Whitetail make selves at home in Valley Forge

Herd's annual growth rate is 20%

hunting barred in national park

March 12, 2000|By Francis X. Clines | Francis X. Clines,New York Times News Service

VALLEY FORGE, Pa. -- Of all the creatures caught up in suburban sprawl, few possess a more idyllic sanctuary than the white-tail deer herd of Valley Forge National Historical Park as they graze and multiply in safety while shopping malls and home developments boom on the horizon.

And few creatures are more bedeviled by the deer's position of privilege -- by the 1,000-member herd's annual growth rate of 20 percent as park hunting is absolutely barred -- than the neighboring homeowners of the Valley Forge Citizens for Deer Control Inc. They intercept deer daily on roads and backyard patios and bridle in civic meetings at their doe-eyed ubiquity.

"I used to be a Bambi fan, firmly against hunting such beautiful animals," said Jackie Schlichthernlein, a resident in despair at deer endlessly ravaging the expensive landscaping of her two-acre home site despite all manner of barriers. "But my hunter has just picked off an eight-pointer," she continued with a gaze of pay-back satisfaction at the thought of one less antlered buck to be seen from her kitchen window, munching flowers and making her Doberman, Shana, back off.

"And another hunter I had on the property picked off a four-pointer," Ms. Schlichthernlein exulted, saluting the bow-and-arrow stalkers who are solicited by the affluent needy in this region the way Welcome Wagoneers once served pioneer suburbanites. The bowmen are evidence of the success of a turn-of-the-century effort by conservationists to revive the white-tail herds in the Northeast states.

"There's been a deer population explosion," said Dr. Frank B. Gill, vice president for science of the National Audubon Society, who warns this is far too much of a good thing. "The consequences are substantial: in biology there has been a stripping out of the understory in the Northeast woods," he said, describing severe losses in basic wood life from ground cover to low-nesting birds. The deer eat away most greenery up to 6 feet from the ground, leaving naturalists warning that the regeneration of the region's oak and hickory forests is threatened as the deer scarf down saplings.

In contrast to the warnings, park visitors are awe-struck at the sight of 30, 40 or more of the white-tails wandering the same picturesque hillsides that once were sanctuary for George Washington's beleaguered Continental Army. Fat, sassy and in mating rut lately, the deer graze the park secure, by law, from the many specialized hunters who are busy now taking seasonal aim at the backyard deer problem.

"Deer are all over that park," said Ron Watt, president of White-tail Associates, a bow hunters group of 30 volunteers who spend their weekends killing deer in permitted jurisdictions in this fast-developing area 18 miles from Philadelphia. "Deer don't leave, they adapt, and they're finding some mighty tasty ornamental shrubs and nutritious plants in nearby yards," he said.

The National Park Service has a variety of approaches to the problem. The deer herd to the south in Gettysburg National Military Park was thinned when the deer ate into the woodlands considered vital to that park's depiction of the Civil War story. But at Valley Forge, the service has deemed precise preservation of the woods to be unnecessary in the story of General Washington's encampment in the harsh winter of 1777-1778, when trees were razed for miles around as huts were built and fires stoked.

"The deer issue at Valley Forge is a matter of perception and social tolerance," said Arthur L. Stewart, the park superintendent. He insists studies show that the deer wander no more than a quarter-mile from the 3,600-acre park and that the herd might not necessarily double in the next five years, as the current growth rate suggests. The general abundance of white-tail deer now being perceived from Maine to Virginia, Stewart noted, is due to a variety of factors, including human development that is consuming deer habitat and funneling the white-tails into to ever more prominent oases.

"If we were to cull the herd, the Congress would tell us to stop," Stewart said, arguing his park's mission statement allows no leeway for the hunting home owners are demanding.

"This park is a breeding ground," said James M. Morrisson, president of the local Citizens for Deer Control, blaming the deer for everything from the disappearance of traditional mountain laurel to the sudden rarity of the yellow-breasted chat.

His neighbors, who have signed up 300 strong in the control group, offer stories of noisome deer brazenly nibbling everything, even front-porch pumpkins. They were first noticed as cute newcomers and charming loners less than a decade ago, residents say, but have now become group nuisances that collide dangerously with cars, despoil backyards with droppings and carry Lyme disease.

Statewide, officials estimate 40,000 deer perish as road kill each year, while about four humans are killed and 600 injured annually in deer-car collisions.

"It's a travesty," said Morrisson staring at a woodland edge as dozens of park deer serenely stared back then kept eating. "It's a violation of the park's fundamental purpose.

"The Continental Army almost starved to death, living on flour and water," he said, moving to a hilltop to find another 20 deer grazing, burnished and blase in their habitat. "There were no deer here back then and they're dishonoring the memory of those troops by letting all these deer run around."

Morrisson moved on to where a car of visitors provided mute rebuttal. They stared in delight upon a field vivid with deer whose white tails dotted the scene like exclamation points at Morrisson's frustration.

"You've got all this meat on the hoof -- I calculate 60,000 pounds of venison in this park," he said, settling into his own wintry campaign at Valley Forge. "Just imagine what Washington's army could have done with that."

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