Wednesday, November 10, 2010

A Second War for Valley Forge?

Valley Forge National Historic Park protects the famous 1777 wintering ground for George Washington’s force of Continentals in Pennsylvania. And while the American Revolution is long over a new conflict has arisen over the historic land. The population of deer in Valley Forge has been the topic of some heated debate for more than a year. In the five square miles of park land the herd of white-tailed deer has been steadily growing for more than twenty years. The population density has risen from approximately 35 animals per square mile in 1983 to almost 250 per square mile today. The appetite of the massive herd of deer has become a problem and the park officials have recently been given permission to take lethal action. In order to protect the forest and preserve the natural integrity of the park land the management intends to cull the deer population from nearly thirteen hundred to around one hundred and sixty animals over the next four years.

The local chapter of an activist group, Friends of Animals Pennsylvania, successfully postponed the cull last year and seeks to do so again as they lobby an alternative solution. The group argues that the park should not use inhumane and unnatural intervention in the form of armed hunters and birth-control drugs, but instead should encourage the growth of the local coyote population instead. The coyotes will in turn control the deer population and bring natural balance to the ecosystem.

There are several problems with the Friends’ desire for coyotes to be used in place of hunters as a method of population control. First the coyotes population of Valley Forge is relatively small, especially in relation to the deer population, thus it will take some time before the coyotes can have an appreciable impact on the deer population. Second the use of coyotes, albeit a “natural” solution is not necessarily the correct choice in terms of the animal rights which the Friends claim to protect. Third the location of Valley Forge poses problems, encouraging the growth of a predator population so close to urban areas may be turn out to be irresponsible.

The Friends of Animals have acknowledged the fact that it will take time for the population of coyotes to grow to a large enough extent that it will have an effect on the population of deer. The vice president for legal affairs for the Friends Lee Hall asks, “What’s the emergency this year?”. In a related Friends publication by president Priscilla Feral on the culling of deer in Connecticut it is stated that deer do not cause deforestation because their reach is limited to two yards above the ground and by access to vegetation. However by overgrazing on all plant life within their reach are the deer not contributing to the eventual death of the forest? Or at the very least degrading the environment in which they and other local wildlife live by clearing the forest floor of vegetation and other food sources such as acorns. Furthermore the forest cannot be expected to grow or regenerate if all the young growth low to the ground is consumed by the voracious appetites of the herd. The park officials agree that time is slipping away; the forest has not generated any significant and permanent new growth in over a decade says spokeswomen Krista Heister. If the deer are not managed in a timely manner there may not be any healthy forest left to preserve. The deer may deplete the ecosystem to such an extent that it cannot support any of the diversity that makes the area so attractive.

There is also the obvious animal rights conflict in the culling situation. The Friends claim to support animal rights, but is it really the moral thing to allow the deer population to be controlled by a pack of hungry dogs instead of the careful aim of the marksman? If the degradation of the forest continued and nothing was done until the population naturally began to starve then not only would the forest be destroyed but the animals would suffer an inhumane death. Instead the Friends propose to allow coyotes to hunt the deer and naturally control the population. This would likely take the form of predation on the young fawns of the population. To the public would it not seem wrong to have a baby deer torn apart by dogs? This is the outcome if the Friends’ coyote solution were implemented, and while it may be the way of nature is it what should be encouraged on park land?

Indeed if the deer population needs to decline, as all parties agree it must, then should the reduction not be carried out in a way that causes as little harm as possible? The worse off principle dictates that if rights are to be breached (the right of the deer to live) and the harms are not equal (being torn apart does not seem equitable to being shot dead instantly), then we must protect the worse off individual. It seems we have a moral obligation to dispose of the deer in as painless and efficient a manner as possible. As an added bonus the cull makes it possible for the slaughtered deer to be butchered and used for food, possibly provided to state hunger programs.

Finally the location of Valley Forge itself poses a problem. The area is surrounded by development. Currently it is common for citizens to witness deer visiting their properties during the night. This raises the concern, if the deer enter the urban areas will the coyotes not follow? This seems to be a dangerous course of action if there is a potential for coyotes to actively hunt in the urban areas surrounding the park. The children and pets of the area may be at serious risk if the population of predators were to grow. Coyotes and not known to attack humans, but with the number of hiking and jogging trails and the sizable populations of humans around the park attacks may become more likely. The issue of pet safety is especially pressing, if given the choice of snatching a dog from a backyard or taking down a deer it seems obvious that there is grave potential for the loss of pets should the coyotes population grow. It seems irresponsible to encourage growth of a predatory population in the midst of urban development. Indeed of the coyotes were successful in reigning in the deer population it is not unthinkable that they will be left with an unsustainable population size themselves. If this were to happen would local residents and their pets be safe?

The argument for coyotes to be used in place of culling seems farfetched. It does not provide an ethical solution to controlling the population and may cause further problems in the future. A solution is needed before any more damage is done and the parks planned 85% reduction in deer population over the next four years is an ethical, responsible, safe, and timely solution to this pressing concern.

Priscilla Feral, Join with Friends of Animals To Oppose the Repulsive, Insane Deer Slaughter in a Nature Preserve in Darien, Connecticut, November 02, 2010,

Jeff Gammage, Let coyotes, not hunters, control Valley Forge deer, animal-rights advocates say, Mon, Oct. 18, 2010, Valley_Forge_deer__animal-rights_advocates_say.html?viewAll=y#ixzz14tRRloyo

Kurt Repanshek, Judge Clears Way for Deer Culling At Valley Forge National Historical Park, Friends of Animals Plans Protest, Mon, Oct. 18, 2010, national-historical-park-friends-animals-plans-protest7145

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