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In the midst of a federal shutdown, the Antietam and Monocacy battlefields in Maryland and the Manassas battlefield in Virginia are closed—to us. They have become quiet deer refuges. But the luck of the deer is unlikely to last, given a plan in the works to gun down more than 2,800 of them.
The biggest slaughter would happen in Manassas, where more than 1,600 deer are targeted. The National Park Service announced this deer-killing operation at the three Civil War battlefields in the name of defending vegetation and “other natural and cultural resources.”
The Service would, according to its plan, put surviving deer on contraceptives, assuming those substances become approved for such use.
There is no emergency. This plan simply expands a policy initiated at Valley Forge and Rock Creek national parks, where the Service is promoting a shooting-contraceptive “bundle”; methods announced in tandem to exert total control over deer.
Hundreds of thousands of dollars go into the annual wintertime management of deer in these parks. By shooting most deer before they become mature, the government is creating groups of only very young animals. And chemical contraceptives mean deer must be hunted down and captured; physical results may include abnormal antler development, inflammation, pain and abscesses.
Treating deer as experimental subjects, which has been going on for 30 years, involves the pharmaceutical sector, university laboratories, and the Humane Society of the United States.Not only is this a horror for deer whose bodies are invaded and examined; it also puts natural predators out of a job.
For indeed coyotes curb deer populations in a timeless and biologically natural way. The Park Service claims that coyotes in and around the Battlefields are merely scavengers. In fact, coyotes hunt animals as large as elk, according to the Service itself—not in its Battlefields Plan, but in other available materials.
A study in South Carolina found decreased deer following an increase in coyotes; in Alabama, coyotes were the leading cause of a 67 percent mortality rate among fawns in Auburn deer. But coyote populations are suppressed by human trappers and hunters in both Maryland and Virginia. The National Park Service has avoided confronting the harm this does to the biological balance of the region.
Meanwhile, researchers at Ohio State University and the National Park Service itself are challenging the science that suggests deer ravage ecosystems. High deer populations promote biodiversity when their waste enriches soil, with ripple effects throughout the food web, starting with earthworms, spiders, ants, slugs, snails and insects, snakes and salamanders.
Evidence shows plants’ vital uptake of carbon increases where both herbivores and carnivores exist. This has significance for biodiversity conservation and climate change mitigation—and it’s impossible to overstate the urgency of this point. By 2100, rising levels of human-produced greenhouse gases and subsequent climate change are expected to modify plant communities so drastically that nearly 40% of land will change from one major ecological type—such as forest, grassland or tundra—into another.
The Interior Department can’t stop those changes on its own, but it can direct its National Park Service to stop substituting firearms and pharmaceutical control for nature. Unsuppressed by hunting and trapping, coyotes would need time to resume their roles as organized and effective predators—but the government could play a helpful role by guiding people to acceptance and safe co-existence. They’d then spare our money from federal contracts for unending cycles of killing ever-resilient groups of animals.
Lee Hall is a candidate for Vermont Law School’s LL.M. in environmental law (2014). Previously, Lee taught animal law and immigration law, and worked for more than a decade in environmental and animal advocacy. Lee, who co-founded the Coyote Coexistence Initiative to supplement the case against deer control at Valley Forge, is the author of On Their Own Terms: Bringing Animal-Rights Philosophy Down to Earth (Friends of Animals’ Nectar Bat Press, 2010). Follow Lee on Twitter: @Animal_Law