Sunday, January 13, 2013

2012 In Retrospect-Part III: Shenanodah Whitetails Under Assault

Perhaps the biggest story of 2012,  for those who love to photograph whitetail deer in the Mid-Atlantic area, was the destruction of quality deer photography at Shenandoah National Park in Virginia, when most of the mature bucks and many of the does at the prime visitor areas such as Big Meadows were fitted with radio collars.  Some times one can see something bad coming a long way off and have time to mount an offensive against it, or in the worst case scenario accept that it is about to happen and change plans accordingly,  but this happened so quickly that there was no chance for objection before it was an accomplished fact.

Whitetail Buck Before Collaring Craze Began
Young 8 Point Performs Lip-Curl
Little did I realize when my brother Coy and I encountered these bucks in velvet during an August trip to SNP, that things were about to change drastically in the next few weeks.  I will admit that I should have seen this coming as whitetail deer have become a controversial species during the past several years, which has resulted in drastic moves to reduce deer populations in many areas.

Here in Pennsylvania we fist heard of the controversy about too many deer on National Park land when a herd reduction program was proposed and eventually implemented at Gettysburg Military Park. The same situation later happened at Valley Forge National Historical Park near Philadelphia.  Both programs are ongoing.  I have not photographed deer at Gettysburg or Valley Forge, but from what I have heard and read it is no longer worthwhile to pursue this activity there.

We first learned about the problem at SNP from Jim Borden, a wildlife photographer from Pennsylvania, who e-mailed us a link to a post on Flickr by Virginia wildlife photographer, Larry W. Brown.  Mr. Brown went on to publish more posts on the subject.  You may find these posts here:

Public Input Is Important
This Assessment Cannot Be Just About CWD
National Park Toys

The upshot of the situation was that we found Larry Brown's description of the impact on the Big Meadows herd to be extremely accurate when we traveled there to photograph the rut in early November.

Collared Buck At SNP

As one read more about the controversy, it seemed more and more likely that the study was not just about dealing with CWD, but that it was actually much broader in scope.  This concern seems to be validated by a Natural Resource Fact Sheet, "White-tailed Deer Issues and Management" published by the National Park Service. The document states it was last updated on October 24, 2008. 

In the post of October 25, 2012, "Shenandoah Whitetails Under Assault" on this blog, I wrote, "They state on the facebook page (SNP's current Facebook page at the time),  "this research is being done to protect the deer herd from a horrible and fatal disease--Chronic Wasting Disease", but they fail to point out that there are basically only two forms of response to the presence of CWD--either do nothing or kill as many deer as possible in a designated containment area in hopes of eliminating all infected animals."

The Natural Resource Fact Sheet, serves to validate the claim that the deer study is really not about CWD.

It  addresses CWD to a certain extent at the end of the fact sheet as quoted below:

"• In 2006, the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries implemented Statewide chronic wasting disease (CWD) deer movement restrictions. This effectively ended all capture / relocation of beggar deer in the Park developed areas.
• CWD is discovered in Slainsville, WV in free- ranging deer. This location is less than 35 miles from Front Royal and the Northern end of the park.
• In December 2007 a CDW positive deer is discovered in Yellow Spring , WV. This location is less than 25 miles from Front Royal and the Northern end of the park.
• Since 2007 the park has been in the process of developing an Environmental Assessment Plan for CWD detection and initial response."

This serves to partially validate their claim that the study is about CWD, but a close perusal of the rest of the Fact Sheet  reveals that the main concern in 2008 was really about herd reduction. Again I quote from the Fact Sheet: (Note: BMA is Big Meadows Area, and LMA is Loft Mountain Area.)

"Park staff is currently attempting to secure funding for a deer population dynamics study at the BMA and LMA. This study will help us determine the cultural carrying capacity for the BMA and LMA deer herds which in turn will help us maintain more natural deer populations, prevent further landscape degradation, and prevent historical scene degradation. Ultimately, more natural deer populations in park developed areas will help preserve the natural landscape features (rare wildflowers, etc.) that visitors have come to expect in places like the unique highelevation Big Meadow. The findings of this study will generate tangible deer management recommendations. These recommendations along with the results from future studies will be used to update the park’s Deer Management Plan and to formulate an Environmental Impact Statement. This will allow park managers to better manage the park’s deer populations in developed areas."

So we find that CWD is not the foremost concern at all in 2008, but it seems that with CWD being found in more and more areas that the NPS latched on this as a means of convincing the public of the need for a study in SNP. (Note: As best as I can tell no CWD cases have been found closer to SNP than had been discovered in 2008.)

Stay tuned as we pursue this subject from time to time as more information becomes available,  Hopefully this will have only a short term impact on whitetail photography at SNP, but I would not hold my breath waiting for the good old days to return.

A special thanks to Jim Borden, Larry W. Brown, Jim Fields,Todd Mann, Tom  and others who shared their insights on the situation, either through e-mails or in comments on previous posts in the series.

Originally published at Pennsylvania Wildlife Photographer by Willard Hill.


Lindsjö taxar said...

Hi! Interesting reading....beautiful pictures.

Linda G. said...

You always have such nice pictures; love the close-up of the lip-curl.

Larry W. Brown said...

Great post, Willard. And the Natural Resource Fact Sheet is a great find. This clearly depicts that CWD testing is not the sole objective (or even if it is an objective, I tend to agree with your statement).

What I find interesting: whitetail deer have become
increasingly abundant in many developed areas throughout
the park. This is especially evident in the Big Meadows and
Loft Mountain Areas. Big Meadows Area (BMA) deer have
exceeded their biological carrying capacity for over two
decades as evidenced by visible effects on the landscape. It is not ecologically appropriate to allow these
habituated deer to continue to thrive within these
developed areas. We would like to provide the public with
appropriate wildlife viewing opportunities that feature deer
browsing in the forest as opposed to begging for food at a
car window. Providing viewing opportunities that show
deer in a healthier context under more natural conditions
can only be achieved if we begin to address the deer
overabundance problems in the BMA and LMA.

That just about sums it up doesn't it? However it is pure BS about habituated Deer begging at car windows, they have collared many fine mature Bucks who do not display this type of habituation. And it's interesting to note that they are leaving the Deer alone at LMA.

I still say they are all a bunch of idiots who actually call themselves 'professionals' - but that's just my two cents :-)

Tom said...


I am glad that you were able to find the information posted above. That gives us a more accurate picture of what the government is really looking to do here.

What i am asking, is "What can we, as photographers, do?"

Is there anyone we can voice a complaint to? Any park officials? Any wildlife biologists employed by the park service? Any congressmen or women we can file a complaint with?

I would like to do much, much more than just complain about things here on the internet - but I don't know where to even start trying to change the enactment of these government programs and policies.

If anyone has any contact information for the high-up officials who make these decisions, please feel free to email it to me at:


Larry W. Brown said...

Good luck with that, Tom. There is no branch of government that will go against its own, or any higher ups in its own division. They will not intervene - resources and time have already been planned and used, no going back now. Plus the damage is irreversible at this point anyway. This is the sole reason there was no public meeting for any public input - they wanted no one or nothing to slow their efforts in the least. And they accomplished that. Other than having to manage some damage control after the initial public outcry, they are on course with their plans intentions, as sad and pathetic as it is.