WASHINGTON (CN) - Protecting the native ecology of Rock Creek Park justified the mass killing of deer there, the D.C. Circuit ruled, upholding the first authorized killing of animals in that park's 120-year history.
Rock Creek, a 1,750-acre national park in north Washington, has been overcrowded with white-tailed deer since the early 1990s.
The National Park Service predicted back then that 67 to 98 deer would occupy each square mile of the area by 2009. Since the deer lack natural predators in the park, it had experts look into how the ecosystem would handle overabundant deer consuming vegetation faster than it could regenerate.
A deer-management plan that the service published in 2009 recommended a combination of lethal and non-lethal population-control methods to bring the deer population down to 15 to 20 per square mile.
In Defense of Animals and five individuals who objected to the plan filed suit after its adoption in May 2012.
A federal judge granted the agency summary judgment on March 14, 2013, a day before the plan was scheduled to go into effect.
In ruling against the activists as well last week, the D.C. Circuit rejected their claims that the Park Service failed to meet the threshold for taking action.
"The record documents a dramatic reduction in tree seeding stocking rates from 1991 to 2007," Senior Judge David Sentelle wrote for a three-person panel. "Under high deer densities, such as those present in Rock Creek Park, normal forest regeneration may be expected to occur when 67% of observed plots have at least 153 seedlings. None of the plots observed in 2007 had 153 or more seedlings present."
Though the challengers complained about the agency's failure "to consider the reduction of exotic plant species as an alternative way to protect the native vegetation in the park," Sentelle noted "more specific objectives that the Park Service cannot accomplish through plant management alone."
"These objectives include 'protect[ing] habitat of rare plant and animal species from adverse effects of deer, such as excessive deer browsing, trampling, and nonnative seed dispersal'; and 'protect[ing] the integrity, variety, and character of the cultural landscapes by reducing excessive deer browsing, trampling, and nonnative seed dispersal," the 24-page opinion statess
Reducing the park's deer population also does not conflict with the 1890 law that Congress passed to create Rock Creek Park, the court found.
Though that act calls for "the preservation from injury or spoliation of all timber, animals, or curiosities within said park, and their retention in their natural condition, as nearly as possible," Sentelle said that "the National Park Service interpreted the mandate to preserve animals from harm 'as nearly as possible' to permit killing some animals to prevent serious harms to other natural resources, even before those harms have fully materialized."
"The agency has consistently interpreted the Act permitting it to conduct the proposed killing of deer, and there is nothing post hoc about that position," Sentelle added.
According to a Rock Creek Park press release, the National Park Service donated 1,700 pounds of venison to the D.C. Central Kitchen on Dec. 23, 2014, after meeting its 2014-2015 winter season objective of killing 55 deer.
Having closed its "window of action for deer reduction," deer season is over, for now, the Park Service said.
Anja Heister, director of the Wild and Free Habitats Campaign for In Defense of Animals, called the Jan. 20 decision by the D.C. Circuit "extremely disappointing, but not surprising in terms of a common deference to government agencies' authority when it comes to wildlife management."
"Deer are the scapegoats of these agencies whose officials are often proponents of hunting and who think deer are to be managed only through lethal means," Heister said in an email. "Killing does not address the problem, wildlife fertility control does."
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