Sunday, August 10, 2014

Shenandoah National Park Whitetails: The Dream--The Reality

Whitetail photography and deer watching in the Big Meadows Area of Shenandoah National park was destroyed in 2012 by the implementation of a whitetail deer study which resulted in the mature bucks at Big Meadows being fitted with radio collars or ear tags and seems to have resulted in a significant reduction in the whitetail population. I had not been to SNP since November of that year after I left in disgust on the first morning of what was scheduled to be a multi-day trip.

After  almost two years of avoiding the park, I decided to check in on the whitetail situation at SNP once again.  As a result, on a late July morning I left home in the wee hours of the morning so I would arrive in the central district of the park at dawn. As I traveled down I-81 my thoughts wandered back through the years and I recalled the countless times I made this trip with visions of herds of deer and large rack bucks grazing in the beautiful summer morning running through my head and how that  more often than not the trip met or exceeded my expectations.  I knew things would be different this year, but it was nice to pretend that the events of the last few years had not taken place.  If one had any doubts as to whether the situation was not as bad as expected, it did not take long to dispel them.  I saw not one deer by the roadside as I traveled  Skyline Drive from Thornton Gap to Big Meadows as dawn was breaking.   I arrived at Big Meadows to be greeted by a beautiful but unusual sunrise.

Big Meadows Sunrise
Only a handful of deer were scattered about in the meadow, none of which were bucks, so I made the loop to below Milam Gap.  An eight-point was grazing along the road before the Milam Gap parking lot, and it was fitted with a collar that had worn most of the hair from the neck.

Collared Buck At Milam Gap
After taking a few photographs, I returned to the meadow where a small herd of deer was now visible in the distance. Three were respectable bucks, but all were wearing collars.  I decided to work these animals and walked into the meadow and took position in a spot it seemed likely they would pass through.  In a few minutes the herd arrived minus one of the bucks, which evidently split off to go elsewhere.  Two bucks were in the lead and for a few moments it seemed like the old days as one could see the tips of the velvet covered antlers bobbing above the bushes and grasses. One almost expected a buck such as this to appear and he did, but there was one big problem.

The Dream
The photograph below shows what he really looks like. 

Harsh Reality
Photographers will argue the ethics of such matters, but it is easy to remove collars and ear tags in Photoshop or similar programs if the collars are relatively small and the neck hair is undamaged, but this is not the case with the Shenandoah deer where the collars are huge in proportion to the animal and the hair is usually damaged.  In this situation there was not enough hair available to clone over the collar so a neck was used from another buck in  photographed in 2011, which was standing in a somewhat similar position.  It would be unethical to enhance the damage to a deer's neck, but  I see nothing wrong with  removing something that should not be there in the first place. However, at this point in life, I have little interest in doing so as it is difficult and one still is left with the unpleasant memory of how the situation actually was.

The second buck was worse yet, as most of the hair was missing from the neck.

Collared Buck With Significant Hair Loss
A mature doe was feeding with the bucks and she too was wearing a collar.

Mature Doe
Each of the deer that was collared also had a small tag in the right ear, which is visible in the last two pictures.

It seems at this point that the battle is lost with little hope for the future.  The National Park Service has been granted a finding of FONSI (Finding Of No Significant Impact), which as I understand it, gives them the go ahead to implement their plans. .  I found a good definition of "FONSI" on a Department of Energy Page: "Findings of No Significant Impact are public documents issued by a Federal agency briefly presenting the reasons why an action for which the agency has prepared an environmental assessment will not have a significant effect on the human environment and, therefore, will not require preparation of an environmental impact statement.  They are perhaps right that the collars, ear tags, neck injury, and herd reductions means nothing to the average visitor to SNP,  but to the whitetail deer and those that are interested in them, the impact is significant and severe.

Originally published at Pennsylvania Wildlife Photographer by Willard Hill.


Jim Borden said...

Thanks for the update. What a sad situation and certainly indicative of what our government is capable of doing.

jalynn01 said...

I have been viewing your blog for a couple years but have never commented. This post I thought deserved a comment. I too love SNP and have been going there to photograph deer, bear, and birds since 2009. I find it so sad for both the deer and the photographer the placing of these ugly large obtrusive collars. There has to be a better way to track CWD than this. I too go to Benezett to see elk. Love your blog!

Dan Gomola said...

I've typed a comment, deleted it, re-typed and deleted again. This topic is so frustrating to me I can't even put together the sentences to explain myself. I have a deep appreciation for wildlife and feel bad how it gets treated by humans. If you spend any time just watching wildlife go about their normal daily lives, you can't help but realize they are more than just "dumb" animals. I guess certain studies need to be done, they just need to be done with more respect for the animal. By the way, I Photoshop the ear tags and collars off too.

Clark Smith said...

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Fine Art Landscape Photography