Thursday, November 12, 2009

MAYRLAND NEWS: Sligo Creek Park Battles Deer

One day in 2007, after a morning spent at Sligo Creek Park removing invasive plants so native plants could survive, Sally Gagne took a moment to look back on the acre of parkland she had proudly worked to save.

Her pride turned quickly to panic.

"I couldn't believe how little was left," said Gagne, a Silver Spring resident and founder of the Friends of Sligo Creek, a group dedicated to improving the quality of the Sligo Creek watershed, which covers 11.6 square miles from Wheaton to Hyattsville. "There were very few young trees and even fewer native plants."

A new adversary -- a rapidly increasing deer population in Sligo Creek -- had eaten almost all of the native plants and saplings.

The deer problem was bad in 2007, she said, and is worse now. For the first time, members of the Friends group are debating whether to cull the deer population in Sligo Creek before the ecosystem is ruined.

"It will happen slowly, but the woods will be gone," Gagne said. "The whole community of woods, the animals that live there and the birds that fly through."

By the group's count, between 98 and 123 deer live within one square mile along Sligo Creek Parkway between Colesville Road and Arcola Avenue in Silver Spring. Depending on the area, the deer population should be between 15 and 30 deer per square mile for the ecosystem to be unaffected, Montgomery County Parks Department officials said.

A deer-management program is in place at 19 county parks, using some form of sharpshooting or controlled hunting. The program covers more than 15,000 acres and 44 percent of county parkland.

The sharpshooting takes place three to four times at each park between January and April, said Rob Gibbs, the department's natural resources manager. Trained marksmen kill 25 to more than 100 deer a night, Gibbs said.

But sharpshooting is rare downcounty, where the parks are too small, too narrow or too urban for sharpshooting or controlled hunting, Gibbs said. Those areas have attracted deer that have grown wise to some of the long-standing upcounty sharpshooting programs, he said.

The deer population at Sligo Creek has increased almost twofold since 2007, leaving the Friends of Sligo Creek with a difficult predicament: Lobbying for sharpshooting or controlled hunts to manage deer could anger some members who say that sharpshooting would be too dangerous at Sligo Creek or that it is inhumane.

"It could end up being a lose-lose: not controlling deer and losing a lot of members," said Bruce Sidwell, the group's president.

At least part of the watershed is among sites in which the county would like to begin sharpshooting. The Sligo Creek Stream Valley Park, units 3, 4 and 5 -- the square mile between Colesville and Arcola -- is among six locations marked for future deer-management programs. The programs would cost about $150,000 and remove an estimated 355 deer initially.

The money would go a long way toward assisting a program that is "stretched as far as we can go," Gibbs told the Montgomery County Council's Public Safety Committee in a work session last Thursday. The deer-management program has two full-time employees covering 15,000 acres and was budgeted $121,000 for fiscal 2009 and $91,000 for fiscal 2010, according to a letter from Parks Department Director Mary Bradford to the council in August.

At Thursday's meeting, Council President Phil Andrews (D-Gaithersburg-Rockville) praised the deer-management program's work but was noncommittal about allocating more money.

Even if Friends of Sligo Creek members can come to an agreement on sharpshooting at the park, by the time a program could be implemented, the ecosystem would be damaged beyond repair, Gagne said.

She resigned from running the group's Removal of Invasive Plants program because her efforts were no match for the deer.

"Everybody is affected by it," Gagne said. "I can't imagine letting all these plants disappear."

Source: Washington Post

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