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.