If you work for a naturalist society and your job is to restore a nature sanctuary eaten alive by ravenous deer, your options for eradicating the pesky but otherwise charming creatures are somewhat limited.
For instance, you can’t kill them.
So before sunrise Sunday, the director of restoration for the Audubon Naturalist Society in Chevy Chase, Md., organized more than 100 volunteers at the organization's Woodend Sanctuary for a deer drive.
The instructions: Line up nearly shoulder to shoulder at the perimeter of 40 acres of forest and then march toward the deer, giving no quarter, herding them through the gate of a newly built fence and into Rock Creek Park.
As for the pace: “You can sing ‘Here Comes the Bride’ in your head,” Alison Pearce, the restoration director, told her troops. “You don’t want to scare the deer.”
To the naked and cold eye, the sight looked roughly like the Union Army lining up at Gettysburg, minus the firearms. Pearce said the idea was to make the deer think, “Oh, they’re serious. We really do have to leave.”
Indeed, they were very serious.
Along with the rest of the region, Woodend Sanctuary has been overrun by deer — at their worst, about 30 of them, which is roughly 24 times as many as the land can support. In scientific terms, the deer have been “browsing excessively.”
They are eating everything in sight.
The natural layers of plants and shrubs have been gobbled up and invasive species have taken over. When trees die, there are no saplings left for new ones to grow.
“The degradation has also caused the loss of ground-nesting and understory-adapted birds at Woodend such as the eastern towhee and the wood thrush,” the society says in informational materials, “as well as myriad insect communities that support local food webs but require a lush forest understory to thrive.”
That's not good, especially for an organization whose mission is to preserve the environment and educate the public — particularly children — about conservation. More than 9,000 children a year take a break from their electronic screens to experience nature at the society.
“You can’t grow up to protect something you’ve never encountered in the first place,” said Lisa Alexander, executive director of the Audubon Naturalist Society. “We can live in harmony, but we have to sometimes give wildlife a hand.”
So as part of a strategic restoration plan, the society raised $250,000 to build an eight-foot-tall fence around the property. (Some neighbors weren't thrilled, but the fence was not as controversial as other recently proposed border walls.)
The next move: Evict the deer.
For naturalists, this is an existential conundrum.
“I feel a little bad for them,” said Paula Wang, a self-described wildflower enthusiast from Silver Spring who showed up to help. “They’re just doing what they naturally do. But it’s heartbreaking. This is like a forest that has completely gone away.”
The volunteers lined up a little after 7:30 a.m. Some wore camouflage. Some wore jeans. Some wore khakis. Most wore hats. A few carried hiking sticks. They were quiet. And off they went.
It wasn’t long before they encountered the deer, who seemed perplexed. The deer stared at the humans, sometimes coming within 10 feet. The marchers slowly closed in, communicating by hand signals and handheld radios, forcing the deer into a small area near the fence opening.
The deer — about 10 of them — hid near some trees. The marchers got closer. They (the deer) ran in a few circles, then pranced over to the gate and bolted across Jones Bridge Road, which was protected by Montgomery County police. Off they went into Rock Creek Park.
Nobody was gored.
Though the volunteers were lucky they didn’t encounter the higher number of deer sometimes seen on the property, one did slip by them — a delicate, precious fawn. They went back for her, determined to reunite her with friends and family.
Lining up again at the top of the hill, they marched back down.
And there she was — alone, trying to bolt.
But where to? The options were limited.
“No gaps,” someone said into the radio. “Let’s hold.”
The fawn looked around. The marchers moved a little closer. She darted around but didn’t get far. The marchers kept closing in. She looked at the gate. She looked at the marchers.
“Run, Bambi, run!” a marcher yelled, to which others replied, “Shhhhhhh.”
Bambi did run — right through the gate and into the park.
“It worked!” someone yelled.
Someone else shouted, “We did it!”
And then, in the deer-free nature sanctuary, there was applause.