Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly described the density of the park’s deer population as 70 per “square acre.” The park has 70 deer per square mile. This version has been corrected.
The federal sharpshooters in Rock Creek Park are on the lookout for deer drawn to the corncob bait.
Wearing U.S. Department of Agriculture jackets and backed up by spotters, the shooters are equipped with night-vision goggles so they can distinguish a doe from a human interloper.
Some of the sharpshooters are positioned on the wooded hillsides, and others are on the back of flatbed trucks that creep through the muted stillness of the park, which is cordoned off to traffic. The idea is to aim downward so any errant bullet will sink into the earth. Even the ammunition has been carefully selected to disintegrate in the deer’s body.
Despite the many safety precautions described by National Park Service officials, some residents are continuing to protest the deer shoot, which started Wednesday and will be completed Saturday. Sixty to 70 deer are expected to be shot. After the carcasses are tested for disease, the venison will be donated to food pantries.
The Park Service says that what it euphemistically calls a deer “harvest” is needed to safeguard the health of the park, the herd, and the people who live nearby or use the park. With 70 deer per square mile, the park has about four times the density considered ideal.
But some residents and animal rights activists, who fought a losing court battle to stop the deer shoot, say slaying animals in a city park surrounded by densely packed neighborhoods is barbaric, particularly going into the Easter weekend. They have turned out to protest and established a Twitter account to collect signatures on a petition urging the Park Service to stop the harvest. One person wrote on @rockcreekdeer that the otherwise tranquil park is being turned into a “killing field.”
“It shows so little respect for the community to do this during Passover and Easter weekend, when everyone in Washington is leaving town,” said Carol Grunewald, a Chevy Chase resident who was the lead plaintiff in a U.S. District Court case. In a March 14 ruling, the judge reaffirmed the Park Service’s authority to kill the deer if it is in the park’s best interest.
The agency says the abundance of deer threatens the native plant species, endangering the food supply of other animals in the park. Park officials, citing safety concerns, did not allow reporters to observe the sharpshooters working in a stretch north of the National Zoo that is bounded by 16th Street and Oregon Avenue.
Some of the park’s neighbors are grateful that they will have fewer deer to contend with.
Roy Bowman, who lives in Chevy Chase half a mile from the park, has woken up to find as many as 10 deer at once munching their way through his back yard.
“They eat everything,” he said. “Don’t even think about tulips. They’ve eaten them down to the nub. They ate a little plant with red flowers that’s supposed to be deer resistent. It’s finished. They love it.”
Bowman said he also worries about his grandchildren, who live even closer to the park than he does, being bitten by a deer tick carrying Lyme disease.
“Deer are nice, graceful animals,” he said. “But there are too many of them. They carry disease. And you can’t control them by birth control. You have to cull them first. It’s unfortunate but necessary.”
Such sentiments have made urban deer hunting increasingly common in metropolitan areas across the country, particularly in developing exurbs that bump up against farmland where deer roam more freely.
In Missouri, which has about one deer for every four people residing there, the state licenses hunters for 88 managed shoots, including four in urban areas.
The St. Louis suburb of Town and Country hired sharpshooters to control the size of a deer population that has caused traffic collisions and ruined lawns. The town turned to shooting the deer after an attempt to capture does and give them birth control proved expensive and ineffective, said Joe Jerek, a spokesman for the Missouri Department of Conservation. Meanwhile, voters in Cape Girardeau, in southeastern Missouri, will decide next week whether to allow deer hunts with bows and arrows inside city limits.
The hunts almost always court controversy.
“There are people who wish there were more deer, and people who wish there were less,” said Chris McCloud, a spokesman for the Department of Natural Resources in Illinois, which has urban deer hunts in Cook County, in suburban Chicago.
But few cities have parks as large as Rock Creek running through them, creating what the Park Service officials say is an out-of-control deer population in the middle of a big city.
The Park Service, which is advised by wildlife biologists and specialists educated in natural resources management, eschews words such as “shoot” and “hunt.”
“We don’t equate it with hunting,” Carol Johnson, a Park Service spokeswoman, said. “It’s not something people enjoy. It’s a job, and they take it seriously.”
Typically, a doe produces two or three fawns in a breeding season. Most are born in May and June, so no fawns are in the crosshairs for the March harvest. Deer are considered such prolific procreators that their numbers can triple in a decade if the herd isn’t culled. Nationwide, the deer population has shot up faster than the human population, rising from 250,000 in 1900 to 17 million today.
The Rock Creek Park deer shoot caught some critics of the hunt unaware. Grunewald said she and other disgruntled residents thought they had until fall to begin protests, as the agency indicated it would probably cull the herd in autumn and winter.
So Grunewald was dismayed to read that the Park Service announced its first operation Wednesday, a week after the vernal equinox and just eight hours before the harvest was set to begin. She tried to organize a quick vigil over the next three days.
About eight protesters came Thursday night, holding signs saying “Shame on NPS” and “Don’t Kill the Deer” and chanting “Birth control, not bullets.”
Demonstrations against sharpshooting are as old as sharpshooting itself. According to Fairfax County Wildlife Biologist Victoria Monroe, protesters wore deer suits the day Mason Neck State Park started deer operations in 1993.
Still, the actions have taken on a new energy recently as the number of deer continues to swell. In a survey, three quarters of Montgomery County residents approved a plan to expand its deer-hunting program in Chevy Chase, an effort in February that killed 30 deer.
Grunewald said that in the District, the tranquility of a park that has served as an oasis from city life is at stake.
By Friday afternoon, about 4,500 people had signed a change.org petition protesting the sharpshooting.
“We want them to use all the science, all the technology, all the latest to come up with a solution that’s elegant, not barbaric,” Grunewald said.
“I live two blocks away,” she added. “We have deer in the front yard. Sometimes, they eat the flowers. I don’t care. I love that we can have such beautiful wildlife in the city, and I feel that we have to do something to protect them.”
The National Park Service’s program is more limited than those in Fairfax and Montgomery counties. Montgomery uses sharpshooters and managed hunts, in which members of the public hunt deer. Those programs, encompassing parks in Aspen Hill, Bethesda and Silver Spring, resulted in the harvest of 495 deer in 15 locations this year, according to Montgomery parks spokeswoman Melissa Chotiner.
Fairfax harvested 986 deer in 21 parks this past fiscal year. It also holds managed hunts and sharpshooting, but about three-quarters of deer are killed by archers.
Johnson said the federal Park Service is turning away from its original plan to use urban archery because the agency fears the practice is inhumane. The service also plans to eventually use birth control methods — commonly sugar cubes laced with contraceptves — that the activists strongly prefer.
The agency doesn’t think such tactics will be effective until the deer population is reduced to an ecologically sustainable number. Biologists generally recommend that forested areas have no more than 20 deer per square mile. The park, according to official estimates, has about 70.
That stance provided little solace to the protesters of the sharpshooting Thursday night, who associated shooting deer with gun violence in Newtown, Conn., and the crucifixion of Jesus.
“No wonder we have the society we have today,” said Peri Parker, a protester. “There’s a connection between the killings that we are seeing in Connecticut and in Chicago. It’s all just nonsense. I don’t want to get religious about it, but this is the same thing they did to Jesus. They trapped him and slaughtered him. And tomorrow is Good Friday.”
“This gorgeous park . . . these beautiful animals . . . my heart is broken,” added her sister, Lynn Parker, cradling her poodle mix, Hari. “They are setting them up in a trap and shooting them. This is how we are teach children to handle things? With violence?”
After Saturday, the department plans to suspend further hunts until the fall.