U.S. District Court in Pennsylvania Rules that Deer Hunt Can Proceed

Posted by Stephanie Ulmer, Guest Blogger on November 12, 2010

On October 27th, a federal judge in Philadelphia approved a plan to allow sharpshooters to control the deer population at Valley Forge National Historical Park. Two animal rights groups, the Friends of Animals, a Connecticut organization, and Compassion for Animals, Respect for the Environment, a Pennsylvania organization, sought to enjoin the National Park Service (NPS) from culling the deer. The groups alleged that the NPS had not complied with all statutory obligations and had not properly considered other alternatives, which include fencing and introducing coyotes as a “natural” means of reducing the deer population. Judge Mitchell S. Goldberg rejected the groups’ attempt to stop the hunt and found in favor of the NPS’s plan to allow hunting to begin this November. Summary judgment was entered in favor of the NPS. An appeal is planned.

According to the Associated Press, the stated goal is to reduce the herd of about 1,300 deer by over 80 percent over the next four winters. That means that the park plans to have its deer population dwindle from more than 1,200 to fewer than 200. The judge’s opinion states that “The purpose of the NPS plan is ‘to develop a white-tailed deer management strategy that supports long-term protection, preservation, and restoration of native vegetation and other natural and cultural resources while maintaining a deer population . . . .’ The plan considered four alternatives: (A) No-action, (B) Combined Nonlethal Actions, (C) Combined Lethal Actions, and (D) Combined Lethal and Nonlethal Actions. The plan selected by the NPS is Alternative D.”

The groups argued that culling the deer herd was against the Organic Act’s mandate to “conserve. . . the wildlife,” in national parks. They maintained that natural management, not culling by sharpshooters, was the only plan consistent with the Organic Act. The court rejected that claim, finding that the groups “…ignore the Secretary of the Interior’s clear mandate under the Organic Act to provide for the destruction of animals that may be a detriment to the park. 16 U.S.C §3. Because the NPS has clearly identified overgrazing by the herd as the cause of insufficient forest generation, which is a detriment to the scenery and natural and historic objects, the exception to preserving all wildlife under the Organic Act has clearly been invoked here. Petitioners have not identified how this finding of a detriment and the NPS’s plan to remedy it is arbitrary or capricious under the Organic Act.”

It has also been argued that the large amount of deer living in the park has contributed to a high number of vehicle accidents within the park each year and the destruction of nearby suburban gardens. Park officials say they believe the hunt also will reduce the risk of chronic wasting disease, a debilitating brain disease that has been found in neighboring states, but not in Pennsylvania.

Reportedly, once the herd’s numbers are under control, the park service plan would then also use birth control and other nonviolent methods along with the hunt, which would run from November to March each winter. Animal-welfare activists advocate that the historic park, famous because George Washington and his Continental Army spent the winter of 1777-78 there, should be maintained using natural methods. They propose doing nothing, letting nature take its course, or introducing predators, namely coyotes.

The hunt was initially slated to begin last year but was delayed due to the lawsuit. Too bad for the deer that it wasn’t halted in perpetuity. A stated goal of an 80 percent decrease over the next four years seems awfully drastic. How about revisiting the plan each fall, before the next hunt? Hopefully park officials will see the big picture here…the one that includes all wildlife, including deer.

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