"It's a Victory"
Facing Lawsuit by Friends of Animals and CARE, Federal Officials Let the Deer Be
Sharpshooters had been expected to go in at night with rifles and silencers sometime between November 2009 and March 2010, but faced with a lawsuit from Friends of Animals and CARE of the Delaware Valley, National Park Service officials have called off the long-planned and highly controversial deer kill at Valley Forge National Historical Park.
"It's a victory," Michael Harris of Denver University told the Philadelphia Inquirer.
A federal judge is scheduled to rule on our lawsuit after May. Assistant U.S. Attorney Richard Bernstein told the Associated Press that another deer kill could now not occur until November 2010 at the earliest.
With the support of people who are rallying for the deer, legal work is being undertaken pro bono by the Environmental Law Clinic at the University of Denver. We argue that the Park Service’s White-tailed Deer Management Plan violates the National Environmental Policy Act, the Organic Act and Valley Forge enabling legislation. Additionally, our suit charges that shooting the deer endangers the public -- the two counties that include the 3,400-acre park, about 18 miles northwest of downtown Philadelphia, are home to more than a million residents -- and ignores local laws. And we plan to keep working until the Park Service’s illegal deer-control plan is set aside for good.
Our lawsuit, filed last November in U.S. District Court in Pennsylvania, is led by Assistant Professor Michael Harris and Fellow Kevin Lynch, with research provided by student-attorneys Anthony Basile, Alyson Gould and Robert Westfall. It is filed in the name of Friends of Animals and Pennsylvania-based Compassion for Animals, Respect for the Environment (CARE), and based on the comments the two groups submitted for the public record in early 2009.
Speaking to the press, Professor Harris summed up the case: “For the National Park Service to enter Valley Forge National Historical Park in the cover of winter to slay white-tailed deer is not only an appalling twist on the park’s history, it is another sign that the service has abandoned its century-old mission to strive for parks in which conservation of nature is paramount.”
We further assert that the Park Service’s plan to administer birth control to deer is environmentally unsound. I t’s also invasive and disrespectful to the deer.
Animal rights means defending free-living animals' interest in staying that way. Contraceptives shouldn’t be used, then, on free-living animals.
Even if one does not accept the premise of animal rights, the belief that these substances comprise a humane alternative to guns is incorrect. At this time, no hormonal or other type of pharmaceutical birth control is formally approved for free-living animals, and the drugs are considered experimental. Deer are killed for these experiments-- "humanely" killed, the research literature assures us. But a humane view of the deer would not permit this intrusion on their lives and bodies. Some of the dead deer have had granular abscesses around the entry point of the drug, and in a few cases bone marrow fat disintegration. The way the deer interact as communities also changes when the pharmaceuticals are imposed on them.
“I’m not sure which is worse, shooting deer or wreaking havoc on their social and reproductive interactions by imposing birth control on them,” says Allison Memmo Geiger, president of CARE.
While the Philadelphia Inquirer and other papers state that the deer lack natural predators, and therefore need us to control their numbers somehow, the media largely omit three countervailing facts:
- The deer actually appear to be “overpopulated” because malls and roads are expanded and more houses are being built, thus concentrating the deer into smaller areas.
- Deer aren’t really everywhere; they congregate where nourishment and leafy cover is available.
- To the extent that they lack natural predators this is because the state of Pennsylvania treats our native predators -- bobcats and coyotes -- as hunting and trapping targets. Why don’t the state and federal officials try working together to encourage respect for coyotes in and around Valley Forge, rather than pressing the ultimate disrespect on deer?
The federal plan had called for sharpshooters to fire silencer-equipped rifles, mostly at night, at deer lured to areas baited with apples and grain. Baiting deer and introducing unusual food to their highly sensitive digestive tracts could be enough to kill them. With the bullets flying, park officials envisioned the death of at least 1,500 deer in four years -- 500 this past winter, 500 in the coming winter, and between 250 and 300 each in the third and fourth years. That would eradicate more than 85 percent of the deer community at Valley Forge.
Respecting Nature’s Balance
The deer population peaked at 1,398 in 2003, according to park officials. They admit that the number has declined. Today they claim the population is between 1,023 and 1,275 (officials have offered both numbers at different times to the Inquirer). Officials want only about 165 to 185 deer to remain after a four-year bloodbath. Chemical birth control would be imposed on those survivors, if one of the experimental substances proves viable in the opinion of park officials.
It’s pretty well known that this violent plan was devised to appease local property owners who are annoyed at the sight of deer standing around roadsides or eating from their gardens. A few others resent the park’s no-hunting policy and hope the acceptance of guns in the park makes it possible for hunting to be introduced.
But d ecisions under the National Environmental Policy Act cannot be based simply on seizing upon the apparently easiest answer to a perceived problem, or catering to local complaints. Wiping out deer is not the answer to the decline of plant life in a sprawling, concrete-covered suburb.
Park officials say deer eat so many plants and saplings that the forest cannot regenerate. But the park study that blamed deer for ruined vegetation was flawed, and the law is meant to protect the deer as well as the plants. The suit by Friends of Animals and CARE asserts, in short, that the natural balance and interactions of deer are to be respected and the park’s natural status quo preserved.
Our legal challenge names Mike Caldwell, superintendent of Valley Forge National Historical Park, Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar, and the National Park Service, its director, and the director of the service’s Northeast Region.
The plan to kill deer at Valley Forge has provoked enormous controversy. Some see deer as a welcome part of the park scenery. Others see them as four-legged nuisances that devour neighborhood gardens and run into backyards and onto highways, putting people and cars in danger. –Jeff Gammage, The Philadelphia Inquirer, 24 Dec. 2009 "
Anyone who has visited the p ark in recent years knows its administrators have introduced quite a bit of artificial landscaping and construction. Some changes in landscaping would likely be helpful. So would patience on the part of people who are fortunate enough to live in areas where free-living animals abound. Most important, it’s time to stop casting free animals as villains.
Run a computer search for Valley Forge National Historical Park and you’ll find many tourist-oriented concepts: biking, boating, horseback riding, driving, boating, hiking, concerts and bus routes. An official park website states: “The park is surrounded by residential, commercial and industrial developments of Montgomery and Chester Counties on all sides, thus it is an oasis for native wildlife.” How disturbing that government officials, who ought to know better, would use federal environmental law in an attempt to ensure that this “oasis” ejects indigenous animals who dare to occupy the few wooded areas left there.
What You Can Do
Encourage friends and relatives to join Friends of Animals. People in Pennsylvania and the Delaware Valley should also consider joining CARE. A groundswell of public support will strengthen us in the months ahead.
Encourage respect for deer and other free-living animals in your community. And do take time to impart to young people the importance of respecting animals who inhabit the land, air and waters that surround us. In a few years, some of these young people will be government officials and decision-makers.
Remember: this is a federal park. It’s critical that voices are raised by people all over the country and internationally. Write op-eds based on the argument above to newspapers to support the case brought through Denver University’s Environmental Law Clinic for the plaintiffs Friends of Animals and CARE. If you have a website or attend local advocacy meetings, talk about this with the people in your midst.
Congratulate yourself. The deer of Valley Forge live free today, because of the members and supporters of Friends of Animals and CARE of the Delaware Valley!
- Jeff Gammage, “Valle Forge Deer Shoot Postponed” - Philadelphia Inquirer (24 Dec. 2009).
- Paul D. Curtis et al., “Pathophysiology of White-tailed Deer Vaccinated With Porcine Zona Pellucida Immunocontraceptive,” Vaccine (Vol. 25, 11 April 2007); available:
- National Park Service, “ Valley Forge: Nature & Science”; available: http://www.nps.gov/vafo/naturescience/index.htm (as visited 28 Jan. 2009).