This special edition of the Politics Hour combined local and national politics live from Slim's Diner in Petworth, Northwest D.C.
They may be pretty wildlife, but they can also be a Lyme disease-carrying nuisance and driving hazard. The region’s deer population and how it’s managed continues to be the subject of debate. In the past several years, the National Park Service and regional parks managers have used controlled hunts to thin deer numbers. But animal rights advocates object, saying there are more humane and effective methods that should be considered, like long-term birth control vaccinations. We explore the issues.
- Mary Rowse Preservationist and local activist
- Stephanie Boyles Griffin Senior Director, Wildlife Response, Innovations & Services, Humane Society of the United States (HSUS)
- Bill Hamilton Principal Natural Resources Specialist/Wildlife Ecologist, Montgomery Parks
- Brian Eyler Deer Project Leader, Maryland Department of Natural Resources
MR. KOJO NNAMDISome see them as beautiful wildlife, others see them as a voracious nuisance and hazard to motorists. Contact between deer and humans, welcomed and unwelcomed, is increasing as development in our region expands. And how the deer population is managed continues to be the subject of heated debate. In the past several years, regional parks managers and the National Park Service have used controlled hunts and sharpshooters to thin deer numbers. But animal rights advocates object saying there are more humane methods that should be considered.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIJoining me in studio to discuss this is Stephanie Boyles Griffin, senior director for Wildlife Response, Innovations and Services with the Humane Society of the United States. Stephanie Boyles Griffin, thank you for joining us.
MS. STEPHANIE BOYLES GRIFFINThank you for having me, Kojo.
NNAMDIBill Hamilton is also in studio with us. He is the principal natural resources specialist and Wildlife Ecologist with Montgomery County Parks. Bill Hamilton, thank you for joining us.
MR. BILL HAMILTONThank you for the invitation.
NNAMDIAnd Brian Eyler is the deer project leader with the Maryland Department of Natural Resources. Brian Eyler, thank you.
MR. BRIAN EYLERHi, Kojo. Thanks for having me.
NNAMDIWe're inviting you to join the conversation -- some of you already have -- by calling 800-433-8850. Do you have issues with deer on the roads or in your yard? What do you think should be done about it? You can send email to email@example.com or send us a Tweet @kojoshow. Stephanie, a recent Time magazine cover story was titled "America's Pest Problem." This is an issue not just in our region but nationally. Why are deer populations such an issue?
GRIFFINYou know, deer have been present in our communities for a long time. But in the last few decades we're starting to see an increase in them because of landscape changes that we're making. And as a result, organizations like ours are trying to respond by developing humane, innovative nonlethal methods for managing their populations where their presence is an issue.
NNAMDIBill, what are some of the issues of deer overpopulation specifically in Montgomery County?
HAMILTONWell, our biggest concern throughout the community is public health and safety. Deer vehicle collisions, disease transmission, but also from a standpoint of our Montgomery Parks organization, damage to the resource. You know, deer are the keystone herbivore of eastern American forests. And so as the deer go, so does the population of plank communities and other wildlife species. And then of course we're getting community complaint, you know. The citizen who just is tired of having deer damage their private properties.
NNAMDIWe'll get to deer management in a moment, Stephanie, but clearly crashes involving deers (sic) and motor vehicles are not good for anyone, including the health of the deer.
GRIFFINThat's correct. And again, that's one of the reasons for about 20 years we've been investing time and resources in developing technology that allows us to manage populations without having to kill them, but managing them in such a way that we're reducing deer vehicle collisions. Obviously a very important health and safety issue.
NNAMDITalk about that for a second, Bill, the number of collisions, car hitting deer.
HAMILTONWell, in the past few years we've had upwards of 2,000 deer struck on Montgomery County roads annually. And those are the only -- the reported accidents. Of course there's a lot of accidents where a car hits another car trying to avoid a deer or where a deer just runs off the road and is unreported by -- you know, when damage doesn't occur. It's a significant public safety hazard.
NNAMDII'd like to bring into the conversation now Mary Rouse. She will join us by phone. She's a preservationist and a longtime resident of the District of Columbia. She was one of the original plaintiffs in a lawsuit asking that the National Park Service stop culling deer in Rock Creek Park. Mary Rouse, thank you for joining us.
MS. MARY ROUSEThank you for having me, Kojo.
NNAMDIYou're a longtime D.C. resident living close to Rock Creek Park. You were one of the original plaintiffs in a case last year against the National Park Service to stop culling deer and stop deer culling in the park. Can you tell us a little bit about that and who was involved in the lawsuit?
ROUSEYes. I joined some of my neighbors and the organization In Defense of Animals, which is a national group, in filing suit against the National Park Service because we strongly believed that they were not taking the right approach to address the longtime problem of invasive plants in the park. For decades they haven't been taking care of the park and they now blame the deer for causing tree regeneration problems when it's simply not the case.
ROUSEThey -- the lawsuit -- we lost the lawsuit in March but only on a narrow ground that the agency was -- the judge deemed that the agency had adopted a balanced approach to protecting all animals and vegetation. But our argument is that under the Enabling Act that applies to this park they must first deal with a nonnative plant problem to see if that will ameliorate the decrease in native plants before resorting to killing the native deer.
ROUSESo our position is that the Rock Creek Park is out of balance. The ecosystem is out of balance. This is what's pushing the deer out into the community. This is what's causing people to perceive there to be an overpopulation problem, which we disagree with. We think if the park would do its job and would...
NNAMDIOkay. I do understand you disagree with that and feel that the park should do its job, but what evidence can you present to our listeners that it is not the deer that are doing major damage to native plants and habitat, but that it is in fact invasive species?
ROUSEWell, the trees -- anyone who has driven along Rock Creek Park's borders can see the invasive vines simply choking the trees. And there's a local group that has offered to cut these vines, but the park service will only let them cut a narrow window around the tree rather than pulling these destructive vines out of the ground. Yet they will shoot a deer to kill in the head that simply is a native species that's not doing any harm.
NNAMDIYou also make the argument that you do not agree with the common complaint that deer spread Lyme disease. Why not?
ROUSEThey do not spread Lyme disease, absolutely true. Mice are the main vectors for that and the deer actually help keep the black legged tick from humans by grooming themselves and swallowing these ticks. And so if you create a situation where you have fewer deal, you're going to have more ticks. It's the foxes that eat the mice. And if the foxes are getting mange and dying than we have a problem with the mice getting eaten. So this is an ecosystem problem and it's out of balance in Rock Creek Park. And we want the park service to do something about it.
NNAMDIYou have -- Mary Rouse you have another suggestion to reduce collisions with deer on the roads. What is it?
ROUSEWell, there's something called a Strieter-Lite that has become very effective in sending signals to deer as they are close to a road and vehicles going by and they see a row of sequential flashing lights. It's spelled S-T-R-I-E-T-E-R. Now, these things are available. We have other means to help protect deer, signs and other visible means. But the park service knows where these few number of collisions are occurring. We don't have that many in D.C. The park service knows where these are happening and they could easily put up these signs and Strieter-Lites to help prevent the collisions.
ROUSEBut what we've found is that the park service actually wants these. They're quoted as saying, "it is logical to assume that lowering the speed limit park-wide would lower the number of deer vehicle collisions. However, lowering the speed limit could also increase the deer population because of less mortality." This is the park service writing this so we feel that the park service really isn't motivated to do anything about reducing the few collisions that we do have in the city.
NNAMDIMary Rouse, thank you for joining us.
NNAMDIMary Rouse is a preservationist and a longtime resident of the district, one of the original plaintiffs in a lawsuit asking that the National Park Service stop culling deer in Rock Creek Park. Stephanie, you see an opportunity missed in the case of Rock Creek Park and the lawsuit?
GRIFFINAbsolutely. We had approached the National Park Service back in 2009 with a proposal to work in partnership -- a public private partnership with them to conduct a fertility-control program for deer there. And it's disappointing because we presented this to them in 2009. It was a five-year study. If we had started doing it then there's a really good chance that the park service would not have to be killing deer now. We would've seen the success of the project over that period of time. And we wouldn't even be having this conversation.
GRIFFINI'd like to think that we'd be on your show talking about the success of the project with the NPS. And the NPS would actually be on the show with us right here talking about the success of working in partnership with us and other stakeholders like Mary Rouse, to come up with a win-win solution to the issue with deer at Rock Creek as opposed to something that's so controversial and polarizing.
NNAMDII should notice that the National Park Service has joined us about this conversation in the past, were unable to join us today. The voice you just heard is that of Stephanie Boyles Griffin, senior director for Wildlife Response, Innovations and Services with the Humane Society of the United States. She joins us in studio with Bill Hamilton, principal natural resources specialist and wildlife ecologist with Montgomery County Parks, and Brian Eyler, deer project leader with the Maryland Department of Natural Resources.
NNAMDIBrian, your thoughts on what Mary had to say about public opinion. Is the public against killing deer?
EYLERNo. For the most part public surveys that we have, 60 to 70 to 80 percent of Marylanders recognize the need to manage deer. It is controversial. Obviously there's a relatively small percentage that are opposed to lethal management. And there's also only a relatively small percentage of Marylanders that do hunt, probably 7 to 8 percent hunt. But by and large, you know, the majority of Marylanders recognize the need to manage deer. And, you know, currently lethal management is the most effective approach we have, regulated hunting, controlled hunts, sharpshooting, etcetera.
NNAMDISame question to you Bill Hamilton.
HAMILTONI agree with Brian. Our outreach efforts have suggested that approximately two out of every three residents support efforts to reduce the deer population through lethal means. We get very little communication from people opposed to our operations these days. But there is a vocal minority out there that, you know, is looking out for the welfare of animals and sees this as a problem.
NNAMDIWell, that vocal minority may be all over our telephone lines. Let's start with Ed in Silver Spring, Md. Ed, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
EDYeah, my feeling is that killing with bullets rather than using contraceptives conveys the message to children and everybody else that killing is a way to solve problems. And this is worldwide something we should be discouraging in children and everyone else.
NNAMDIWhat do you say in response to that, Brian Eyler?
EYLERThe technology that we currently have with contraceptives, it just isn't at a place where we can effectively manage deer on any kind of a broad scale. It hasn't been demonstrated. In Maryland we're very open minded. We have cooperated on several different contraceptive projects. We also have been involved with surgical sterilization of deer. To date none of these projects have demonstrated the capability of being able to manage deer effectively with a non-lethal means.
NNAMDIStephanie, there's ongoing debate about whether the deer population is in fact growing. Those who manage parks and natural resources say the numbers are in fact increasing. What is your understanding?
GRIFFINWell, for Rock Creek Park specifically, the population has remained stable there for the last 20 years. There may have been an increase, you know, 20 or 30 years ago, but there have been between 60 and 90 deer per square mile there for the last 10 to 20 years. So the question I don't think is whether the population is increasing there. It's not. It's how to manage it best, given all of the different stake holders involved. And, again, we suggested that they simply control the population growth rate and the population would go down naturally over time without them having to resort to using a really controversial lethal program.
NNAMDIAnd I suspect the human population in the region is growing. Bill, what's your take on whether the deer population is growing?
HAMILTONWell, we monitor deer populations throughout Montgomery County and in my opinion there's no doubt that the deer population is growing. Not only because of deer population growth, but also because of concentration, as was already mentioned, as habitat loss and landscape changes occur deer are kind of packed into smaller areas. So that is a problem, as well.
NNAMDISame question to you, Brian.
EYLERStatewide the trend is a stable deer population. Obviously when you get into suburban urban areas where management is more difficult, which is why we're here today, you know, the populations can be growing in some of those areas. But by and large, statewide in Maryland, our population has been stable for the last ten years or so.
NNAMDIWe have to take a short break. If you have called stay on the line. We will get to your calls. If the lines are busy you can shoot us an email to firstname.lastname@example.org. What do you think of the current programs now underway in parks in our region to reduce the deer population? That's email@example.com. You can send us a tweet @kojoshow, or go to our website, kojoshow.org and make your comment there. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
NNAMDIWelcome back. We're discussing deer management in Rock Creek Park with Brian Eyler. He is the deer project leader with the Maryland Department of Natural Resources. Stephanie Boyles Griffin is the senior director for Wildlife Response Innovations and Services with the Human Society of the United States. And Bill Hamilton is the principle natural resource specialist and wildlife ecologist with Montgomery County Parks. Bill, it's my understanding that it's not easy to get a hand on the total deer population in any given area, such as countywide. Why is that?
HAMILTONWell, cost is the number one reason. In Montgomery County there are 80 square miles of habitat. And it would be extremely time consuming and costly to try to evaluate deer populations across the entire landscape. Not to mention the fact that many of the properties are under different jurisdiction.
NNAMDIThere's another phenomenon to be taken into account here that affects how many deer are in a particular area, habitat loss. Can you talk about that?
HAMILTONWell, throughout time we've seen changing landscapes, particularly in Montgomery County, Md., where there wasn't a lot of forests 50 years ago. Much of the county was agrarian and urban. And as things have changed, you know, societal changes have resulted in changes in habitat. The environmental movement alone, you know, we've acquired a tremendous amount of park land in Montgomery County which does great things for the citizenry, but in reality it provides additional habitat, the ideal habitat for deer, the edge habitat. Suburban neighborhoods do the same.
HAMILTONSo as habitat changes deer have adapted to utilize that area.
NNAMDIYour comments on habitat change, Stephanie?
GRIFFINI agree with everything that Bill just said, but I think that there is -- because we have taken so much from all of wildlife, you know, as we develop land, we're taking land away from them. And even though we have left a lot of land for them in Montgomery County, I think we have a moral obligation to give back to them. And I think part of giving back is peacefully coexisting with them. And part of that is finding non-lethal solutions to resolving conflicts with them, but also to managing them. Again, one of the reasons we have been leading the effort to do so and look to work with federal agencies and state agencies like Maryland DNR and local municipalities like Montgomery County Parks to implement these solutions so that people have a viable effective solution that doesn't involve killing wildlife.
NNAMDIBrian, how are counts made to determine the number of deer in a particular area?
EYLERWell, there's different techniques. As Bill eluded to, they can be expensive. Forward-looking infrared cameras can be used, whether it's aerial or ground. Most of our population models for deer statewide are generated off of trends. We actually manage off of indexes. So we're looking at annual hunting harvest as a good index of what the population's doing. When you get into a more local scale, that's when you can kind of fine tune and maybe use spotlights, FLIR, that kind of thing.
NNAMDIAnd, Bill, to what extent do you do this, in part, based on the complaints of citizens? It's my understanding that in Montgomery County, based on those complaints, you've seen also shifts in the deer population farther south. Can you talk about that?
HAMILTONSure. Well, it's important to note that we have been actively pursuing a countywide deer management plan since 1995. And that that plan consists of a variety of things, including data collection, education outreach, non-lethal mitigation techniques and population management. And we have been managing populations actively on Montgomery Park land since 1996. So while we've gotten a hold of deer numbers in some of our parks in the central area of the county and northern area of the county, the corridors that parkland presents allow for deer to expand into some of the southern areas, Chevy Chase, Silver Spring, Wheaton, Bethesda, just to name a few.
HAMILTONSo we're seeing an increase in the number of deer and the number of impacts experienced to our southern-most citizens in those park lands.
NNAMDII understand there are 28 locations in Montgomery Parks, where you work. We'll get to controlled hunts in a second, but it's my understanding that deer management involves a lot more than that. What's the scope of your work?
HAMILTONWell, as I mentioned we are kind of processing under the guide lines of the countywide deer management program. We do a lot of things over time. We created this document back in 1995 and it's considered a living document. You know, as habitat changes, as deer impacts change and as technologies change we add to that document in an attempt to get a grasp and minimize the impacts that citizens feel. But it's important to learn more about suburban deer populations. It's important to reach our citizens and kind of teach them about deer populations, the impacts that they are experiencing and how they can mitigate problems on their property in an effort to build tolerance.
HAMILTONWe also recognize that it's important to utilize non-lethal techniques. We have fenced facilities. We have worked with state highway administration and local authorities to fence roadways, to build under passage. We provide homeowner workshops to try to teach homeowners how to deal with deer damage on their properties. And as mentioned we do conduct deer population management throughout Montgomery County.
NNAMDIThe most controversial methods, which Mary referred to in talking about Rock Creek Park are managed hunts, which Montgomery County has been conducting since 1996. Tell us about that program.
HAMILTONWell, we advocate for a comprehensive deer management program. And as part of that population reduction is important. And we have been conducting deer population management using controlled hunts, and using park police sharpshooting program dating back to December of 1996. As you mentioned, currently we are conducting these operations in 28 parcels of Montgomery parkland. Everywhere from Clarksburg to Silver Spring, Chevy Chase. We're implementing a program in Cabin John Regional Park in Bethesda. We've seen great return on investment from these programs.
HAMILTONIn all locations where we are actively managing deer, the impacts have been reduced significantly. And we continue to search out new areas where we can have a…
NNAMDISo you're saying that these programs have a significant impact?
HAMILTONYes. We have seen a reduced deer-vehicle collisions at these sites. We've seen reduced citizen complaint. And we're starting to see a return of some of our forest resources.
NNAMDITo which, Stephanie Boyles Griffin, you say?
GRIFFINThe problem that we have with these programs is that is based on having to continually engage in this vicious cycle of killing deer over and over again. The reason being is because of compensatory reproduction -- the rebound effect. When you kill a significant proportion of the doe population, the does that are remaining are going to have more fawns more quickly. They're going to have twins and triplets instead of just one or no fawns a year. And so every year all we're doing, for lack of a better term, we're mowing the lawn every year.
GRIFFINAnd we see this as needless suffering, needless death. If we could be suppressing the growth population so those fawns are not born, we're not having to go and kill them every year when the population rebounds. So the only reason it's effective is that we're having to kill deer over and over and over again. We want to get off the deer-killing treadmill and suppress the population growth rate using non-lethal methods.
EYLERYeah, this year, statewide, hunters will remove 50,000 female deer off the landscape in Maryland. Those 50,000 females won't have 50,000 fawns next spring. It's hard to argue with those numbers. If compensatory reproduction was a factor -- mowing the lawn, as Stephanie eludes to -- if, you know, you look at Monocacy Battlefield, Antietam Battlefield, any of these places that don't have hunting, they have deer populations that are ten times what our deer population is across Maryland where we do have hunting.
EYLERSo compensatory reproduction may bump up the birth rate, but it's not anywhere near the benefit that you get from removing those deer from the population.
HAMILTONWell, I was going to make the same point that Brian made. But I'll also suggest that any type of population reduction, whether it be lethal or non-lethal, requires long term maintenance.
NNAMDIOn to Marianna, in Washington, D.C. Marianna, your turn.
MARIANNAHi, Kojo. Well, I'm frankly appalled at all this killings. And I'd like to ask Mr. Hamilton and Mr. Eyler why they are resorting to killing the deer when contraception works as a means to control deer populations? Is it just that they are going for the easier and cheaper option?
NNAMDIFirst you, Brian Eyler.
EYLERAs I mentioned, we have…
NNAMDIWhen she says contraception works, what studies do you have that compare the effectiveness of contraception to culling?
EYLERWe have cooperated on -- there's one contraceptive that's currently on the market that's approved to be used in deer. All the other contraceptives are purely in a research phase. We have cooperated on the two most significant contraceptives out there. Neither of those has demonstrated the ability to manage deer effectively on any kind of a significant scale.
EYLERAs far as being cheaper…
EYLER…hunting is not the cheaper -- or I'm sorry, hunting is the most efficient, effective and much cheaper way to manage deer.
NNAMDIStephanie Boyles Griffin?
GRIFFINI would have to disagree with Brian on this. The effectiveness of fertility control is site specific, but in places like Fripp Island, S.C., we were able to reduce the deer population there by 50 percent in less than five years by using porcine zona pellucida, PZP, which is an immuno-contraception vaccine that we're currently studying on white-tailed deer and wild horses in the western United States. So I would disagree with him there. There's a very good chance that because Rock Creek Park is a semi-closed system that it would have worked quite well there. But we won't know unless we try using these methods of technology.
GRIFFINThe other thing I would suggest is that places like San Jose, Calif., Cuyahoga Heights, now Fairfax City, Va., are conducting surgical sterilization programs where they actually conduct ovariectomies. They remove the ovaries from deer after immobilizing them with immobilization drugs. And therefore those animals are not ever able to give birth again. They don't have to be retreated over and over again like we do with vaccines. And there is clearly -- because of all these new projects that are coming up -- there's clearly public demand for non-lethal methods. We want to work with places like Montgomery County, Maryland DNR, and NPS to study these more and make them available to the public that clearly is demanding them and that they want them.
NNAMDIWell, Stephanie, how do we ascertain what the public really wants? On the one hand we have Brian and Bill both saying that from everything that they have been able to gather the public is in favor of sharpshooters culling herds. Then we have you saying, no, that's not what the public wants at all. The public is demanding something else.
GRIFFINFor Rock Creek Park, a Washington Post poll showed that the majority of citizens that responded the poll did not want them to kill deer in Rock Creek Park. And I would say that Brian is right, that the majority of people see that deer need to be managed, but I don't think that they necessarily believe that they need to be managed by killing them?
NNAMDIOn to John, in Silver Spring, Md. John, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
JOHNHi, Kojo. This issue is very, very personal to me. I spent most of last year teaching myself how to walk again after recovering from a very serious illness. And the most effective way I was able to regain my balance was hiking along the Wheaton Regional Park trails. And on some of those hikes I was lucky enough to see deer. And there was this one doe who hopped up pretty regularly and whenever I saw her she'd wag her tail at me. And it always made me smile. And believe me, last year I didn't smile very much. And when I saw the signs of the arrival of the sharpshooters that are supposed to come over tomorrow to the park, I realized that I've got an unbelievable debt of gratitude that I owe these deer.
NNAMDIYeah, but, John, the argument that you are making is an argument that says let's not do anything at all about the deer.
JOHNActually, Kojo, what I wanted to conclude with is that in order to repay this debt I respectfully ask the powers that be in Montgomery County to, in fact, implement those non-lethal forms that you just heard Stephanie talk about…
NNAMDIOkay. Thank you very much for your call. Stephanie, you suggest ways that the programs that you are advocating can be cost effective, sterilization, fertility control?
GRIFFINWell, one of the ways is through public/private partnerships and in-kind contributions from organizations like the HSUS, veterinarians that would be willing to work pro bono to do a surgical sterilization project at Rock Creek or a PZP project there. And local agencies like the Washington Humane Society that would be willing to work with the NPS, the HSUS and other stakeholders, so that the NPS is not having to pay the entire bill for doing a project at that time.
NNAMDIWe're running out of time, but I know, Brian, at the state level you've cooperated on a sterilization project.
EYLERYes. And we will continue to do so in the future. You know, we're not close-minded and just on a lethal management tract. We recognize that we need non-lethal, as well.
NNAMDIWell, this is clearly a conversation that we'll be continuing for a while. Brian Eyler is the deer project leader with the Maryland Department of Natural Resources. Stephanie Boyles Griffin is the senior director for Wildlife Response Innovation and Services with the Humane Society of the United States. And Bill Hamilton is the principle natural resources specialist and wildlife ecologist with Montgomery County Parks. Thank you all for joining us. And thank you all for listening. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
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