Wednesday, November 7, 2012

Whitetail Photographers--Avoid Shenandoah National Park!

As I write this post, I originally planned to be in a motel room in Virginia, savoring the memories of a day s afield photographing  the whitetails of Shenandoah National Park and anticipating another full day and Friday morning doing likewise.  Instead I find myself  at home in Pennsylvania, sitting at the computer and pondering how easily whitetail photography at Shenandoah National Park was destroyed.

Let's face it--I knew conditions were less than ideal at the park based on information received from many sources such as Larry Brown, Billie Cromwell, Jim Fields, and Todd Mann, along with my own experience from a brief morning visit in late October.  I did not realize: however, that things were as bad as they turned out to be.

My brother Coy and I left for SNP in the early morning hours and saw not one whitetail as we drove from the Thornton Gap Entrance to Big Meadows before dawn.  Shortly after dawn we found this superb buck at the Tanner's Ridge overlook.  This did not seem all that bad as the tags could easily be removed with Photoshop, but unfortunately this proved to be the best encounter of the day.

Buck 91--One of the few that has only ear tags
Most of the does that we sighted had either ear tags or collars.  We did see one mature buck without a collar or tags, but he was shy and we did not get good photographs.  I think this buck is a bit too wild for the tagging team to dart him, but in hopes of protecting him, I will not reveal where he was sighted.  With the exception of this buck--every buck that we saw from medium size to mature rack bucks were fitted with the ridiculously large numbered collars.

Buck With Damaged Collar that is damaging the hair on the neck.

In late morning we saw a group walking toward the Visitor Center carrying equipment, with a least two of the party wearing uniforms and we realized too late to take photographs that this was most likely the deer tagging crew returning from a mornings' work in the field.  We talked to Billie Cromwell in the early afternoon and he said that every mature buck that he had seen had a collar, including a large 12 point that was collar free just two weeks ago.  We did see some yearling bucks that were not collared or tagged, but it seems likely that this is because they are concentrating on mature deer--likely in hopes of studying the movement patterns of mature bucks in particular.

Another Victim
I could perhaps understand it if a modest percentage of the bucks and does in the Big Meadows area were marked for study, but it appears that the vast majority of the animals are so marked and that the tagging crew is still at work trying to process those that have escaped so far.

We originally planned to stay for 2 1/2 days, but this was so frustrating that I called the motel where we planned to stay and cancelled our reservations--telling the owner why we were doing so.  The management was aware of the situation at the park, was very understanding, and did not penalize us for cancelling on such short notice. This was one of the few bright spots of the day.  In the future, I may visit the park on rare occasion to observe the effects of the study, but my frequent trips to SNP are over--at least until the study has run its' course.

While this is distressing for the photographer/wildlife watcher, the worst aspect of the situation is the undue stress and discomfort that this places on the deer.  The negative aspects of this study could perhaps be justified if it would significantly benefit the well-being of the deer or combat the spread of CWD, but at this point many are not convinced that it will do so.  With that being said, even if the study proved to be fully justified and extremely necessary, there seems no reason to use such a large sample size, which negatively impacts both the animals and the wildlife viewing/photography experience at Shenandoah National Park.

If you have not already done so, be sure to check out the links in previous poss to other writing on this issue by Larry W. Brown, and Todd Mann.  Also be sure to check Country Captures for Coy's take on this situation.  If his post is not up already--it should be soon.

Originally published at Pennsylvania Wildlife Photographer by Willard Hill.


Larry W. Brown said...

Willard, I hate to hear that you had to cut your trip short as you did, but I fully understand your reasoning for doing so. I am about at the point where I don't want to return anymore either but something keeps calling me back to find out if certain Bucks are still there and if they are okay.

This is undoubtedly a big black eye on the face of SNP and the NPS in general for allowing such crude and primitive means of 'studying' a large portion of the Big Meadows deer population. Reminds me of equipment used cirac 1970's. They must have been able to save a few dollars by doing so and out the leftover funds into another project they couldn't get funding for. A big sellout and a huge disappointment - that's how I view 'my' national park nowadays.

Larry W. Brown said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Larry W. Brown said...

UPDATE: Just spent 2 entire days at SNP during what is usually the peak of the Rut - what a waste of time and effort and such a huge disappointment. Have never experienced a Rut like this ever:

Unknown said...

I spent two days at the end of last week, and experienced the same thing. No deer in the fields, they all seemed to be staying in the woods, although I was not sure if the snow was affecting places they browsed. I only photographed three bucks the whole trip, one small twelve point, a ten point, and a small eight point. A bit of a conundrum, do I (we) not photograph deer at all, or do we take what we are given. I have 0 chance of getting successful whitetail photos in my area of PA, so what is a replacement for Shenandoah...

Willard said...

There is no good answer, Todd. Cades Cove in the Smokies was excellent in the past and hopefully still is. I haven't been there since 2005. It is about 500 miles for me and would be a bit farther for you. Canaan Valley State Park in West Virginia was good in 1999 and 2000, but I stopped going there. Although deer were easily seen and photographed back then, the bucks were not nearly as large on the whole as the SNP bucks. I have not heard of them having a herd reduction program and so do not know what it is like now. There is likely even more snow there at present than SNP. It may be an option though in light of the situation at SNP.

Willard said...

Thanks for your input, Larry. Sorry to hear you didn't make out any better than we did. It certainly is disappointing that the Park Service would do something like this.

Unknown said...

What is the parks problem? Don't they know it's losing the area money?

Willard said...

Thanks for stopping by and commenting Brendan.

It is hard to understand--evidently they got money for the research from some source and don't care how it impacts tourism.