As federal officials contemplate how to deal with the booming deer population at Virginia and Maryland Civil War parks, they’re not planning to consider one option some vocal residents believe would solve the problem: public hunting.
Park Service officials say the problems caused by the exploding deer population at Manassas National Battlefield Park are apparent and increasingly worrisome: vegetation has waned, accidents on park roads are common and officials worry about the deer’s ability to carry Lymes disease.
The National Park Service has offered several ideas for dealing with the problem at the battlefield, including birth control and building huge fences. But battlefield officials say the only feasible, cost effective short-term option is for professional sharpshooters to hunt the deer and quickly reduce their number over the next few years.
Recent counts put the number of deer at about 82 per square mile. Closer to 20 deer per square mile would be better supported by the surrounding area, officials say.
Manassas officials plan to assess the public feedback and make a final decision next year. In addition to the Manassas park, the decision will apply to battlefields in Maryland — Antietam, in Sharpsburg, and Monocacy in Frederick.
Deer “harvests,” as the agency calls them, are in place across the country, including the District. The plan for sharpshooting deer on Park Service land around Rock Creek Park caused an uproar, including protests and an unsuccessful lawsuit. Nonetheless, sharpshooters killed about 20 deer over three days in March; the venison was donated to food pantries.
While the plan for Manassas would be similar, it has not yet engendered the kind of controversy it did for Rock Creek. Instead, many of the 25 or so who came to a public feedback session Thursday at the Manassas battlefield’s Visitor Center thought park officials should open the park to area bow hunters or rifle hunters to deal with the problem.
“We know most of the things they have listed don't work,” said Roger Hart, 66, of the agency’s plan. “If the government wasn’t involved, we could work it out.”
Park Superintendent Ed W. Clark said in an interview that the National Park Service has resisted efforts in the past to allow the public, in any form, to hunt on Park Service land. Congressional legislation, he said, does not allow them to consider it. “That’s not an option for us,” he said.
One thing park officials and the area’s hunters do agree on is the severity of the problem. Clark said that the deer threaten the battlefield’s mission because the Park Service is charged with helping visitors experience the area as it was 150 years ago.
“The cultural landscape is so important to us,” Clark said. “It’s really hampered by the deer.”
Jen Jones, 41, from Woodbridge, said she is an animal lover. But because the presence of people has eliminated the deer’s natural predators, there is little choice about hunting some of them to control the population.
“It’s a historical landmark and we have to preserve it,” Jones said.
Mike Shepherd, 36, an avid hunter, said he is considering taking a petition to Congress on the issue. The park could charge hunters – who would be trained and certified – for a permit to hunt the deer on battlefield land. The chance to hunt on historic ground where Civil War soldiers fought, as well as hunted for food, would be sought after by many, he said.
The park could use the money to improve the park and repair the damage the deer have done, he said. It’s a better solution, he said, than using taxpayer dollars.
What better plan for an American landmark than hunting? Shepherd asked.
“Hunting is also a part of our nation’s history,” he said.