The U.S. capital is well-known for being over-run with politicians, lobbyists and diplomats.
But there’s another group that’s in over-abundance in D.C. and its swaths of leafy parkland — the white-tailed deer, a familiar sight to almost everyone living in the area.
Following years of study and ongoing uproar, the National Park Service is in the midst of a three-day hunt aimed at dramatically culling deer in the city’s Rock Creek Park, a 20-kilometre stretch of dense forest, rocky ravines and winding trails that run alongside a burbling offshoot of the Potomac River.
Like many similar parks in D.C. and its surrounding suburbs, Rock Creek is a veritable deer paradise. The Park Service estimates there about 50 deer per square kilometre in the park, and is hoping sharpshooters can reduce the herd to 15 to 20 per square mile.
The deer have had an unlikely ally in Marion Barry, the notorious former D.C. mayor who now sits on city council.
“The NPS will be sharp shooting deer in Rock Creek Park. So wrong,” Barry wrote in a tweet earlier this week, using the hashtag #dontkillbambi. “Can they be relocated? I mean the NPS. The deer can stay.”
Barry apologized after one of his tweets called the Park Service a condensed version of a vulgar slur. The former mayor told the Washington Post he didn’t personally send the tweets.
“The thrust of it was right, the thing that went too far was the (version of the slur),” Barry said. “I have a lot of tweets, some I send out personally and some I send out by staff.”
But he added he wasn’t backing down from his stance on the cull: “There has to be a better way to manage the deer population.”
Advocates of the deer cull have long argued it’s necessary to control tick outbreaks and protect vegetation — the deer feast on tree seedlings, not to mention the flower and vegetable gardens of vexed home-owners.
They also insist that thinning the herd is humane, given deer are forced into more dangerous, urbanized areas if over-crowded.
Dozens of deer are killed every year along the city’s roadways, particularly on the well-travelled Rock Creek Parkway running north from the Lincoln Memorial into the Maryland suburbs.
Stories of deer becoming trapped in unlikely places are also semi-regular occurrences in the region. The Maryland Wildlife and Heritage Service has estimated that every year in the state’s D.C. bedroom communities about a half-dozen deer crash through windows or enter buildings or homes.
Four years ago, two dogs in downtown Silver Spring, Md., chased a nine-month-old buck through the front window of a Greek restaurant. The bloodied deer escaped, but stumbled, disoriented, into a nearby grocery store, and was later put down due to his injuries.
Later that year, a female deer stumbled into a lion enclosure at the city’s National Zoo. Like two housecats with a mouse, two lionesses brutally mauled the deer in front of horrified onlookers; the doe was later euthanized.
The number of white-tailed deer in the U.S. has soared from a few hundred thousand about a century ago to an estimated 30 million today. That’s largely due to a lack of predators and the expansion of deer-friendly suburban landscapes.
Virginia’s Fairfax County and Maryland’s Montgomery County have already culled deer this year.
Animal rights activists have nonetheless fought the cull for years in D.C., urging authorities to use non-lethal methods, including birth control, to reduce the size of the herd instead.
But the National Park Service stands by its “difficult decision,” it said in a statement.
The three-year deer-control program is critical to “ensuring the forest is able to support native plants and animals found in Rock Creek Park in a sustainable manner for this and future generations,” said park superintendent Tara Morrison.
Sharpshooters began culling the deer overnight on Wednesday and will continue through Saturday night. The deer are being butchered and the meat is provided to local food banks.
The animal rights group In Defense of Animals has been holding nightly vigils to protest the cull.
“Practically tame and pregnant deer will be lured to piles of apples and grain where they will be mowed down with bullets and arrows,” the group said.