Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
By John Hayes

In the forests of Valley Forge, where George Washington’s sharpshooters killed deer to help feed the troops, a controversial deer management plan and shrill opposition to it have garnered national attention.

The National Park Service estimates the white-tail deer population in Valley Forge National Historical Park at approximately 1,300. That’s about seven times the number of deer that can be supported on the 5.3-square-mile park’s habitat, say park officials, without negatively impacting other species, the health of the herd and land use plans for the park. Deer browsing is blamed for preventing regeneration of new forest growth in the park since 1995.

A four-year plan to use sharpshooters to cull the herd to around 500 deer was delayed in 2009 when an animal rights group, the Pennsylvania Chapter of Friends of Animals, filed suit to stop the shooting.

On Oct. 27, United State District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania ruled to approve the use of sharpshooters to dramatically reduce the park’s deer herd. After a four-year cull, the remaining deer are to be darted with pharmaceutical birth control, in a large-scale deer reduction experiment. The first culling is scheduled for this month.

Friends of Animals director Matthew McLaughlin says he has a better idea. He wants to encourage predation by coyotes as a primary means of deer control.

“It’s appalling that sharpshooters will be allowed into the park in the name of respecting scenery and monuments,” said McLaughlin, in a written statement.

Park service biologists say the group’s Coyote Coexistence Initiative is impractical. Valley Forge’s resident coyotes do not eat enough deer to reduce the herd to desired levels. Rather than stock more coyotes, McLaughlin wants coyote hunting to be banned statewide, which he said would eventually raise the park’s coyote population high enough to control the deer.

Coyotes kill spring fawns, scavenge road-killed deer, and packs may be able to bring down sick adults and those hampered by deep snow. Biologists from wildlife agencies across the Northeast report that coyote predation of adult deer does not greatly impact herd density.

Friends of Animals is seeking an injunction to again stop the sharpshooters. A demonstration was scheduled for today at the park to oppose the deer management plan.

First published on November 7, 2010 at 12:00 am