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     Deer eating away at forests nationwide.
     Population boom: 500,000 to 25 million in a century.
     Forty years ago, Charlie Scheer rarely saw a deer near his 625-acre nursery on the eastern end of Long Island.
     Today, he regularly sees five or six just crossing the road when he drives to his local deli in the morning.
     For Scheer, 63, president of the Long Island Farm Bureau, the animals are more akin to vermin than furry woodland creatures. Across the country, the rising white-tailed deer population is wreaking havoc on farms, changing the ecology of forests and causing ever more motor vehicle accidents and fatalities.
     Were a wholesale nursery and the deer can do a lot of damage in one night, both feeding and rutting, Scheer said. They go after anything. Theyre not picky. Its one of our most pressing problems.
     Deer damage to agriculture in New York was between $58 million and $60 million in 2003, said Paul Curtis, an associate professor and extension wildlife specialist at Cornell University.
     Explosive growth nationwide
     New Yorks Department of Environmental Conservation estimates there are now 1 million deer living in the state. Nationally, the white-tailed deer population has increased from about 500,000 in the early 1900s to 25 million to 30 million today, according to various researchers.
     In pre-European settlement times, deer population density was 10 to 15 deer per square mile. In the 19th century, numbers dwindled as land was cleared for agriculture and commercial hunting became widespread.
     In the early 20th century, states limited hunting, preserved open space and imported the animals. Much of the land cleared for agriculture has since been converted back to wild land as farmers abandoned the business.
     Now, in places like southern New York and northern Pennsylvania, there are 30 to 35 deer per square mile, Curtis said.
     In some ways weve been too successful at bringing the deer back, Curtis said.
     While they still have some predators in the Northeast, mostly coyotes or bobcats, their main animal predators, wolves, are gone.
     Man is now a deers most feared predator, but the number of hunters is declining, especially among teenagers who today have more options to fill their time.
     Deer eat away future forest
     Todays high deer population may shape how the countrys forests look decades from now. The animals are reducing the number of trees and seedlings and affecting which species will survive, forestry experts say.
     In the 14,000-acre Letchworth State Park in western New York, a 1,200-acre safety area for recreation where hunting is forbidden has seen vast damage from overbrowsing by deer.
     There are no saplings, no underbrush for ground nesting birds, said Richard Parker, regional director of the Genesee State Park Region. There will be no regeneration of the forest. In 40 to 50 years, as the current forest dies, there will be nothing to replace it.
     The deer are eating anything and everything thats there, he said.
     With voracious deer gobbling red oak, sugar maple and white ash seedlings, species like black birch and beech are gaining an edge. The loss of ground-level trees also removes habitat for several species of songbirds that need them for nesting.
     'Problem of our own making'
     Michael Conover, a wildlife professor and director of the Jack Berryman Institute at Utah State University, estimates deer cause at least $750 million in damage to the United States timber industry annually.
     Humans, too, face increased dangers. There were 1.5 million deer and vehicle crashes in 2003, injuring 13,713 people and causing $1.1 billion in vehicle damage, according to a study by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety released in November.
     Control programs vary, with some towns and cities hiring sharp shooters to cull the herd, some states expanding their hunting seasons, and many encouraging the hunting of female deer.
     Those programs have had mixed results with many hunters still reluctant to take female deer after years of chasing antlered bucks. And most hunters only take two or three a year because they dont have the time or space to butcher more.
     We view it as problem of our own making, said Laura Simon, field director of urban wildlife and sanctuaries program for the Humane Society of the United States. We have created an ideal landscape for deer.

     How many deer are too many in Rock Creek Park?
     It looks like someone came through here with a lawnmower, says Ken Ferebee, natural resource management specialist with the National Park Service.
     Were walking off trailno bushwacking requiredin the northern portion of Rock Creek Park, a 1,750-acre scenic oasis that starts in Maryland and runs along the creek through Washington, D.C., all the way to the Potomac River. Its one of the countrys oldest and largest urban parks, managed to remain as wild as possible. In the backyard of the National Zoo and hundreds of houses and apartment buildings, the park is a recreation spot for bikers and picnickers, and rugged enough for hikers and even horseback riders.
     In the past two decades, it has also become a delicatessen for deer, with trees, shrubs, and wildflowers on the menu. Deer munch shoots and leaves almost as fast as they come out of the ground, leaving no chance for the understorylayers of vegetation, including seedlings, saplings, and youngish trees about 15 to 20 feet tallto develop, says Ferebee. When a big tree falls, nothing is growing up behind it to take its place, and the sun streams into the big hole left in the canopy, allowing the spread of invasive plants that deer tend to avoid.
     Once nearly extinct in the eastern United States because of commercial hunting and habitat-gobbling development, white-tailed deer numbers were down to about 350,000 nationwide at the end of the 19th century. States began enacting laws to protect them in the early 1900s, but it took decades to bring the population back. Today deer have very few predators in the East; humans long ago wiped out wolves and mountain lions, and hunting is also off limits in ever-expanding suburbs and exurbswhere the fragmentation of green space mirrors the open foraging areas and surrounding thick forest cover that deer prefer.
     The result: a burgeoning U.S. deer population that has returned to its historical numbers of 25 million to 40 million. And that is burdening national parks and battlefields in the East, many of which have turned to sharpshooters to cull the numbers each year. Rock Creek, with more than 300 deer within park boundaries, is one of the latest. Othersincluding Catoctin, Gettysburg, Manassas, and Valley Forgeare developing proposals or have plans in effect. Weve never needed to kill animals in the park before, says Ferebee. But now the deer are having such an impact, it requires intervention.
     Not unexpectedly, the move has upset those who prefer birth control over bullets. They want deer to live out their normal lifespans in places where hunting is off limits. Sometimes they sue to prevent the cull.
     This happened most recently to Rock Creek Park when a handful of private D.C. citizens, and In Defense of Animals, a national animal-protection nonprofit, filed a lawsuit in 2012. They alleged that the Park Service is cherry-picking its science, and that the parks plan is inhumane and unnecessary because successful reproductive control exists.
     We love both the deer and the national park, but the decision to kill the deer has affected the publics ability to enjoy the park and has ruined the Park Services reputation here, says Carol Grunewald, a plaintiff whose property is near the park. Our scientists show that Rock Creek Park can easily support 300 deer. But regardless of the numbers, the public will no longer stand for the routine, mass extermination of animals.
     Their legal petition included a scientific analysis by Oswald Schmitz, a professor at Yales School of Forestry and Environmental Studies, stating that deer dont have an adverse impact on the parks vegetation because forests are self-thinning. That is, seedlings compete for sunlight and other resources, most die, and in the end, a thousand seedlings in an area, for example, may produce only 20 trees with or without deer present.
     Their action delayed the parks cull by a year, but ultimately a court dismissed the case on the grounds that Congress granted the Park Service the authority to act in Rock Creek Parks interest.
     Although not a plaintiff in the lawsuit, the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) also criticized the parks plan during the public comment period, championing the nonlethal solution of using a fertility-control vaccine on the herd as an alternative.
     We think Rock Creeks plan is a wasteful killing program and a lost opportunity to repress the growth rate, says Stephanie Boyles Griffin, senior director of innovative wildlife management and services at HSUS. The group offered to pay 50 percent of the cost of sterilizing the parks deer. We asked park officials to give fertility control a chance, to show they had explored and exhausted all methods before resorting to lethal control, she says. The problem wasnt created overnight, so why does it have to be solved overnight?
     An approach that combines sharpshooting with reproductive control from the start would work best, argues Boyles Griffin. Sadly, more often than not, the government goes for lethal methods, she says. With fertility controlalthough expensive at firstthe costs get less and less. If youre just killing deer year after year, the does you dont kill have fawns and you have to increase the death toll the next year to get to your numbers.
     National parks including Rock Creek and Valley Forge have the option of using reproductive control in their deer management plans, providing fertility methods meet certain criteria. Ferebee says hed like to have a cost-effective magic bulletactually a magic dartthat delivers an infertility drug to does that lasts up to five years.
     Recent breakthroughs after decades of research include a contraceptive called PZP. Its most recent formulation, still in the experimental stage, works for two to three years. PZP first proved effective in the field with wild horses at Assateague Island National Seashore in Maryland and later, with deer at Fire Island National Seashore in New York.
     But contraception has its challenges. Once darted, deer grow warier, and they get harder to hit in subsequent years. Dart guns also fire at lower velocities, and the much-heavier darts travel slower than bullets, requiring a person to get within 20 to 30 yards.
     Fertility control might work in the future, Ferebee says, but with 77 deer per square mile, a number that is static but too high, the park needs to control over-browsing immediately.
     Biologists involved in Rock Creeks federally required Environmental Impact Statement, designed to assess options and their environmental effects, concluded that 15 to 20 deer per square mile is a more suitable number if the goal is to keep the forest healthy and regenerating. Its not that were against reproductive control, Ferebee says. First we have to get it down to the target number. It doesnt matter if we have 10 deer or a thousand deer, he says. What matters is getting the plants back.
     Its not uncommon for deer to live eight to 10 years in parks with no hunting. Without the stress of pregnancy, birth, and nursing, they might live even longer. We could give birth control to every female, but it might take five or six years for the population to change, he says. This tactic is really not practical to reduce the population in a short time.
     Thats the reason Valley Forge National Park in Pennsylvania began culling in 2009. The park is now down to 50 deer per square mile from a whopping 240 deer per square mile five years ago. In those years, long-missing ash, black gum, cherry, hickory, maple, oak, and sassafras seedlings returned, along with wildflowers not seen for 20 years.
     There was no doubt something needed to be done, says Deirdre Gibson, chief of planning and resource management at Valley Forge. The environment was being lost. We had such severe over-browsing there was nothing left but old trees and exotic plants that deer dont prefer.
     And so, on six winter nights this year in Rock Creek, two professional sharpshooters from Wildlife Services, a federal agency within the Department of Agriculture, used bait stations, night-vision equipment, noise-suppression devices, and small-caliber rifles to spot and kill 69 females and 37 males in closed areas of the park. The park donated thousands of pounds of venison to a local food bank for the homeless.
     Ferebee compares this to a recent undertaking by Fairfax City, Virginia, where officials hired a private company to use nonlethal control. They captured only 16 does for sterilization over six nights. We, on the other hand, shot 98 deer in six nights, and those deer are gone, he says. They are not going to be here munching away.
     I get a window into what a more sustainable Rock Creek would look like when Ferebee and I arrive at one of the 16 vegetation plots spread throughout the park. The patches were fenced in 2000 to serve as controls to see what grows where deer cant graze.
     Inside the 3-foot by 12-foot plot, its green, lush, and blooming. Ferebee points out spicebush and maple leaf viburnumnative shrubsalong with May apples and beech, black cherry, and red maple seedlings. Outside the fenced area, in one of 27 open control plots, hardly anything is growing anywhere. The groundcover is mostly just last seasons fallen leaves from the mature trees overhead.
     Ferebee does manage to find some Virginia creeper, two little maples, and some sprouts from the roots of a black gum tree. I dont want to imply there is nothing, he says, but those wont last to summer.
     When groundcover disappears, not just deer but all the parks wildlifewhich includes foxes, opossums, beavers, flying squirrels, box turtles, and salamanders, along with 181 bird speciesfeels the effects. Ground-nesters like oven birds and wood thrushes lose out, and predators get an unfair advantage. Mice, voles, and shrews become easy pickings for owls and other birds of prey.
     Allowing deer to destroy the habitat for all the other animals in the parks is unacceptable, say national park managers. Over-browsing also leads to severe erosion, particularly now that climate change is causing more intense storms. Given all the damage done over the decades, its hard to know when things will come back, says Valley Forges Gibson. We cant step back to how things were before deer made the land so bare. Today, the climate is much hotter, rain is more acidified, and rainstorms are more hurricane-like, which intensifies erosion. Were in a brave new world as far as forest regeneration.
     To see a much bigger example of healthy vegetation, Ferebee takes me over to Carter Barron Amphitheatre, Rock Creeks summer stage for Shakespeare in the Park, the National Symphony Orchestra, and other events. The gate is kept closed on about five wooded acresfenced since the 1950sexcept on event nights. Deer dont often enter. When Ferebee slides the iron bars closed behind us, I cant help but think of Dorothy entering the Technicolor world of Oz. The landscape goes from sparse to jungle-like in an instant. Its hard to argue that deer, in excessive numbers, dont have a destructive effect.
     As we walk through the multilayered understory, Ferebee points out plantsincluding garlic mustard, an invasive he plucks as he identifies itand tells me how deer werent an issue anywhere in the park until about 2000. The parks visitor observation cards from the 1960s record only four deer that entire decade. In fact, Rock Creek staff set up the vegetation plots in 1991 when deer numbers were low partly to see how a park with low deer density looked against a park with high density.
     Now, these plots will determine the course of deer management. If we find we dont need to take many animals next year, we will adjust our plan, Ferebee says. The green in the plots will tell us. Its really black and white there.
     Heidi Ridgley lives about a mile from Rock Creek Park in Washington, D.C., and writes about history, wildlife, and travel.

     25 Reasons Why Hunting Is Conservation
      Reason No. 1 why Hunting Is Conservation: In 1907, only 41,000 elk remained in North America. Thanks to the money and hard work invested by hunters to restore and conserve habitat, today there are more than 1 million.
      Reason No. 2 why Hunting Is Conservation: In 1900, only 500,000 whitetails remained. Thanks to conservation work spearheaded by hunters, today there are more than 32 million.
      Reason No. 3 why Hunting Is Conservation: In 1900, only 100,000 wild turkeys remained. Thanks to hunters, today there are over 7 million.
      Reason No. 4 why Hunting Is Conservation: In 1901, few ducks remained. Thanks to hunters efforts to restore and conserve wetlands, today there are more than 44 million.
      Reason No. 5 why Hunting Is Conservation: In 1950, only 12,000 pronghorn remained. Thanks to hunters, today there are more than 1.1 million.
      Reason No. 6 why Hunting Is Conservation: Habitat, research and wildlife law enforcement work, all paid for by hunters, help countless non-hunted species.
      Reason No. 7 why Hunting Is Conservation: Through state licenses and fees, hunters pay $796 million a year for conservation programs.*
      Reason No. 8 why Hunting Is Conservation: Through donations to groups like RMEF, hunters add $440 million a year to conservation efforts.*
      Reason No. 9 why Hunting Is Conservation: In 1937, hunters actually requested an 11% tax on guns, ammo, bows and arrows to help fund conservation. That tax, so far, raised more than $8 billion for wildlife conservation.*
      Reason No. 10 why Hunting Is Conservation: An 11% tax on guns, ammo, bows and arrows generates $371 million a year for conservation.*
      Reason No. 11 why Hunting Is Conservation: All together, hunters pay more than $1.6 billion a year for conservation programs. No one gives more!*
      Reason No. 12 why Hunting Is Conservation: Three out of four Americans approve of hunting, partly because hunters are Americas greatest positive force for conservation.
      Reason No. 13 why Hunting Is Conservation: Every single day U.S. sportsmen contribute $8 million to conservation.
      Reason No. 14 why Hunting Is Conservation: Hunting funds conservation AND the economy, generating $38 billion a year in retail spending.*
      Reason No. 15 why Hunting Is Conservation: Female participation in hunting (3.35 million) is on the rise thanks to a 10% increase from 2008 to 2012.
      Reason No. 16 why Hunting Is Conservation: More than 95 percent of our 205,000 members are passionate hunters. More people hunt (19.3 million) each year than play soccer (13.7 million), tennis (13.6 million) or baseball (12.1 million).
      Reason No. 17 why Hunting Is Conservation: A wildlife management tool, hunting helps balance wildlife populations with what the land can support, limits crop damage and curtails disease outbreaks.
      Reason No. 18 why Hunting Is Conservation: Hunters help manage growing numbers of predators such as cougars, bears, coyotes and wolves. Our government spends millions to control predators and varmints while hunters have proven more than willing to pay for that opportunity.
      Reason No. 19 why Hunting Is Conservation: Hunting has major value for highway safety. For every deer hit by a motorist, hunters take six.
      Reason No. 20 why Hunting Is Conservation: Hunting supports 680,000 jobs, from game wardens to waitresses, biologists to motel clerks.
      Reason No. 21 why Hunting Is Conservation: Hunters provide for conservationand for their families. Hunting is a healthy way to connect with nature and eat the worlds most organic, lean, free-range meat.
      Reason No. 22 why Hunting Is Conservation: Hunters are the fuel behind RMEF and its 6.7 million plus acres of habitat conservation. More than 95 percent of our members are passionate hunters.
      Reason No. 23 why Hunting Is Conservation: Avid hunter Theodore Roosevelt created our national forests and grasslands and forever protected 230 million acres for wildlife and the public to use and enjoy.
      Reason No. 24 why Hunting Is Conservation: With funding from hunters, RMEF helped restore wild elk herds in seven states and provinces.
      Reason No. 25 why Hunting Is Conservation: As society loses its ties to wildlife and conservation, the bonds with nature formed by hunting are the greatest hope for creating the next generation of true conservationists.


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