WASHINGTON (CN) - A federal judge approved the mass killing of deer in Rock Creek Park, the first authorized killing of animals in the D.C. park's 120-year history.
Five Washington residents joined in Defense of Animals in suing National Park Service Director Jonathan Jarvis and Interior Secretary Ken Salazar last year after it approved a plan to control the growing deer population in the park with a combination of methods both nonlethal and lethal, which involves shooting with guns and bows and arrows.
"This unprecedented and extreme approach to reducing the population of native wildlife that, according to the Park Service's own data, has remained relatively stable for at least ten years and decreased in many years under natural conditions without any human interference, is unwarranted, particularly when NPS also concedes that the deer pose no urgent threat to the Park or any of its resources," the group said in its complaint.
But U.S. District Judge Robert Wilkins disagreed Thursday.
"Plaintiffs make several claims in their summary judgment briefing that all fail to persuade," he wrote. "First, they claim to have 'demonstrated' that there is no current overpopulation of deer in Rock Creek Park. That is flatly contradicted by the Administrative Record. Second, they misinterpret the Park's Enabling Act to mean that killing deer should be prohibited when other options are available to reduce the deer population's size."
Most of the 1,750-acre park is north of the National Zoo. It's a sylvan delight beloved by residents of the nation's capital and Maryland.
The Park Service estimated in 2009 that 314 deer populated the park, approximately 67 deer per square mile, a number that has fluctuated between 98 deer per square mile since the park implemented distance sampling in the early 1990s.
Citing the negative effect the large deer population had on park vegetation, the Park Service came up with four alternatives to solve the problem in 2009.
Two alternatives involved nonlethal methods: putting up fences to keep deer away from vegetation, and sterilizing a number of deer.
The other two alternatives involved luring deer at night with bait and then shooting them at close range with high-powered rifles or, if near homes, crossbows.
The Park Service "received many comments from the public and interested organizations, and there is no doubt that the majority of comments received opposed killing any deer," Wilkins explained.
It ultimately adopted a combination of shooting deer at first to quickly reduce the population, then implementing the sterilization and fencing strategy to control it.
That plan will "result in around 70 deer in the Park after three years, the target number the Park Service plans to maintain," the ruling states.
Opponents of the plan say the Park Service will kill 296 deer - with a preference for does - in the first three years after the plan is implemented.
"While the deer in Rock Creek Park have not rebounded to the levels that exist elsewhere - where densities can exceed 100 or 200 deer per square mile - they are common enough to contribute to the experience of visitors who come to the park to escape the turmoil of the city and to appreciate a small piece of the natural wild," their complaint stated.
But Judge Wilkins credited the government's concern that the deer population poses a threat to the park's ecosystem.
"The deer population in the park is above what scientists have concluded is healthy for the long-term management of the Park," Wilkins wrote. "There appears to be little dispute that a decision must be made about what to do, and people understandably have strong views about the right course. But the role of this court is not to decide that course. That is a role that Congress has entrusted to the Park Service."
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