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For some, they represent a magical spectacle in the heart of the city, for others, a pest that devours their gardens, endangers traffic and helps to spread tick-borne diseases.

After being nearly wiped out by deforestation and overhunting in the 19th century, deer have made a resounding comeback in the United States. They are estimated to number over 30 million, many of them along the east coast.

In Washington, deer are threatening the future of Rock Creek Park, a “hidden gem” spanning 710 acres and offering residents refuge from daily life in the seat of federal power.

The towering oak trees in the park are simply majestic. But it’s not the mature canopy that has experts worried.

“If this forest was completely healthy, we wouldn’t be able to see this far,” National Park Service (NPS) official Megan Nortrup told AFP, pointing to a large clearing just off the trail on a blustery day. end of summer.

In the absence of their natural predators, white-tailed deer have devoured native plant species essential to local biodiversity, including young trees necessary for forest renewal.

In other words, such forests could disappear within a hundred years.

Park botanist Ana Chuquin opens the gate to a small fenced lot to keep deer out. This is part of a long-running experiment involving protected plots combined with unprotected controls.

She points to a 1.8 meter tall sapling that survived only because deer were physically prevented from accessing it.

“Everywhere you don’t see a single tree of that size, so that means we’ve lost that generation,” Chuquín said.

Because deer have evolved alongside plants native to the area, they prefer to eat them over non-native invaders like linden cranberry, a garden favorite whose seeds are carried around the park by wind, water and birds. .

This is bad news, as local insect species depend on native plants and the effects of their loss ripple through food webs, jeopardizing the ecosystem as a whole.

Armed biologists

In response to the ungulate threat, the NPS decided in 2013 to begin annual culls.

These take place in winter, at night, the park being cordoned off. Firearms-trained biologists use infrared thermal scanners and night-vision goggles to thin out the herds.

In 2020, the program was expanded to other Washington parks operated by NPS.

At their peak, the deer numbered more than 100 per square mile – far more than the 20 per square mile that scientists have determined to be a lasting presence – but have since been culled.

During a public comment period, some residents asked the NPS if, instead of killing deer, it would be possible to bring back predators like wolves, coyotes and bobcats.

In its official response, the NPS said wolves “have home ranges averaging 30 square miles when deer are their primary prey,” while the entire Rock Creek Park spans 2.8 square miles (7 square kilometers).

Additionally, it is “impractical to reintroduce new predators…given the possible negative effects on residents of surrounding rural or suburban areas, particularly on the safety of children and pets,” it notes. it in discreet bureaucratic language.

There are tentative signs that deer management is making a positive difference for the park, Chuquin said, but she stressed that recovery is a long process.

Urban deer hunting

A half-hour drive from town in Great Falls, Va., local Taylor Chamberlin decided to take matters into his own hands.

He had joined the family real estate business after his studies, but soon realized he had another calling.

Armed with a traditional bow or crossbow, the so-called ‘urban deer hunter’ spends his days going door to door asking neighbors if they want help with the deer that devour their gardens.

In a suburban environment, Chamberlin says, “you can’t risk anything but the perfect shot”: you don’t want deer bleeding into someone’s pool.

Deer are so plentiful that hunting season never ends, and much of the game Chamberlin kills goes to food banks.

Young people in the city, concerned about the impact of mass agriculture on their health and on the environment, contacted him via social networks to find out how they too can hunt.

Committing suicide is never easy, the 38-year-old said.

But he added that it connects him to the natural world and gives him a better appreciation for the meat on his plate.


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