Rock Creek Park officials are waiting for National Park Service approval of a plan that allows to them employ sharpshooters to reduce the deer population in the Washington, DC, section of the park, as is done in Montgomery County.
Approval may come as early as Feb. 13.
Without action to control the deer population, Rock Creek Park will become nothing more than a "tangle of trees" that don't represent the native habitat because of overgrazing by deer, said Park Ranger Nick Bartolomeo.
Rock Creek Park rangers and biologists fenced areas of the park to protect them from deer. They found that the undergrowth in the protected areas was healthier and more diverse.
Rock Creek Park follows the Rock Creek from Lake Needwood in Rockville to the edge of the Potomac River in Georgetown. It widens in the northwest corner of DC to cover the entire area between Oregon Avenue and 16th Street. It also expands north of Norbeck Road in Rockville.
If approved, the sharpshooting will occur on winter nights, when the park is closed. It will be conducted by specially trained biologists from the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
"Safety is the primary concern," Bartolomeo said.
His staff will patrol the park to make sure that no one is in the area when the sharpshooting occurs.
Still, the public expressed safety concerns during the public comment period from July to November 2009. Ethical issues were also of concern.
The National Park Service received 2,560 comments on various aspects of the plan. Opponents outnumbered supporters by a ratio of about three to one.
The goal of the plan is reduce the deer population from about 80 per square mile to 15-20 per square mile because that is the level at which scientists have determined the forest will regenerate, Bartolomeo said. There are about 375 deer in Rock Creek Park.
Sharpshooting will occur for at least three years. Nonlethal methods will be considered in subsequent years.
The service will also consider contraceptive controls, if those methods meet its criteria, Bartolomeo said.
Montgomery County already uses a combination of sharpshooting and hunting to control its deer population.
At the Montgomery County Agricultural History Farm Park, where the deer population was cut significantly between 2001 and 2007, farming is profitable again, said Rob Gibbs, the county's natural resource manager.
But human-deer conflict remains a problem. In 2010, there were almost 2,000 deer-vehicle collisions in the county, according to an annual report on its deer management program.
"We are looking at moving the deer management program farther down county [toward the DC border], but it's not going to be happening soon," Gibbs said, citing budgetary constraints.
Gibbs said the deer management program is gradually expanding into urban areas and smaller parks, but cautioned that safety concerns are a constraint.
Gibbs supports the proposal to allow sharpshooting of deer on the DC side of Rock Creek Park, and said it will "compliment" Montgomery County's efforts.
"In order to maintain the full diversity you need to manage the population otherwise you'll end up with a forest of deer and not much else," he said.
Approval of the plan would mark the end of a lengthy process that began in 2005. Public comments were taken into account and a lengthy environmental impact statement was created.
Sharpshooting of deer already occurs in the U.S. National Arboretum in DC, Bartolomeo said, and has proceeded without incident.