Friday, November 13, 2009

PENNSYLVANIA NEWS: Valley Forge NP Sued Over Deer Management

Valley Forge is 5.5 square miles. There are an estimated 232 per square mile, or about 10 times more than the park can support. I would love to see the parasite loads on these deer.

Two animal-rights groups filed suit in federal court yesterday to stop officials at Valley Forge National Historical Park from going ahead with a plan to shoot more than 1,500 deer.

Deploying sharpshooters in winter, the season when George Washington's troops suffered at Valley Forge, "is not only an appalling twist on the park's history," the suit says, but "another sign that the National Park Service has abandoned its century-old mission to strive for parks in which conservation of nature is paramount."

The filing by Friends of Animals, a national advocacy group, and Compassion for Animals, Respect the Environment (CARE), a West Chester organization, was lodged against park Superintendent Michael Caldwell, Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar, the National Park Service as an agency, and other park service officials.

Caldwell, reached yesterday evening, said he had not seen the lawsuit but knows that the park is acting properly.

"I'm confident in the proficiency of the plan, and we believe in its scientific validity, and we've had a transparent process," he said. "I believe in the plan and where it's headed."

Anthony Conte, an attorney for the park service, said he had not seen the lawsuit. Frank Quimby, a spokesman for the Department of the Interior, said the agency does not comment on litigation.

Park officials intend to reduce the herd by 86 percent - from an estimated 1,277 deer to between 165 and 185 - during the next four years. Federal employees or contractors are to fire silencer-equipped rifles, mostly at night, at deer lured to areas baited with apples and grain. The shooting is to take place between November and March, but administrators have refused to provide specific dates.

Valley Forge officials say the action is necessary to reduce a herd that has grown big and destructive, gobbling so many plants and saplings that the forest can't regenerate.

Administrators plan to shoot 500 deer the first year, 500 the second, and between 250 and 300 in years three and four.

After four years, officials say, they'll maintain a smaller herd through contraceptives and additional shoots. They estimate that shooting deer will cost between $2.0 million and $2.9 million during the next 15 years.

The plan has provoked enormous controversy among people who live near Valley Forge, site of the Continental Army's 1777-78 winter encampment, with residents both opposed and in favor.

The lawsuit, filed in federal court for the Eastern District, said that the park study that blamed deer for ruined vegetation was flawed, and that the law requires the park to protect and conserve natural resources - including deer.

"We want the park to just let them be," said Allison Memmo Geiger, president of CARE.

Unlike the paved roads, concrete buildings, and rebuilt log cabins in the park, the suit says, deer were present before, during and after Washington's encampment, making them part of the cultural and historical resources.

The suit claims that park service officials failed to follow federal laws and regulations in developing their plan to control deer. Among those failures, the suit said, is that the park gave short shrift to the idea of introducing coyotes as natural predators.

Studies show that coyotes can safely and effectively reduce urban deer populations, and improve the health of plants, said Michael Harris, who prepared the suit as director of the Environmental Law Clinic at the University of Denver. Coyotes kill the sick and weak, but more than that, they harass the herd, making deer wary of grazing and limiting their ability to freely reproduce.

The suit said the park also failed to consider how gunfire could endanger park visitors, local residents, and drivers on surrounding highways.

"The government's desire to deploy a rifle team to war on the deer," said Lee Hall, legal director for Friends of Animals, "lacks biological, ecological, and ethical sense."


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