Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Herd Reduction Looms For Shenandoah National Park Whitetails

Future Uncertain For Whitetail Deer
It seems there is no good news these days if ones' primary interest is big game photography--especially whitetail deer photography.  Here in Pennsylvania there have been several cases of CWD and three DMAs (Disease Managment Areas) have been established.    So far the Pennsylvania Game Commission has been fairly conservative in dealing with the disease. On the other hand,  The National Park Service is planning to launch a severe response to the disease once  certain triggering thresholds are met.

We first reported on this in the October 26, 2012 post: "Shenandoah Whitetails Under Assault"  At that time the Park had fitted  a large number of deer with ear tags and/or radio collars and were conducting a whitetail deer study geared to charting deer movements.  In conjunction with this a certain number of deer were to be live tested for CWD. Almost overnight they destroyed the world class whitetail photography at Big Meadows which until that time was one of the best areas to observe and photograph whitetail deer in the United States. 

Mature Buck at SNP 2011
 Last week  fellow retired PGC employee Billie Cromwell traveled to SNP to photograph the deer and returned home after two discouraging days.  He called me to ask if I had been there and advised me to cancel any plans I had to visit the park this fall. I had already decided to avoid the park this year due to my disappointing summer trip this year so this meant no change in plans, but it did re-in-force my sense of discouragement about the situation at the Park.  Billie reported that he saw only a handful of deer in the Big Meadows Area.  Places where they were once seen in plenty now were either empty or there was only a deer or two.  He did report seeing a buck or two that was collared last year, but now were wearing none. Soon after talking to Billie, well known Virginia wildlife photographer, Larry W. Brown, contacted me to tell me that the assault on the whitetails of Shenandoah was not over.

Following the links that he sent me, I found that on November 10, the Park released its' CWD Response Plan Amendment/Environmental Assessment plan , which amends the 2013 CWD Detection and Assessment Plan.  To read about CWD and an overview of the  amended plan click Here.

To read the plan in its' entirety or to comment-Click Here:

While the original 2013 plan allows lethal sampling of deer to detect CWD, the proposed amendment allows deer population reduction by lethal means in front country areas of the park to manage the disease.  This would attempt to bring the herd at areas such as Big Meadows in line with  deer numbers in back country areas of the park and in areas outside the park in an attempt to minimize disease transmission.

Big Meadows is listed as the area in the park with the highest deer density/square mile.  Under this amendment 77-81% of the deer would be removed to equal the density of surrounding areas.

If the proposed plan is approved, it will be implemented when two or more positive CWD cases are found within 5 miles of the park boundary or if detected inside the park.  According to the news release this could happen fairly soon (1-3) years or it could be many years away, but it is expected to happen sooner or later.

Also of importance to photographers is that there will be no protection for the mature bucks and all adult deer will be targeted equally.  When it comes to killing deer for CWD testing, the bucks will receive priority in targeting as bucks 2 years of age or older are more likely to have CWD and as they roam over a wider range are supposedly more likely to spread the disease.

Mature Bucks To Be Targeted
Herd reduction will most likely be done at night, from November-March. Specific nighttime area closures may be necessary from November - March in the Central District of the Park so that deer way be shot at areas such as Skyland and Big Meadows.

Public comments may be made either online or by mail.
Comments should be posted online at
Or, send to: Superintendent, Shenandoah National Park, Attn: CWD Response Amendment/EA, 3655 US Highway, 211 East, Luray, VA 22835. 

Public Meetings
Public meetings are scheduled on November 17 (Crozet Public Library, 2020 Library Avenue, Crozet, VA), November 18 (Elkton Community Center, 20593 Blue and Gold Dr, Elkton, VA). All meetings start at 7:00 PM. 

Look for more commentary on this and the situation in the Pennsylvania Elk Range within the near future.  

Originally published at Pennsylvania Wildlife Photographer by Willard Hill.


Linda G. said...

How discouraging.

Larry W. Brown said...

Well written, Willard. To state that this is a bad situation for the SNP whitetails would be a major understatement. The ignorance of the SNP wildlife management officials to continue on with these herd reduction plans makes no sense whatsoever. There have been 7 known cases of CWD in that county since 2009, so if CWD was as bad as they make it out to be, wouldn't the deer populations in that area have already suffered? And have already spread into SNP? Since 2002, over 7,600 deer in Virginia have been tested for CWD. The Va DGIF has diagnosed ONLY 7 positive cases of CWD in Virginia. The statistics speak for themselves.

Katmaigirl said...

The Shenandoah National Park situation is heartbreaking. I have been going to the park for over 40 years and have loved and photographed the deer and other animals all that time. The park's plan is insane and illogical. There is not enough evidence to support such drastic action, and the only way to completely prevent this disease in the future would be to eliminate all the deer, which the current park plan would almost do. The park has ruined wildlife photography, to say nothing of the suffering, evident in photos, of the collared deer. The poor deer do not stand a chance, and this planned nighttime shooting will lead to poor shots and injured and suffering deer. The whole plan is senseless and will do nothing to prevent the disease from ever reaching the park, which is not likely anyway. The park officials seem to have lost their minds. They should take a lesson from Pennsylvania's game management.

Willard said...

I will try to post more soon, but in short if you look at the full amended CWD Assessment and Detection Plan, which is at the second link that was posted you will find it all spelled out in detail.

Go to pages 21-23 to read the really disturbing stuff. They completely understand out point of view and what we want to have, but they say they are going to do otherwise and we will have to learn to adjust.

At this point I can see little chance that the plan will not be approved.

Kirk Mantay said...

If your interest is in the conservation of the whitetail herd, let's agree that the current density of WT's on NPS property from Shenandoah to Gettysburg is somewhere between 20 and 50 TIMES the threshold for "high likelihood" of transfer of CWD as it's practiced in much tougher, sparse terrain out west. Not 20%. 2000%! And that number is likely pretty low.

I'm not arguing this as a hunter (Lord knows that hunting on NPS ground is a debacle at best), but as an actual wildlife biologist. Photography is important. Visitors (and fee payers) are important. But there's absolutely nothing in anyone's action plan to reasonably react to a 50% or 80% herd die off.

There's no "non harsh" way through this, is what I'm proposing. Thanks for bringing up the issue, I hadn't heard about this, and I'm well versed in NPS' typical aversion to lethal management of anything, even exotic 30 foot long pythons.

Kirk Mantay said...

Also keep in mind that all of these actions occur in context of multiple, often competing, management plans for the NPS units. NPS has been burned badly in court numerous times for not aggressively acting to take precautions to preserve designated habitats and species from "forsseable" threats. Whitetails are at a high density on NPS lands, we all agree on that, and guess what, they don't eat the invasive plants.

Unknown said...

As always I thank you for putting this out for the public. I have doubts the public comments will change SNP’s direction but It is important that our concerns be submitted to the NPS. This comment period and meetings are only head because its NEPA protocol. SNP is using CWD as a scare tactic to convince the unknowing public that an 80% cull is needed in Big meadows. If CWD was a valid concern the parks efforts would focused at the North Entrance of the Park nearer to the CWD positive specimens. As Larry mentioned Virginia does not have mass numbers of deer killing over from CWD. There has only been 7 CWD positive deer found to date and none of these were in SNP.

As you know in the Amended plan there is no mention of herd management with consideration given to keeping genetically strong specimens or proper buck to doe ratios to produce quality bucks, does, and fawns for future generations. This is purely a kill plan to eliminate mass deer numbers specifically in Big Meadows.

Additionally If you visit SNP you will find no information regarding this subject displayed for the public at any of the park facilities. I purposely went in the Byrd visitor center yesterday I was handed a copy of the press release from behind the counter only after I inquired about the deer reduction in BM. There was no copies of the amended plan available at the center.