and a higher tolerance for the animals.

“Reaching for a gun never solves any problem. We all instinctively know that,” said Mary Rowse, a Rock Creek deer shooting foe who unsuccessfully tried to stop the lethal actions in federal court.

But the National Park Service, convinced that sharpshooters were needed to restore park vegetation gobbled up by more than 300 deer that live in the park, went ahead with nighttime sharpshooting operations this year — taking out 20 during their first round. And with a goal of culling the herd below 100, more shooting is on the way.

Drawn to the suburbs

In Maryland, state officials have reduced the deer population over the past 10 years — from an estimated 300,000 to 225,000, according to Brian Eyler, deer project leader for the state’s Wildlife and Heritage Service. But the reductions have been in largely rural areas. The suburban deer population — those living between the District and Baltimore — has remained relatively steady, Eyler said.

That’s presented a challenge for Montgomery, which like so much of American suburbia has become an ideal place for deer. The county boasts more than 34,000 acres of parkland, offering daytime sanctuaries largely unspoiled by predators. At dusk, deer can make their way into yards, munching on shrubs and gardens. A typical adult deer consumes six to eight pounds of plants a day, or 1 ¼ tons annually, which is roughly the weight of a Honda Civic.

A current hot spot is Cabin John Regional Park, where 100 to 125 deer live — or about three times what the park can support. As a result, the deer extend their comings and goings into nearby neighborhoods.

Tydings, who dodges deer in his vehicle, noted that he is one of nine board members of the Ridgeleigh Homeowners Association, which recently discussed the proposed sharpshooting operation. Nearly everyone seemed to think it was a good idea, Tydings said.

For the sharpshooting operation, the county’s park staff would enlist officers from the Maryland-National Capital Park Police.

“I’d also urge you to consider expanding it south of Democracy Blvd,” one proponent noted in a series of online public comments to the county. “My back yard offers a high elevation with a clear and safe shooting backdrop. If you’d ever like to use my back yard to cull the deer herd, please just give me a call.”

A debate over damage

National Park Service officials maintain that destruction of man-made habitats is not their only concern. Deer eat tons of vegetation from mouth level on down, cutting into the habitat of creatures such as songbirds, squirrels and salamanders, according to Nick Bartolomeo, chief of resources management at Rock Creek Park. “That understory is missing right now,” he said.

But the Park Service’s conclusions — that deer are causing the damage and that the best solution was to start killing them — is being challenged by Rowse and Anne Barton, who live near the park. Along with a group of activists, they enlisted a Yale University professor, who wrote an unpaid 11-page opinion stating the Park Service’s studies “do not provide any evidence that deer are having an effect on forest regeneration in Rock Creek Park.”

Instead, the group argued, the park was seeing far too much growth of invasive, exotic plants that deer don’t like, sending them into neighborhoods for food. A far better option, the group leaders said, was to clean the park of these plants and employ birth-control measures on the does.

“Deer populations don’t grow overnight, and they don’t have to be reduced overnight,” Rowse said.

She and her supporters — aided by the Web site change.org, where thousands of people from around the world lent their support — submitted a petition to Park Service officials this summer. That followed an appearance in U.S. District Court, where they tried to stop the deer kills. They lost, and in September, they asked an appeals court to halt the next deer kill. The appeal is pending.

Who should pull the trigger?

In Northern Virginia, where many residents are comfortable with shooting deer, a big question is who is best qualified to do it — volunteers who also see it as recreation, volunteers who would be trained as high-volume deer assassins or SWAT police officers.

At 4:30 a.m. Monday, Glenn Waleska, who considers himself a recreational shooter, climbed a 10-foot hunting stand he brought into Prince William County’s Conway-Robinson State Forest.

“The public accepts it more if it’s done in an ethical fashion,” he said as he sat for hours in an early morning chill last week with his 12-gauge shotgun. “It’s your skill and luck versus their skill and luck.”

Fairfax officials also use volunteers to reduce the herds — hunters with bows and shotguns. Jeremy Everitts, the county’s assistant wildlife biologist, said he is trying to persuade them to maximize their kills, particularly does who can give birth, rather than to wait for a prized buck.

“Nobody says you can’t take a picture and keep the picture,” Everitts said. “Look, you’re signing up to do deer management, not to be out there looking for that trophy.”

Governments across the country have proposed sharpshooting programs, but they can be expensive — police officer overtime — and aren’t widely used, according to Anthony J. DeNicola, co-founder and president of White Buffalo Inc., a nonprofit outfit that reduces deer herds around the nation.

DeNicola, who holds a PhD in wildlife ecology, splits his time between homes in Connecticut and Haymarket, 35 miles west of the District. He said he recently tried unsuccessfully to persuade Virginia and Fairfax officials to combine traditional hunters and sharpshooting — that is, train volunteers to essentially be safe, efficient “culling agents.”

And DeNicola said another component might be needed to thin out the deer as they creep closer to urban areas. It’s a form of contraception — not injections, which wear off and need to be repeated. Instead, the tranquilized doe would be taken to a mobile surgical lab to have its ovaries removed.

The price of the procedure is high — up to $1,000 a deer, he said. But animal welfare groups might be willing to pitch in, he said.

And deer are becoming so comfortable around people — no longer scared of cars, of lawn mowers, of dogs on leashes — that they are spending more time in residential back yards, where shooting is not an option. In these cases, sterilization may have an auxiliary role.

“We have now circled back,” DeNicola says, “to what was considered absurd 20 years ago.”

Post staff writer Dan Morse covers courts and crime in Montgomery County, Md.
Jeremy Borden covers Prince William County, Va., for The Washington Post.
Clarence Williams is the night police reporter for The Washington Post and has spent the better part of 13 years standing next to crime scene tape, riding in police cars or waking officials in the middle of night to gather information about breaking news in and around Washington.
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