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Park Service proposes culling deer at Manassas battlefield

Doe-eyed interlopers are eating everything in sight on the hallowed Civil War ground of Manassas National Battlefield Park. The deer population has exploded in recent years, and the effect on battleground land and its large forested areas has been drastic, National Park Service officials said.

Jurisdictions elsewhere in Virginia, and across the country have responded by sponsoring hunts to reduce the deer’s numbers.

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 short-term option is to hunt the deer and quickly reduce their number over the next few years.

“The idea would be to preserve this area in as natural a state as we can,” said Bryan Gorsira, a Park Service manager who has studied the deer issue in Manassas for more than a decade.

There are about 165 deer per square mile in the eight-square-mile park, he said.

A public feedback session on the proposed Manassas Battlefield cull has been scheduled for Thursday. The decision will apply to battlefields in Maryland — Antietam, in Sharpsburg, and Monocacy in Frederick, both of which have scheduled public meetings on the issue.

Manassas officials plan to assess the public feedback this fall and make a final decision by next fall.

The deer carry disease, eat as much as they can of the vegetation in the forests and are often hit by cars on the roads through the battlefield park, park Superintendent Ed W. Clark said. There is a marked browse line along the park’s wooded periphery, because the deer have eaten all the vegetation from the ground up. The browse line has affected the forest’s ecology and visitors’ experience of the park, Clark said.

The National Park Service knows that the prospect of killing animals can be contentious.

“People have an affinity for large furry animals, so we certainly expect some interest,” Clark said. “But looking at a way to manage the herd is a smart thing to undertake, and it’s us doing our job to be good stewards of the Manassas National Battlefield Park.”

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.

The Park Service’s program in Manassas and elsewhere is not open to the public.

On Conway Robinson State Forest, a 440-acre state-owned property adjacent to the Manassas battlefield, officials have conducted hunts for the past four seasons, said Terry Lasher of the Virginia Department of Forestry. Hunts are open to those who register and have the proper certification. About 30 deer have been killed each year, he said.

“I thought it would take us about a decade to see some positive benefits from deer hunting,” Lasher said. But already shrubs are growing back and oaks and white pines, both adversely affected by the animals’ foraging, are healthier.

When the state first proposed the idea, Lasher anticipated a lot of backlash. He scheduled meetings at the gated Heritage Hunt neighborhood, a 55-and-older community that abuts the state forest. He remembers one woman who came up to him on her way to a bridge tournament. He expected criticism, but she told him that the deer had destroyed her garden and that she was fine with the idea.

“The majority of the community was in favor of it,” Lasher said.

The public meeting is from 6 to 8 p.m. Thursday at the Manassas National Battlefield Park Visitor Center, 6511 Sudley Rd., Manassas.

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