Nightly road closures in Rock Creek Park. Armed government employees. Hundreds of dead deer.
Since 2013, winters in Rock Creek Park have featured deer kills in which “highly-trained firearms experts from the U.S. Department of Agriculture” killed 337 white-tailed deer on behalf of the National Park Service, according to the park service.
But that scene could become history, as a group of concerned Washingtonians has stepped up its challenge to the deer population control program.
Faced with declining forest health, the park service began culling to remove herbivores. In the program, deer are shot and killed to reduce the amount of foliage they eat, but concerned citizens say newly uncovered data shows the efforts have not brought benefits.
“This is a ruse. There is no basis for killing the wildlife in the park,” said Katherine Meyer, the attorney representing the residents who call themselves Save the Rock Creek Park Deer. The group has more than 1,300 likes on Facebook.
On behalf of the group, Meyer sent a letter on Sept. 7 to the park service, the Department of the Interior and the superintendent of the 1,754-acre park. In it, the group formally requested the program be halted or, at the very least, the park service conduct a supplemental environmental review.
“As a result of this program, not only has forest regeneration not been improved, but the deer population has risen — causing the park service to kill even more deer each year, much to the horror and aesthetic detriment of D.C. residents,” the group wrote.
Meyer said they have yet to receive a response.
To ensure the meat is not wasted, the park service donates venison to local food banks. DC Central Kitchen received 7,300 pounds as of late 2016.
The agency will reevaluate the deer population in November to decide how to proceed with population control this winter, a park service spokesperson said. Last year, the park service oversaw road closures at night while the culling took place between December and March.
If the culling restarts this winter, Save the Rock Creek Park Deer plans to organize a protest and may pursue legal action. The group previously lost an appeal in federal court to halt the program in January 2015, with the judge who wrote the ruling deferring to the park service’s analysis.
“Prompted by a marked decline in forest regeneration at Rock Creek Park, the National Park Service (NPS) developed a deer management strategy that supports long-term protection, preservation, and restoration of native vegetation and cultural landscapes,” Katie Liming, a park service spokesperson, said in an emailed statement.
However, members of Save the Rock Creek Park Deer challenge the idea that deer are the culprits behind the forest’s failure to regenerate.
“The deer are not affecting the growth of the forest at all. What is affecting the growth of the forest is the exotic plants in the neighborhood, exotic vines that are strangling the park,” said Anne Barton, who lives in Chevy Chase and helps organize the group.
A 14-year study by the U.S. Geological Survey of fenced and unprotected plots of land in the park found that keeping deer out, while benefiting vegetation thickness, did not “insure adequate forest regeneration.”
Yale University researcher Oswald Schmitz, on behalf of Save the Rock Creek Park Deer, also reviewed the data that was available in 2013 and found no link between the deer population and forest growth.
Save the Rock Creek Park Deer was forced to take USGS and Interior to court to access the data, after the government refusal to hand over the information when requested through the Freedom of Information Act.
In June 2017, Meyer filed a complaint in federal court on behalf of Barton and others to access the data. The USGS responded by finally sending it, Meyer said.
Barton said the government was “stupidly stubborn” in fighting the records request.
In addition to the program’s potential ineffectiveness, Barton said she is concerned it could threaten the safety of homeless people who live in the park or pets that stray there.
“It’s supposed to be a peaceful park for people to get away from the city,” she said. “It’s supposed to be a refuge.”