Monday, November 15, 2010

Call to arms over deer

Valley Forge joins fight to reduce herds and damage.
By Anthony R. Wood Inquirer Staff Writer

The deer herd in Valley Forge National Historical Park has multiplied eightfold in 25 years, and officials say a thousand acres of forest are being eaten alive by deer.

That is why, to the horror of animal-rights activists, federal sharpshooters with rifles and night-vision goggles aim to cut the herd from more than 1,200 to fewer than 200 during the next four years. The carcasses are to be given to food banks.

Citing public-safety concerns, the park has been secretive about revealing the timing of the shoots, saying only that they would happen between November and March and that the park would be closed off when they occurred.

But the shooting evidently has started. A federal judge gave it the go-ahead last month, and on Friday animal-rights activists filed an emergency request to stop it.

Iconic Valley Forge, one of the nation's most revered Revolutionary War sites, is the latest battleground in the escalating tensions between white-tailed deer and human beings. But only the latest.

The conflicts are raging all over the country along the borders of woods and development, where a species once on the verge of vanishing is now deemed overabundant.

One may think deer would prefer wilderness to the vicinity of highways and high-rises. But wildlife specialists say that's not necessarily so.

They hold that creeping urbanization - which has routed predators, inhibited hunting, and provided a herbivore's smorgasbord of backyard plantings - has been the biggest boon to whitetails since the retreat of the North American ice sheets 10,000 years ago.

The fallout from the inter-species encounters includes a harvest of traffic accidents. An estimated 130,000 deer-vehicle collisions occur annually in Pennsylvania and New Jersey - with more than 2,400 human deaths nationwide since 1993, according to insurance experts.

November is a particularly perilous time: Deer-vehicle crashes are three times more common than in other months, according to the Highway Loss Data Institute.

It is more than coincidence that this also is a peak period for "culls" - in which deer are lured to baited sites and shot by U.S. Department of Agriculture marksmen at night - and controlled hunts, in which the animals have a greater opportunity to escape archers and riflemen.

Deer find themselves in the crosshairs this month for the same reason that they so often wander into the paths of cars: hormonal intoxication. The does are in heat, the bucks driven to distraction.

"They're really not watching the cars," said Larry Herrighty, assistant fish and wildlife director for New Jersey. "They're crazed. They're not thinking straight."

About half of all deer deaths occur in fall, but the survivors do breed. Bucks have multiple partners. They may lack commitment and tenderness, but not zeal. By human standards, the birthrate is extraordinary: Almost every doe that survives the winter has at least one fawn in the spring, sometimes twins or triplets.

The deer proliferation has raised other concerns. Ticks commuting on deer are prime suspects in spreading Lyme disease, and the deer appetite for precious residential plantings is legendary.
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