HAGERSTOWN, Maryland — The National Park Service tentatively approved a plan Friday that envisions government sharpshooters killing more than 2,800 white-tailed deer at three Civil War battlefields in Maryland and Virginia over the next five years to curb damage to plants and trees.
The agency aims to reduce herds that it says are over-browsing vegetation at the Antietam and Monocacy battlefields in Maryland and the Manassas battlefield in Virginia.
Spokeswoman Jenny Anzelmo-Sarles said in a telephone interview that the number of deer to be killed would depend on how quickly the forest regenerates.
"What's laid out in the chart is going to be your maximums," she said.
The final Environmental Impact Statement is open for public review until Sept. 3. The agency would then record its decision, enabling the battlefields to implement the $1.8 million plan, contingent on funding.
With public hunting prohibited in the parks, the deer population per square mile has reached an estimated 130 at Antietam, 172 at Manassas and 235 at Monocacy, the park service said. That's at least six times the desired deer density of 15 to 20 per square mile, the agency said.
About 58 percent of the deer would be killed at Manassas. At 5,000 acres, the park is about three times bigger than either Maryland battlefield.
The park service said it would donate as much deer meat as possible to food banks and other charitable groups.
The government's growing use of sharpshooters from the Agriculture Department's Wildlife Services division to control wild animals on federal land has been criticized by hunting proponents and animal-welfare advocates. The number of wild white-tailed deer taken by Wildlife Services climbed from 248 in 16 states in 2000 to 4,970 in 36 states in 2011, according to the agency's figures.
Daniel Schmidt, editor of Deer & Deer Hunting magazine in Iola, Wisconsin, said regulated, private hunters could manage the battlefield deer herds more efficiently than government sharpshooters.
"It's ridiculous for taxpayers to pay $1.8 million to have deer taken off a property," he said in a telephone interview.
The plans include the possible use of contraceptives to keep the herds in check. After the fifth year of shooting, the agency would use chemical contraceptives to maintain an acceptable deer density, assuming an appropriate reproductive control agent becomes available.
The Humane Society of the United States had pushed for nonlethal strategies, including a contraceptive vaccine administered with dart guns that has been tested at Fire Island National Seashore, New York.
"We maintain that lethal control is neither a socially acceptable practice nor, in our opinion, in the long term, the most ecologically sound approach to resolving conflicts with deer," said Stephanie Boyles Griffin, the group's senior director of innovative wildlife management.