Before the District becomes known as Salt Lick City, officials in Rock Creek Park weigh their options for the future of man and deer.
Photographs by Charles Steck
Many deer stalked Susan Davis’ garden last summer, but one particular animal lingers in her memory. She was a doe of medium stature. The mother of two fawns, she liked to eat beets and found the whiff of Swiss chard irresistible. She loathed mint—wouldn’t go near the stuff. She jumped high, ran fast, and pranced around the Rock Creek Community Gardens on Oregon Avenue NW as if she owned the place.
Identifying the mischievous doe was never a problem, in part because Davis has a keen eye, and in part because the dashing deer wore a fetching necklace—a leather collar, wrapped in yellow tape.
“We call her the Yellow-Collared Deer,” says the literal-minded Davis. “Or, sometimes, the Deer With the Yellow Collar.”
“She’s totally fearless,” adds Davis. “She has absolutely no fear of people. She has lived her whole life in this area. She definitely thinks the gardens are her territory.”
But Davis had laid claim to the turf long before the Yellow-Collared Deer. Davis began tilling the earth at the gardens, on the outskirts of Rock Creek Park, 23 years ago, shortly after moving to D.C. For the first 13 years or so, the garden was deer-free. But then, about a decade ago, a doe and two fawns—the first of a long line of deer—stumbled onto the scene. Davis developed an immediate rapport with the creatures. They shared a common interest: Davis liked to grow vegetables, and the deer liked to eat them.
At first, the deer seemed harmless. Davis and her fellow gardeners found the sight of wildlife in the city refreshing, amusing even. But the relationship soon soured.
Year after year, Davis watched as the deer increased in number. Their herds swelled to groups of a dozen or more. They became grabby and greedy. They ate whatever, whenever, without asking permission.
Horrified by the destruction of their tomato plants, the gardeners played defense. They began dousing their gardens with pungent odors rumored to dispel deer. Davis watched as desperate gardeners tried everything from sulfurous rotten-egg concoctions to bars of Irish Spring, all to no avail.
Then the fences sprang up faster than wildflowers. “We used to look kind of like a shantytown,” says Davis. Eventually, the community promulgated rules on fence materials. Now, plastic deer fencing, specially ordered from a manufacturer in Pennsylvania, surrounds every plot.
“You think at first: I don’t want to be out here gardening and feel like I’m in a cage,” says Davis. “Eventually, you get used to it.”
Through it all, Davis’ admiration for the whitetail has grown in leaps and bounds. She respects their intelligence. “They teach their children techniques for getting at food,” says Davis. “And they remember things.”
She admires their audacity. “Deer should be afraid of dogs,” says Davis. “But in this neighborhood, there are dogs who are afraid of deer.”
Davis acknowledges that she isn’t the first great mind to obsess over deer. “I went to Monticello about 10 years ago,” says Davis. “Thomas Jefferson was a great gardener. In one of his journals, he once wrote, ‘Deer are just rats with antlers.’”
So far this spring, Davis hasn’t seen the Yellow-Collared Deer. “I don’t think anyone has seen her since last July,” says Davis. But, ever vigilant, Davis keeps her eyes peeled for the flash of yellow along the forest’s edge.
The Yellow-Collared Deer owes her distinctive accessory to Ken Ferebee, a wildlife biologist with the National Park Service who has worked in Rock Creek Park for roughly a decade. During the winter and early spring of 2001, Ferebee outfitted four of the park’s deer with leather-collar-cum-radio-transmitters. He identified the deer by marking each collar with tape of a different color. Red. Blue. Black. And yellow.
The collars send out radio waves of a specific frequency that Ferebee can monitor by means of a receiver and a handheld antenna. Twice a week, Ferebee turns on his radio-telemetry equipment—which looks like a homemade contraption jury-rigged at Radio Shack circa 1970—to check on the whereabouts of the four deer.
Ferebee hopes the study will yield a better understanding of where the deer forage and how large their range is. “Do they go in and out of the park? If so, how often?” says Ferebee. “Do the deer in the park’s interior stay there, or do they forage on its outskirts?”
“If there are definite patterns to their behavior, I haven’t figured them out yet,” adds Ferebee.
The study is little more than a year old. And Ferebee has already been picking up more than just radio signals. Davis, for one, has given park officials an earful. “I call them up and say, ‘Does that radio collar tell you that [the Yellow-Collared Deer] is jumping into our garden?’ They say, ‘No, we’re not monitoring them all the time.’ I tell them, ‘Well, in case you haven’t noticed, she’s a real nuisance.’”
As spring blossoms, a new and bigger wave of deer will invade the gardens of Davis and her neighbors. People across the city will fight back in myriad ways. Some will resort to homespun repellents, such as Tabasco sauce, human hair, and animal blood. Others will turn to imported predator pee, hoping that the stench of coyote urine will turn back the tide of whitetails.
In the meantime, throughout the area, institutions continue to promote and invest in divergent visions for the future of man and deer. In Gaithersburg, scientists from the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) are tinkering in a brave new world of deer contraception. In Hagerstown, a hunter takes aim at two problems—deer and hunger—with a single bullet. And in Rock Creek, Ferebee and other National Park Service employees play peekaboo with the likes of the Yellow-Collared Deer. To what end remains unclear.
While local gardeners fought the deer explosion with homemade concoctions, the Park Service started its tracking operation with helicopters.
For three years in the mid-’90s, Rock Creek Park natural resources manager Bob Ford oversaw a project to quantify the District’s deer population by using aerial photography. EAC Helicopters of St. Paul, Minn., conducted the study. By night, pilots flew over the District’s parks, snapping off infrared photographs as they passed overhead.
When the film was developed, heat sources were analyzed. Those with a particular electromagnetic signature were counted as deer. The results of the study indicated that the deer population in Ford’s domain had stabilized.
But under closer scrutiny, Ford says that some of the deer data looked fishy. “We’d see 20 objects that were perfectly spaced within the park that were all counted as deer,” says Ford. “We started thinking, Hmmm, those look a lot like streetlights.”
Eventually, Ford gave the data the heave-ho.
During his tenure in the Natural Resources Division of Rock Creek Park, Ford has fielded countless calls from District residents fed up with deer. His deer.
If there are too many deer in his territory, as many gardeners, residents, and motorists suggest, it’s up to Ford to provide the proof before any action is taken to thin their ranks. “We might have to look in the long run at controlling the herd,” says Ford. “You can bet that there will be scads of hot-collared people on both sides of the issue. Neighbors who want us to go out and kill them. People who think it’s inhumane.”
Before jumping headlong into controversy, Ford intends to do what most Park Service brass do when faced with tough decisions: gather more data. “Yeah, we would have preferred to start taking action yesterday,” says Ford. “But many, many things factor in. We can’t take action without conducting an environmental-impact statement and without holding public meetings. First, we have to do our homework.”
So far, Ford and his colleagues have only begun to crack the books. History is one of their stronger subjects. According to Ford, the late ’80s were a boom time for Rock Creek deer. “We noticed a sudden surge in the population in 1987 and 1988,” says Ford. “We started seeing a herd of about 10 deer. As far as we can tell, the population has expanded steadily ever since.”
Where the deer came from remains a mystery. Ford suspects that they migrated into the District by following Rock Creek south from Montgomery County. “Or conceivably they came into the park from downtown after swimming the Potomac,” says Ford. “But that idea is hard for me to espouse.”
After bagging the helicopter trips, Ford & Co. contrived other methods for sizing up the deer population. Each fall for the past six years, Ford and Ferebee have been conducting a trend count. On several consecutive nights in September, employees hop in a vehicle and cruise a prescribed route through the park. Armed with a powerful spotlight, they illuminate the surrounding forests, taking note of any deer.
Over the past three years, the trend count, which yields only comparative data, has indicated that the deer population is increasing only slightly more slowly—to use a technical analogy—than gremlins in a hot tub. Last year’s results showed a 55 percent increase.
With the help of Scott Bates, a wildlife specialist for the Park Service, Ford also crunches the numbers to come up with what is called a density count. Using computer modeling, park officials estimate that there are currently 60 deer per square mile in Rock Creek Park, or roughly 130 deer overall.
The ideal deer density is approximately 15 to 20 individuals per square mile, according to the people whose job it is to figure out such things. The District, by the standards of modern science, has too many deer.
All the extra antlers add up. Ford worries that the deer overpopulation could nibble away at the park’s ecosystem. “Of course, what we’re concerned about is damage to the vegetation,” says Ford. “If you have an overpopulation of deer, they are going to eat all the tasty vegetation in reach. Plants are fundamental. They are the base of the pyramid. Everything depends on plants sooner or later. It could negatively affect other wildlife—ground-nesting birds, squirrels, insects.”
Not to mention gardeners.
But reducing the current deer population by 90 or more deer could be a tricky task.
What about birth control? “Birth-control methods for deer are tough,” says Ford. “It’s difficult to the extreme. If an effective birth-control method could be worked out for a wild herd of deer, obviously that would be the best solution.”
Deer don’t like to be studied. Or followed. Or tagged.
No one understands the species’ aversion to systematic human persecution quite as well as biologist Rick Naugle. On a sunny day in late March, Naugle is riding a pickup truck on the grounds of Gaithersburg’s National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) in search of Deer No. 263. The chase is part of a deer contraception program that could eventually save Davis’ garden bounty back in the District by preventing the likes of the Yellow-Collared Deer from producing any more fawns.
Naugle’s mission is to nail No. 263 with a dart. At NIST, darts have become the preferred method of delivering porcine zona pellucida (PZP), a protein harvested from ground-up pig ovaries. It may sound like a dish straight off Fear Factor, but when introduced into the bloodstream of a female doe, PZP triggers an immune response that prevents pregnancy. Because the mechanism relies on the deer’s own immune system, the technique is referred to as “immunocontraception.”
It’s as hard to administer as it is to explain. Today’s research subject is a wily doe who’s wise to the ways of the researchers. “She doesn’t like us at all,” says Naugle.
Naugle creeps through the woods, searching her favorite hangouts. Soon he finds her usual gang, lingering along the perimeter of the forest. Naugle puts out his cigar, picks up a pair of binoculars, and starts whistling at the deer. “That usually gets their attention,” says Naugle. “When they look over at me, I can see the numbers on their ear tags.”
Naugle spots a particularly silly-looking deer (“Yeah, I see you, goofy”) but no 263. Then Naugle’s walkie-talkie cackles. Someone has spotted No. 263 running for cover on the other side of the woods. He circles back.
Five minutes later, he’s staked out another herd. Again, Naugle sees a kooky doe (“Yeah, I see you, goofy”) but not the one he’s chasing. After another 15 minutes of pursuit, he gives up. Darting No. 263 will have to wait for another day.
Six years ago, the honchos at NIST decided that something had to be done about the wall-to-wall deer that were overrunning their campus. After polling their employees, the officials decided not to kill the deer—after all, eliminating the prancers would simultaneously destroy one of Interstate 270’s most famous roadside attractions. Instead, they formed a partnership with the HSUS to test out contraception techniques on the herd, which at the time included more than 300 deer on less than a square mile of land.
After six years of research, the population hovers at around 220 deer. “We’re using this site for experimental research,” explains Patricia McElroy, a biologist who started working at NIST about four years ago. “The purpose has never been simply to lower the population’s numbers.”
Every deer at NIST wears a yellow tag on its ear, with a number. Theoretically, the “deer jewelry,” as McElroy likes to call it, allows the staff to identify each individual. But McElroy and co-worker Rhonda Hurt don’t seem to need much help.
They talk about old No. 105, with the arthritis, and poor No. 49, who died of old age. They discuss the momma’s boys, loners, and bullies of their deer world. “If we seem to anthropomorphize the deer, it’s because we know them so well,” says McElroy. “They might all look the same to you, but we spend so much time with them that we know them all individually. They all look different.”
Under the NIST deer-control program, McElroy and her crew must shoot each doe with a PZP dart once a year. Getting the prey in the cross hairs is easy the first time, but it gets progressively more difficult each year as the doe becomes more wary. “Joggers use these woods all the time,” says McElroy. “The deer just look up, watch the joggers go by, and continue what they’re doing. But they know all of us researchers. To get close, we have to skulk around like hunters. We have to learn their habits.”
The HSUS team also owns a number of box traps, which, theoretically, could be deployed to catch deer. “We don’t use this anymore, though,” says McElroy, gesturing at a deer-sized trap, “because there was one deer that we kept catching over and over again. He loved the corn that we put in the box as bait. He didn’t care how many times we caught him. We ended up giving him a nickname; we call him ‘the Mooch.’”
The Mooch notwithstanding, tracking down individual deer can be a challenge even in a setting like the NIST campus, where most of the terrain is open and the deer are easy to spot.
The logistics of its current delivery system make the PZP contraceptive an unlikely option for use in Rock Creek Park. Chasing down all the No. 263s of this world, year after year, would exhaust Ford and his team, who are already low on resources and stamina.
“I haven’t done a lot of research on contraceptives,” says Ferebee. “I know there are some constraints. I know it’s very expensive and time-consuming. Each year, you have to treat every deer, or you’re not going to get the results you’re looking for.”
“I’m not going to say that it’s out of the question,” adds Ferebee. “I’m sure we’ll explore every option when it gets to that point. We’re still collecting data, though. We need a good base to stand on and be pretty sure of ourselves before we start considering those kind of things.”
Developing an oral contraceptive would make the process considerably easier. But deer have four stomachs, and their intense digestive process has so far foiled all attempts at creating a pill.
In Hagerstown, Md., Rick Wilson has established another testing ground of sorts, a way to deal with all the extra deer that doesn’t require pig ovaries or ear tags—just a bottle of Worcestershire sauce and an apron.
In fall 1996, Wilson was cruising down a highway in Virginia on his way to a barbecue when he spotted a woman standing by her car on the side of the road. Wilson—a Good Samaritan-with-a-gun-rack kind of guy—decided to pull over and offer his assistance.
The woman thanked Wilson and asked him to follow her into the underbrush that lined the road. Wilson, with some befuddlement, obliged. There, in the forest’s penumbra, lay some choice roadkill: a dead six-point buck. She asked Wilson to help her haul the deer’s body into the trunk of her car.
Wilson, a lifelong hunter, knew that taking a dead deer without a permit is illegal in Virginia. He hesitated. The woman pleaded with Wilson. She needed to feed her children. No deer, no dinner. Wilson gave her a hand.
After the woman departed, Wilson stood by the side of the highway, caught in the headlights of revelation. “Standing there as she drove away, I knew I had just looked into the eyes of Jesus,” writes Wilson on his Web site.
Back home in Hagerstown, Wilson told his wife about the experience and vowed to help the hungry folk in his own community. Shortly thereafter, in 1997, Wilson founded Farmers and Hunters Feeding the Hungry (FHFH), a nonprofit organization inspired by a similar program in Virginia. Wilson’s mission was to transform “a renewable God-given resource into food for the hungry among us.”
Wilson knew that hunters often shoot more deer than they can eat. Because of the high costs of butchering a deer, each hunting season thousands of the deer that are taken down by hunters go to waste. Wilson’s idea was to raise money to provide free butchering costs to any hunter in his county who wanted to donate the resulting deer meat to a local food bank.
Similar programs exist throughout the country. Prior to Wilson’s epiphany, Maryland’s charitable hunters could donate their spoils to food banks but they had to pay for the processing themselves.
Wilson expanded the program to the entire state after a year. At the time, Wilson was a public school art teacher, as he had been for 30 years. “I realized I could do either my teaching job or this. I couldn’t do both,” says Wilson. “I opted for early retirement.”
Wilson says he made the right choice. “It’s the most fulfilling thing that I’ve done in my life,” says Wilson. “To be able to do the two things you love the most—hunting and serving my Lord—at the same time, it’s like a dream.”
Between 1997 and 2000, FHFH helped process 750 tons of venison, or approximately 6,000,000 servings. “I was expecting to meet with resistance from people who object to killing animals, especially in Washington, D.C.,” says Wilson. “So far, [FHFH] has been well-received by the nonhunting public.”
A slab of gamy venison doesn’t pack universal appeal, though. “Deer are living animals,” says Michael Markarian of the Fund for Animals in Silver Spring. “They’re not crops. They’re not corn. These are animals that feel pain, and who should not be killed or put through suffering simply for recreation.”
When it comes to shooting down programs like FHFH, Markarian is anything but gun-shy. “There have been numerous studies by hunting organizations that calculate the cost of venison that was caught by hunters in the woods. They found that after calculating the cost of firearms, ammunition, hunting licenses, and traveling expenses, the cost was more than $20 a pound. We feel that if hunters are really altruistic, if they had as their first priority feeding hungry people, that $20 could go much further than buying one pound of meat. Hunters are simply trying to make hunting look more palatable to the general public. They are tying to find a way to say that this is more than just a hobby. In our view, it’s a weak defense.”
Of course, the costs of hunting deer would be even steeper in Rock Creek Park, where golfers and cyclists would share the cramped habitat with the orange-and-camouflage set. “No, no, no—a public hunt would be extremely dangerous,” says Ford.
In the absence of a Park Service plan to control the deer in Rock Creek, Jaguars, Broncos, and Pathfinders are left to pick up the slack.
The deer aren’t the only ones hurt. Shortly after nightfall on April 17, 2001, a deer jumped onto Rock Creek Parkway and was immediately struck by a car. The impact killed the deer and shattered the car’s windshield. An ambulance rushed the driver—who is not identified in the Park Police report—to Georgetown University Hospital, where she received stitches on her cheek and had glass removed from both eyes.
Nobody knows precisely how many accidents occur between deer and cars in the District, because there is no official deer hot line. Some drivers hit a deer and call the police. Others call the local Humane Society. Some call the Park Police. Many hit and run.
But anecdotal evidence suggests that accidents with deer in the District are on the rise. Jim Monsma, director of community outreach for the Washington Humane Society, says that they receive about two or three calls a month involving injured deer. “We clearly have a problem,” says Monsma. “If you can come up with a good, humane solution that everybody likes, you’re looking at a lot of money. I don’t know what that solution is.”
Neither does the Park Service. But the preliminary results from their radio-telemetry study should clue in Ford and Ferebee to the urgency of the problem.
In mid-March, a motorist on Spruce Drive NW called the Washington Humane Society to report that a deer in a red collar was limping along the side of the road. As it turned out, the Yellow-Collared Deer’s sister in science, the Red-Collared Deer, had been grazed by a car. Despite a leg injury, the Red-Collared Deer lives on. But she wasn’t the first in her class to have a run-in with a motorist.
On a Tuesday morning this past January, Ferebee turned on his radio-telemetry receiver and heard what he and his colleagues know as the “mortality signal.”
If one of the radio transmitters doesn’t move for more than eight hours, its signal changes to a distinctive pitch, which indicates one of two things: The collar fell off, or the deer wearing the collar died.
Ferebee hoped for the best.
He got in his vehicle and followed the signal toward Military Road. He pulled over and got out of his car. There, in the thick vegetation by the side of the road, he found her. The Yellow-Collared Deer. She had been hit by a car.
“She was D.O.A.,” says Ferebee, who remembers putting the collar on her, back in March 2001. She was a healthy deer, at the time, about 2-and-a-half years old. The following spring and summer, he had watched her raise two fawns.
The Yellow-Collared Deer’s body now lay in the underbrush right alongside a discarded couch. Her final resting spot was just by the turnoff for Oregon Avenue, not far from the community gardens where she had feasted on so many beets.
Perhaps she was heading to Davis’ garden for a late-night snack when the car barrelled into her, sending her body airborne. If she hadn’t been wearing the collar, she may have been left to decompose.
Ferebee had put on the collar. Now it
was time to take it off. He did so without ceremony. And then, later that day, he buried the Yellow-Collared Deer in a patch of Rock Creek Park behind the maintenance yard, in the forest.
“Oh my goodness,” says Davis, upon hearing the news about the demise of the Yellow-Collared Deer. “That’s too bad. Even though she was a pest, I still feel sad when something like that happens.” CP
Art accompanying story in the printed newspaper is not available in this archive: Photographs by Charles Steck.