he full depth of the District’s wildlife problem was on display one Sunday afternoon last November in the lion’s den at the National Zoological Park. As a stunned crowd of Indian-summer tourists looked on, a white-tailed deer weaved through pedestrian traffic and vaulted the railing into the enclosure—where, after a brief chase, it found itself in the not-so-loving embrace of Nababiep and Shera, the zoo’s two young lionesses.
Encounters like these are becoming more and more common in and around the nation’s capital. Last spring, just across the D.C. line in Silver Spring, Maryland, a young buck crashed through the window of a Greek restaurant, then made its way to the bakery section of a nearby Giant supermarket before being apprehended and euthanized on account of its injuries. Four people were wounded in a similar incident when a deer burst through the window of a McDonald’s near Union Station in 2002. Doe-eyed intruders have also cropped up everywhere from Metro platforms to the Tidal Basin to the vice president’s backyard.
Forty years ago, seeing a deer in the District was an event roughly on par with spotting Sasquatch or Salinger; according to the National Park Service, there were only four deer sightings in Rock Creek Park in the entire 1960s. But with no natural predators and only the occasional swerving Volvo to halt its growth, the population has exploded in recent years: as of 2007, there were eighty-two deer per square mile in Rock Creek Park—roughly four times what wildlife specialists consider sustainable. The influx poses a serious threat to the forest ecosystem; deer damage their habitat by treating saplings and undergrowth like a veritable Old Country Buffet, preventing vegetation from regenerating and literally devouring the homes of other species. In a zero-sum ecosystem, their emergence necessarily comes at the expense of others. Ted Williams, a columnist for Audubon magazine, calls the white-tailed deer "the most dangerous and destructive wild animal in North America."
Washington is not the only city with an excess of ungulates; deer populations have mushroomed across the Northeast and parts of the Midwest. But the District has a unique vortex of variables that simultaneously nurtures the problem and prevents anything from being done about it. Few other urban areas have such an abundance of forests and parklands, allowing deer easy access to leafier neighborhoods. And whereas other cities have been able to take matters into their own hands, largely by hiring sharpshooters to cull the herds, D.C. has been hamstrung because most of its forests—including Rock Creek Park’s main artery, which meanders down the center of the city’s tony Northwest quadrant to the Potomac River—are managed by the National Park Service. This means the solution has to come via federal initiative, which in this case is more than a little oxymoronic: more than a decade after the feds began pondering how to tackle the District’s deer problem, they still haven’t fully settled on a solution, much less started picking off the invaders. In the meantime, the deer population—which can increase at a 40 percent clip in a good year—continues to grow like Topsy, at a cost to wildlife, vegetation, gardeners, and those just looking for a late-morning McGriddle.
ock Creek Park officials first noticed that the city was on the verge of being overrun in the late 1990s, but before they could apply for funding to research possible action plans, they needed incontrovertible, sustained proof that there actually was a problem. That took another four years of monitoring, by which point, of course, the problem was far worse.
But it wasn’t enough to simply prove that something needed doing. Park officials then had to apply for money to produce a draft Environmental Impact Statement, as mandated by the National Environmental Policy Act, which meant languishing for months on the waiting list. Once the cash was in hand, the EIS itself took another four years to complete. The Park Service finally unveiled its opus last July. The 400-page draft report, packed with data tables and bureaucratic legalese, outlines the scope of the problem and a proposal for setting things right—namely, trained sharpshooters and euthanasia in the short term and, later, birth control, meaning sterilizing drugs administered via darts to does’ rumps.
All done? Nope. Public comments on the draft have to be collected, then molded into a new version, which will again be open to public comment and revised as needed, before being passed up the chain of command for approval. This should take another twelve months or so, after which the Park Service will need to apply for more money to put the plan in action. Best-case scenario, the first sharpshooters could be prowling Rock Creek Park in the winter of 2011—and best case is the operative term. By contrast, Maryland’s Montgomery County, which borders much of Northwest D.C., took just two years to produce its equivalent of an EIS: a relatively tame thirty-five-page report listing steps officials could take at their own discretion.
Meanwhile, even as D.C.’s plan inches its way through the federal bureaucracy, there are plots afoot to derail it. City Councilmember Phil Mendelson has already come out against sharpshooting, and the Washington Humane Society has launched a grassroots campaign to rally opposition. "The typical response of the federal government is to kill things," says Scott Giacoppo, the group’s chief programs officer.
Any public protest could create particularly thorny obstacles in Washington. Because many of the city’s public spaces are on federal property, it’s often impossible to change the landscaping of a traffic circle or rename a playground without permission from the feds. The capital is also bursting with politically savvy insiders who know how to work the system to their advantage. This confluence makes activities in the city’s public spaces uniquely vulnerable to citizen interference. A case in point: in 1996, a Hill staffer, incensed that he was unable to walk his dog in Park Service–operated Meridian Hill Park without a leash, rewrote a House appropriations bill to all but mandate the construction of a $100,000 dog run in the park to accommodate his free-range Fluffy. The plan was snuffed out when the WashingtonPost caught wind of the story, but the threat was a real one. The government’s power of the purse in setting Park Service policy is a wild card that can leave even the best-laid plans in shambles.
Elsewhere in the country, when public pressure against lethal culling has proved too fierce, municipalities have tried to rein in deer populations through contraception alone. But that strategy is both far more costly (the Park Service estimated that contraceptives would cost about $1,000 per deer versus $200 to $400 for sharpshooting and $500 for euthanasia) and far less effective. "If your goal is to stabilize the population at high numbers, contraception will work," says Tom Rooney, a biology professor at Wright State University in Dayton, who runs the blog Deer Impacts. "But the high numbers are already problematic, so contraception would not solve those problems."
The nightmare scenario for D.C. park rangers may be the one that unfolded last summer at Point Reyes National Seashore in Northern California, where two non-native deer species (first introduced to the area by a local hunter) were squeezing out native plant and animal species. After going through much the same process as Rock Creek without encountering much public opposition, Point Reyes hired White Buffalo, Inc., a nonprofit wildlife management service that helped manage wildlife populations in sixteen states and five different countries. Taking to the park in helicopters and shooting rocket-propelled nets to trap the deer, White Buffalo employees killed nearly 700 animals over a one-year period. But the outcry from activists soon became overwhelming.
State officials entered the fray, followed by the heavy artillery—Representatives George Miller and Lynne Woolsey, Senators Dianne Feinstein and Barbara Boxer, and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. The concerned politicians, several of whom had been briefed on the plans for nearly a decade, drafted a letter asking the Park Service to cease fire and study a new report by the Humane Society, which advocated an all-contraception approach. "It seemed rather ludicrous that you’d have folks on that level of the political spectrum that would have even a minute of time when you have wars going on," says Dr. Anthony J. DeNicola, president of White Buffalo, "or that they would worry about non-native deer in a very pristine ecological setting after the park did a very intensive review and considered public comments."
Later that year, despite having published a stinging, two-page takedown of the Humane Society’s arguments, the Park Service announced it was switching to an entirely contraceptive approach—a move it insists was coincidental. Complicating an already bizarre story was an item in the Interior Department appropriations bill, signed into law by President Obama on October 30, which prohibited any funds therein from being used to reduce the population of non-native deer at Point Reyes beyond its current total—a provision that would ban not just sharpshooting but contraception as well; if the ban holds, it will effectively bring the entire culling program to a halt. The language, inserted into the bill by Feinstein, amounted to a sort of nuclear option for wildlife management.
Ken Ferebee, a resource management specialist at Rock Creek Park, insists D.C.’s plan won’t suffer the same fate, saying it "is not a political process, it’s a scientific process," and thus is driven by data, not public whims. But history belies his optimism. Lions, grocery shoppers, and power lunchers should be on guard: Washington remains, as Henry Lee might have put it, first in war, first in peace, and last in ungulate management.