Gettysburg deer herd may be cut by 90%

January 08, 1995|By Greg Tasker | Greg Tasker,Sun Staff Correspondent

GETTYSBURG, Pa. -- Another battle is being waged here but instead of soldiers in gray uniforms heading north, it's against four-legged and less-fearsome invaders -- growing numbers of white-tailed deer.

The National Park Service, which manages the Gettysburg Battlefield, is proposing to cut the deer population by as much as 90 percent.

Intensive browsing by the animals is damaging fields where farmers grow crops and the re-growth of historic wooded areas on the hallowed Civil War ground, say park service officials who are considering several measures to curb the growing population.

Park managers estimate that from 800 to 1,000 deer live in the area -- a number they would trim to about 80. They would use relocation, sterilization and controlled shootings to reduce the herds.

Deer commonly are seen by visitors throughout the Gettysburg acreage, where a decisive three-day Civil War battle was fought in July 1863, and on the nearby preserved farm of the late president Dwight D. Eisenhower.

Park officials said that managing the deer population is essential to preserve the landscape of the 5,733-acre battlefield, where more than 50,000 Union and Confederate soldiers were killed and wounded during fighting that included charges from woods -- such as the famous Pickett's Charge -- across open farmland.

"It's very important to see the open fields or woods to understand the battle landscape," said Katie Lawhon, a spokeswoman for Gettysburg National Military Park. "If we don't do something about the damage now, what will the woods look like in 100 years or 200 years?"

Park service officials would like the deer population reduced to about 25 deer for each of the 3.2 forested acres within an 11-square-mile area that includes the southern part of the battlefield, the Eisenhower farm and private land.

The area is now home to about 90 deer per acre.

Park officials cite studies of deer populations in comparable areas elsewhere in Pennsylvania and in northern New York in proposing 25 animals per forested acre as a desirable goal.

Their preferred management plan is a combination of shooting the deer and sterilization.

Park service officials are seeking public comment on a draft of the plan, which has been circulating locally since November. Reducing the deer population has been under study for years.

Ms. Lawhon said the earliest such measures could be attempted would be in the first part of next year.

Little, if any, public outcry has risen against the park service's proposal for reducing the deer herds.

"Ten years ago, it would have been impossible to have something like this without controversy," said Dick Waybright, an Adams County commissioner and dairy farmer. "Local nonfarmers used to think it was so nice to look at deer until they started eating their expensive shrubs to survive during the winter.

"There is a general realization that we have to reduce the deer population. It's gotten out of control," he said.

Groups such as the Chamber of Commerce of Gettysburg and Adams County and the local chapter of the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals have declined to comment.

Not everyone agrees on how the population should be managed or reduced.

"I would like to see a nonlethal attempt made first," said Barbara Platt, who lives on a 28-acre farm outside Gettysburg. "The deer problems are exacerbated by large crop fields. I would like to see an alteration of the farming to see if that would resolve the deer problem. I would like to see that before we resort to any hunting."

Mrs. Platt said the farming that occurs on the battlefield now is not representative of agricultural practices in 1863. Farmers then grew crops in smaller fields -- instead of the 200- to 300-acre fields of corn, sorghum and other crops found on the battlefield today.

"The battlefield doesn't look like it did in 1863," she said. "But if it did look like it did in 1863, who would want to farm small farms? It's not economically feasible."

George Lower, owner of Lord Nelson's Nature Store and Gallery in downtown Gettysburg, agreed that farming practices should be altered to discourage the deer from browsing on the battlefield.

"The farming program there is not historically accurate," he said. "It's much more modern and efficient. A simple way to get rid of some of the deer would be not to plant corn. Having all that corn out there is like having a lollipop for a kid."

Ms. Lawhon said such measures have been considered. Park officials, she said, aren't trying to re-create an 1863 farming environment. Rather, they're trying to preserve what was open agricultural land. And the crops grown on the leased land is the decision of farmers, who have to follow National Park Service guidelines.

"We have substituted corn in a lot of places," she said. "There's been a suggestion to convert to native grasses, but we don't feel that would meet our interpretive objectives."

Some question other aspects of the proposed shooting.

"We have lots of deer -- there's no question about that," said

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