PHILADELPHIA (AP) — A federal judge has approved a plan to use sharpshooters to cull the bulging deer population at Valley Forge National Historical Park.
Wednesday's decision rejects a lawsuit filed by several animal-welfare groups and paves the way for the National Park Service to begin the nighttime hunts next month.
The goal is to reduce the herd of about 1,300 deer by 80 percent over the next four winters.
Valley Forge, just outside Philadelphia, would become only the third national park to allow deer hunts, according to Friends of Animals, one of several plaintiff groups.
"In five to six years, are we going to have every animal on public lands controlled the way we want them to be controlled? Because I think there's a macabre, Disneyesque aspect to that," said Lee Hall, vice president of Friends of Animals.
Hall, who lives in Devon, about five miles from the park, vowed to appeal.
U.S. District Judge Mitchell Goldberg said it's clear the 3,500-acre park is overrun with white-tail deer, destroying the park's habitat, which supports birds, butterflies and other wildlife.
"Because the NPS has clearly identified overgrazing by the herd as the cause of insufficient forest generation, which is a detriment to the scenery and natural and historic objects, the exception to preserving all wildlife under the Organic Act has clearly been invoked here," the judge wrote.
The U.S. Department of the Interior's Organic Act aims to conserve wildlife in national parks, but an exception allows animals to be destroyed if they become detriments, the judge said.
The park service plan also would use birth control and other nonviolent methods in conjunction with the hunt, which would run from November to March each winter.
Animal-welfare activists believe the bucolic park about 20 miles west of Philadelphia, where George Washington and his Continental Army spent the winter of 1777-78, should be maintained by natural methods. They propose doing nothing, letting nature take its course, or introducing predators, namely coyotes.
The deer also are blamed for scores of vehicle accidents within the park each year and for wreaking havoc on nearby suburban gardens.
Park officials say they believe the hunt also will reduce the risk of chronic wasting disease, a mad-cow-like brain disease that has been found in adjacent states but not in Pennsylvania.
Deer problems plague many parks throughout the East, and solutions have been debated for years. In the 1990s, Gettysburg National Military Park's deer population was reduced by a hunt from 4,000 to just over 200.
The only other national park to conduct a hunt is Colorado's Rocky Mountain National Park, which is trying to thin its elk herd, according to environmental lawyer Michael Harris, a University of Denver assistant professor who represents Friends of Animals.
Litigation over the elk hunt is pending, as is a lawsuit over a proposed deer hunt at Rock Creek Park in Washington, D.C.
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