Park Service Uses Sharpshooters To Cull Deer In D.C. Park

Sharp shooters killed deer over the weekend in the nation's capital. The deer population has grown rapidly in recent decades, causing damage to habitat and car accidents. Protesters tried to stop the National Park Service from killing the deer in Rock Creek Park, but the hunt went ahead after a court sided with the Park Service.

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Sharpshooters have killed 20 deer in Washington, D.C., over the last few days. The urban deer have no natural predators, and their population has grown dramatically in the last two decades. They're damaging property and causing car accidents, but Armando Trull reports there's still controversy about the decision to kill them.

ARMANDO TRULL, BYLINE: Walking through a trail in Rock Creek Park, it's easy to forget you're a 10-minute drive from the White House. The two-square mile national park has wetlands and forests. The tall oaks, hickories and maples are home to about 300 deer. But that's too many according to Tara Morrison with the National Park Service. Speaking before a local conservation group, the park's superintendent said the deer are devouring tree and shrub seedlings, wild flowers and native plants.

TARA MORRISON: The population of deer is now so great that it's compromised the ability of native forest to regenerate. Deer are now so dominant in the environment that they have decreased the habitat for other species.

TRULL: The deer have become frequent guests in the Washington, D.C., and Maryland neighborhoods that surround the park. Deborah Smith lives about a quarter mile from Rock Creek.

Do you have deer wandering in your backyard?

DEBORAH SMITH: Not in the backyard, but right down the middle of the street, come to the front yard and eat the plants. Absolutely. Yeah.

TRULL: Really?

SMITH: Right down the middle of the street. Yes.

TRULL: The parkway that bisects Rock Creek Park is popular with commuters seeking to avoid street traffic. Smith says deer traffic is a bit harder to avoid.

SMITH: Not only on Rock Creek Parkway but Beach Drive and 27th Street, I mean, even the residential streets, you'll find deer there. You have to go very slowly and be very cautious.

TRULL: For several nights last week, the National Park Service closed the park at dusk, and then sharpshooters killed the deer with noise suppressed rifles.

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: Don't kill the deer. Don't kill the deer. Don't kill the deer.

TRULL: Each of those evenings, a handful of protesters gathered near one of the park entrances. Carol Grunweld was a plaintiff in an unsuccessful federal lawsuit to stop the culling.

CAROL GRUNWELD: If people do think there's an overpopulation of deer, there's a much more elegant way of dealing with it than gunning them down or shooting them with arrows. It's called immuno-contraception. There are also other fertility controls that could be used very easily, inexpensively and non-violently on the deer.

TRULL: But the Park Service argues non-lethal solutions alone cannot control the deer population quickly enough to prevent more damage to the park's flora. Park officials say the most effective non-lethal methods are expensive because each deer has to be captured and treated. That's why deer kills will go on for a few more years until Rock Creek's population is reduced to roughly 100.

Grunwald isn't giving up on stopping the kills. She says nearly 5,000 people have signed a petition asking the Park Service to find a more humane method to achieve its deer management goals. For NPR News, I'm Armando Trull in Washington.

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