Deer Controversy in McLean

Whitetail deer, such as these photographed on Skyline Drive in early September 2012, were hunted by archers at Scotts Run Nature Preserve in McLean under the Fairfax County Deer Management Program. (Photo by Brian Trompeter)

Arlington Regional Master Naturalists is expanding its public-education efforts on controlling the deer population, and is pressing the Arlington and Alexandria governments to join another local jurisdiction in culling herds within their borders.

“We need human intervention,” said Marion Jordan, head of the Master Naturalists organization, at a Dec. 11 program sponsored by Virginia Cooperative Extension.

The organization’s outreach efforts have reached more than 700 people, and its conclusions are sound, she said.

“We’ve done a lot of research,” Jordan said.

At the same time, she acknowledged the situation was both a “large and complex” one and a “serious topic” that could provoke community division.

But, the Master Naturalists contend, Arlington only has enough land and resources to support, at most, about 45 deer. When there are more roaming the community, they can damage ecosystems and that, in turn, harms flora and fauna.

The group wants Arlington and Alexandria to embrace efforts such as those in Fairfax County, which for more than two decades has had a regimen of “deer-management” (a phrase seemingly aimed to be purposely bureaucratic, as calling it something like “blasting Bambi” might not be easily swallowed by the public).

That program is overseen by the Fairfax County Police Department in collaboration with the Fairfax County Park Authority and Northern Virginia Regional Park Authority, and focuses on public lands.

Each year, the number of white-tailed deer to be removed in Fairfax is determined based on a variety of factors. Three different types of lethal force can be used:

• Archery program: Harvesting of deer using qualified bow hunters selected via lottery. In recent years, that has been the most prevalent method of culling.

• Managed gun hunts: Harvesting of deer using qualified hunters selected via a lottery.

• Sharpshooting: Harvesting of deer using trained Fairfax County Police Department officers.

The Fairfax County Board of Supervisors implemented the plan to address a growing number of deer-vehicle crashes, which led to some human fatalities. Non-lethal alternatives that have been considered but not implemented include sterilization of female deer (the upwards-of-$1,000 cost per doe is deemed prohibitive) and deer birth control (available options have not received state approval).

As for deer hunting by the public in Arlington, it’s virtually impossible. Regulations prohibit “the carry or discharge of any firearm or the carry or discharge of any air gun, gas gun, BB gun, or any like gun, slingshot, dart devices, bow-and-arrow or hunting” in county parks, and general-purpose hunting also is effectively prohibited in facilities operated by NOVA Parks [the Northern Virginia Regional Park Authority] in Arlington and elsewhere.

Paul Gilbert, who heads NOVA Parks, says his agency cooperates with Fairfax officials in its managed hunts, and “we would approach [an Arlington government request] the same way we do with Fairfax County.”

Gilbert acknowledged that the local deer population at times can get out of control.

“In Arlington, there are no predators, so there are a lot of deer,” he said, noting the impact on local foliage and the other animals that depend on it.

(Ironically, at the start of the 20th century, deer had been hunted almost to extinction across the East Coast – their numbers had dwindled so precipitously that specimens had to be imported from other parts of the country in order to rebuild the population.)

On Dec. 16, the National Park Service announced that Catoctin Mountain Park, Antietam and Monocacy national battlefields, Manassas National Battlefield Park, and Chesapeake & Ohio Canal and Harpers Ferry national historical parks will conduct deer-management operations in 2021. Operations will take place at Manassas from approximately Jan. 15 to Feb. 28, and at all other parks from Feb. 1 to March 31.

All six parks are implementing previously approved white-tailed-deer-management plans. Harpers Ferry National Historical Park will conduct its first season of deer management, and C&O Canal National Historical Park and Manassas National Battlefield Park will conduct their third seasons of deer-reduction activities. Antietam National Battlefield and Monocacy National Battlefield will conduct their fifth season of deer-reduction activities, while Catoctin Mountain Park will continue with the 12th year of its deer-management efforts. 

Deer meat will be donated to local food banks. Last year, these national parks in Maryland and Virginia (except Harpers Ferry) donated more than 13,400 pounds of venison.

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Arlington Regional Master Naturalists is a group of volunteers focusing on a variety of topics. Its efforts have the sponsorship of a number of regional and state bodies, including Virginia Cooperative Extension, Virginia Department of Environmental Quality and the Virginia Department of Conservation and Recreation, Virginia Department of Forestry and Virginia Department of Wildlife Resources. For information on its deer-management advocacy, see the Website at

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