The deerhunter returns to Washington

The rose gardens and parks of the US capital are under attack and only lethal force can save them from the doe-eyed assailants

Related Topics

Guns, abortion, birth control and the sanctity of personal property – all of the ingredients for a classic Washington political  argument. But in this case there are two crucial differences. For once, a dispute in the ever-disputatious capital of the free world has to do with a runaway surplus, not a deficit. And this problem relates primarily not to human beings, but to deer.

Simply put, there are far too many of them. Rock Creek Park is one of the unsung marvels of this city, a sliver of hilly woodland that runs down from the Maryland line, practically as far as the Potomac. Drive from our part of town to pick up a friend at Reagan National, and it’s five miles of winding country road until you burst out onto downtown and the river, with the Watergate building on your left and the Lincoln Memorial straight ahead. It might be our private road to the airport.

 In one way, of course, a white-tailed deer sighting completes this improbable rural idyll: soft-eyed graceful creatures grazing unmolested by the roadway, proof that man and wild beast can happily co-exist. But that’s precisely the trouble. Bambi, in Washington DC and across swathes of the eastern US, has become far too much of a good thing. Indeed there are probably more deer now than when the European settlers arrived four centuries ago.

As recently as 1960 virtually the only deer inside the city were to be found at the zoo. Even when we first moved here, in the early 1990s, you only saw one occasionally. Now they’re everywhere, sauntering around in broad daylight as if they owned the place. The National Park Service, which runs Rock Creek, reckons there are now 60 or 70 deer for each of its six square miles, four times the number the park can support.

Yes, they’re adorable to look at. But consider the damage they do. They help propagate Lyme disease, spread by deer-borne ticks. Then there are the “deer vehicle collisions”, or DVCs as they’re known in the trade, that cause loss of life to both man and beast, not to mention millions of dollars in damage. These collisions are at their peak in November’s rutting season, when not even a passing Sherman tank would serve to deter the amorous buck from pursuing a female of the species on the other side of the road.

 Most serious of all is the lasting damage to the woods themselves. Tender, juicy seedlings are a deer’s comfort food. But if the cervine population devours every one in sight, the forest simply cannot propagate; when wind or snow knocks over old trees, there is no replacement. In the process, too, they destroy the habitat of song birds and other creatures that live close to the ground.

And when the deer run out of natural forest to eat, they turn to man-made gardens. Here I must declare a personal interest. I live about half a mile from Rock Creek Park, and have a small bed of roses on the front lawn. Given that rosebuds are a deer’s caviar, it’s a Sisyphean task. Short of a chainmail fence, there’s no saving them from these sweet-faced browsers who steal up our streets at dead of night.

The only defence that works (intermittently) is a spray whose ingredients include garlic, rotten eggs and, it is said, coyote urine. So much for fragrant roses. But a few rain showers quickly wash this protection away and, by morning, the roses are once more decapitated. So, when I heard the Park Service had finally decided to send out sharpshooters to cull the deer, I was delighted. Not so, however, a fair wedge of the population.

Local community websites lit up and, before long, hardy animal rights protesters gathered of an evening on an intersection close to the park, with placards reading “Birth Control, Not Bullets.” Later, erudite argument broke out over what form of birth control should be employed. Some favoured the idea of capturing does to remove their ovaries, others advocated oral contraceptives or darts (but how do you know if the doe you hit hasn’t already been zapped?) Real purists feel that nothing at all need be done – or, in extreme cases, that any cull should be directed at our own species, not the deer.

But sharpshooters and guns it is. The first 20 animals were shot last year. However, after a series of court battles, the Park Service made the mistake of announcing a date, drawing the protesters out. Now they’re at it again, but only giving the news after the fact. Venturing out on four icy nights in early January, sharpshooters bagged 53 deer. The plan is to kill another 50-odd by the end of March, with the ultimate aim of a herd of around 60, compared with 300-plus today.

The reason for the deer explosion is the absence of natural predators. Studies have shown that when wolves and cougars abound, the deer population falls five sixths, exactly the sought-after reduction for Rock Creek Park. Clearly, you can’t restock an urban park with timberwolves – as shown by the fuss among local pet owners after the claimed sighting of a coyote a couple of years ago.

Nor can wolves escape their dreadful and enduring reputation. Having been almost exterminated in the West by mid-century, they were re-introduced in Idaho and Wyoming in 1995. They did fine, prompting the federal government to take them off the endangered species list. Egged on by hunters and livestock farmers, Idaho has just allowed its first wolf hunt in decades. Even in eco-conscious, politically correct DC, one feels, wolves wouldn’t have a prayer.

Which leaves the gun, wielded by man – that deadliest predator of all – as the most practical solution to Washington’s deer problem. Oh, but I forgot the predators at the zoo, on the edge of Rock Creek Park. Just before Christmas a white-tailed deer jumped into the cheetah enclosure, and met a predictable fate. Maybe that’s a solution that everyone could agree on.


React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Trainee Recruitment Consultants - Banking & Finance

£20000 - £25000 per annum + OTE £40,000: SThree: SThree Group have been well e...

Graduate Recruitment Resourcers - Banking Technologies

£18000 - £25000 per annum + OTE £40,000: SThree: Huxley Associates are looking...

Implementation Engineer

£150 - £200 per day: Orgtel: Implementation Engineer Hampshire / London (Gre...

Trainee Recruitment Consultant - Pharmacuetical

£20000 - £25000 per annum + OTE £40,000: SThree: Real Staffing, one of the UK'...

Day In a Page

Read Next
The new dawn heralded by George Osborne has yet to rise  

The UK economy may be back on track, but ordinary people are still being left behind

James Moore
The Independent journalist James Moore pictured outside Mile End underground station in east London  

The true cost of being disabled goes far beyond just the physical

James Moore
Backhanders, bribery and abuses of power have soared in China as economy surges

Bribery and abuses of power soar in China

The bribery is fuelled by the surge in China's economy but the rules of corruption are subtle and unspoken, finds Evan Osnos, as he learns the dark arts from a master
Commonwealth Games 2014: Highland terriers stole the show at the opening ceremony

Highland terriers steal the show at opening ceremony

Gillian Orr explores why a dog loved by film stars and presidents is finally having its day
German art world rocked as artists use renowned fat sculpture to distil schnapps

Brewing the fat from artwork angers widow of sculptor

Part of Joseph Beuys' 1982 sculpture 'Fettecke' used to distil schnapps
BBC's The Secret History of Our Streets reveals a fascinating window into Britain's past

BBC takes viewers back down memory lane

The Secret History of Our Streets, which returns with three films looking at Scottish streets, is the inverse of Benefits Street - delivering warmth instead of cynicism
Joe, film review: Nicolas Cage delivers an astonishing performance in low budget drama

Nicolas Cage shines in low-budget drama Joe

Cage plays an ex-con in David Gordon Green's independent drama, which has been adapted from a novel by Larry Brown
How to make your own gourmet ice lollies, granitas, slushy cocktails and frozen yoghurt

Make your own ice lollies and frozen yoghurt

Think outside the cool box for this summer's tempting frozen treats
Ford Fiesta is UK's most popular car of all-time, with sales topping 4.1 million since 1976

Fiesta is UK's most popular car of all-time

Sales have topped 4.1 million since 1976. To celebrate this milestone, four Independent writers recall their Fiestas with pride
10 best reed diffusers

Heaven scent: 10 best reed diffusers

Keep your rooms smelling summery and fresh with one of these subtle but distinctive home fragrances that’ll last you months
Commonwealth Games 2014: Female boxers set to compete for first time

Female boxers set to compete at Commonwealth Games for first time

There’s no favourites and with no headguards anything could happen
Five things we’ve learned so far about Manchester United under Louis van Gaal

Five things we’ve learned so far about United under Van Gaal

It’s impossible to avoid the impression that the Dutch manager is playing to the gallery a little
Screwing your way to the top? Good for Lana Del Rey for helping kill that myth

Screwing your way to the top?

Good for Lana Del Rey for helping kill that myth, says Grace Dent
Will the young Britons fighting in Syria be allowed to return home and resume their lives?

Will Britons fighting in Syria be able to resume their lives?

Tony Blair's Terrorism Act 2006 has made it an offence to take part in military action abroad with a "political, ideological, religious or racial motive"
Beyoncé poses as Rosie the Riveter, the wartime poster girl who became a feminist pin-up

Beyoncé poses as Rosie the Riveter

The wartime poster girl became the ultimate American symbol of female empowerment
The quest to find the perfect pair of earphones: Are custom, 3D printed earbuds the solution?

The quest to find the perfect pair of earphones

Earphones don't fit properly, offer mediocre audio quality and can even be painful. So the quest to design the perfect pair is music to Seth Stevenson's ears
US Army's shooting star: Lt-Col Steven Cole is the man Hollywood calls when it wants to borrow a tank or check a military uniform

Meet the US Army's shooting star

Lt-Col Steven Cole is the man Hollywood calls when it wants to borrow a tank or check a military uniform