Cuyahoga Valley National Park's Deer Culling Plan Approved

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Near the Boston Township site, Lisa Petit, Chief of Resource Management for the Cuyahoga Valley National Park, takes me to a central area of the park where the highest densities of deer have been recorded.

Right now there’s about 50 deer per square mile. Petit says sharpshooters will hopefully get the herd size down to roughly half that.

“We believe in four years, we can bring the population well within that density range, to about 23 deer per square mile, which is a great healthy density to have," she says.

The deer numbers are high largely because the park borders suburbs. Here, locals often feed the deer, and the animals are safe from many of their natural predators, as well as most hunting.

Petit says regional metroparks’ own deer culling operations in years past have helped lower the deer population, but it’s still too high.

How do park officials know this? Petit takes me to a fenced in clump of tall, leafy growth….called an “exclosure.”

“Native tree seedlings are getting taller, growing every year…inside the fence. Outside, they’re kept at a very short height. And we’re losing the number of tree seedlings, outside versus inside.”

Besides stunting vegetation, park officials say more deer increase the risk of collisions with cars, and their overgrazing may help invasive species of plants to spread.

After the sharpshooting phase, the next step will have remaining female deer treated with an injectable contraceptive, still in development.

Culling deer is never easy, especially for public relations. Cuyahoga Falls resident June Truax, is especially upset about the sharpshooters.

“It’s not humane. “Boom boom boom boom boom…”…to just shoot them.”

Truax attended a public presentation of the plan last fall, and has since shared her opposition with the local newspaper. She disputes the need to eliminate hundreds of deer.

“They’re so peaceful, they’re so majestic….they’re not violent animals," laments Truax. "What will the children think when we just massacre this many deer?”

Another critic is Kent Webb, a San Jose Business School professor who runs a site called DeerFriendly.com. He tracks deer control efforts across the U.S. as part of an ongoing research project. He wants park officials to consider alternatives like a boundary fence.

“Fencing is a very good long-term solution," says Webb. "In Utah, there is a hunting group called the Mule Deer Foundation that’s actually relocating deer.”

But an environmental impact statement for the Cuyahoga Valley National Park says vegetation would still suffer with fencing. And it cites a 1990 study that showed more than half of relocated deer died within a year after release.

One neighboring park system approves the deer culling plan in Ohio. Deirdre Gibson is Chief of Planning and Resource Management at Valley Forge National Park in Pennsylvania. Its deer control program is in its fifth year.

“We were at 241 deer per square mile in 2010, and as of last spring we were at 49,” she says.

Gibson says their plan is similar to Cuyahoga Valley National Park’s. She expects her park to reach 30 to 35 deer per square mile this spring, which is the objective.

Opponents unsuccessfully challenged the plan three times in court, claiming it didn’t account for the predatory role of coyotes. Gibson is skeptical that they can sack a full-sized, healthy animal.

“But I think that if coyotes were successful in managing a deer problem we would have a coyote problem, because after they were finished with the deer herd they’d probably be going after our neighbor’s pets.”

Park officials say a bad outcome would still be coming if nothing was done about the deer in Cuyahoga Valley. Back near Boston Township, Lisa Petit points out a desolate spot where a sad discovery was made ten years ago…when the deer density was at its worst.

“Dozens of deer perished right in the spot where they had laid down," recalls Petit. "Their stomachs were full of low quality grasses and low quality food.

"They were desperate.”

Sharpshooting will begin later this year. Meat from slaughtered deer will be donated to local food pantries.

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