The site is all-too-familiar for neighborhood residents and travelers passing through the Brandywine Valley: herds of deer, often as many as a dozen at a time, lingering unperturbed on roadsides, lawns or, unfortunately and not infrequently, taking a gory, endless asphalt siesta after encountering a car.
Although hard numbers are difficult to obtain, civic association representatives and business owners say the local deer population in the leafy valley has experienced a significant, noticeable increase in the last handful of years, an unintended result they believe is directly tied to the creation of Delaware’s first national park.
Communications between community leaders, local politicians, National Park Service officials, and representatives of the Delaware congressional delegation show a mounting frustration with the failure to address an unchecked deer population and the problems it has caused, from the costly impact on local farms to deforestation and landscape destruction to public health and roadway safety issues.
Interviews and emails also indicate that requests over several years to study and introduce wildlife management in the stretch of national park along Brandywine Creek may now finally be getting traction.
Ruth Norman and her husband have lived by the parkland for more than 30 years and she has repeatedly sought a response to a growing deer population she and others attribute to the lack of wildlife management on the federal land. Norman, an Edenridge 3 Civic Association board member, became concerned after contracting Lyme Disease and suffering damage to her property.
“We hardly ever saw deer until about 10 years ago. For the last five years, however, the population has been expanding rapidly. Deer are in my yard several times per day.”
“We are seeing an increase in Lyme Disease in the neighborhood and another big concern is destruction of the forest in Brandywine Creek State Park,” said Norman. “Unfortunately, native plants are being devoured by deer, enabling invasive non-native plants to take over. The ecosystem is out of balance and being destroyed.”
A beautiful, pristine stretch of 1100 acres abutting the Brandywine Creek State Park became a core part of the First State National Monument created in 2013. The land had been held for generations by Woodlawn Trustees, and thanks to financial support provided by the Mt. Cuba Center and the involvement of the Conservation Fund, was donated to the federal government for creation of the park. The so-called Beaver Valley tract officially became a national park in 2015.
Throughout its history, the land was used for hunting, trapping and farming, first by the Lenape tribe and their indigenous forbearers, and then Quaker settlers. The industrialist and Woodlawn founder William Bancroft acquired the property in the early 20th Century. And when concerns over the deer population emerged several decades ago, Woodlawn sanctioned special hunts to cull the growing herds.
When the sprawling swath of land became national parkland, the hunts ended.
While limited, coordinated deer hunts are still conducted by both private landowners in the area and the Brandywine Creek State Park, business owners and local residents say that since the hunts on the former Woodlawn property were curtailed, their communities have been overrun by the deer, who face no natural predators in their Delaware home.
US Fish and Wildlife policy states that “hunting and fishing do not pose a threat to the wildlife populations, and in some instances, are actually necessary for sound wildlife management. For example, deer populations will often grow too large for the refuge habitat to support. If some of the deer are not harvested, they destroy habitat for themselves and other animals and die from starvation or disease.”
Despite this policy and community requests spanning six years, federal officials in charge of the park have been slow to develop or implement a plan to control the deer population that is now spilling out in all directions of the park.
Lack of Action
Former state senator Greg Lavelle represented the area including and around the national park until 2018, a period during which he arranged “countless meetings and communications” with park service officials and congressional staff as the problem worsened. Lavelle continues to advocate for the neighbors on the issue including ongoing communications with Delaware’s congressional delegation.
“I’ve lived in Sharpley since 1992 and can attest to the fact the deer population continues to increase unabated,” said Lavelle. “Twenty years ago one might see a few deer only early in the morning. Ten years ago, a few more, but they would run quickly from humans. Five years ago small herds would show up. And today they now appear in droves at rush hour, totally acclimated and indifferent to humans and cars.”
“They are almost like pigeons at this point,” Lavelle exclaimed.
Lavelle said efforts to get a clear answer from federal officials on how and when they will address the issue have largely gotten nowhere.
“It is ridiculous that we can’t get a straight answer from the government, even about conducting a study. It’s been more than five years. Appropriate wildlife management practices are long overdue – no amount of fencing or stepped up hunting at the state park will make a meaningful difference, and the costs shouldn’t be born by local residents when they have no say in the decision.”
A spokesperson for US Senator Tom Carper, who spearheaded the creation of the three-county national park that includes the Beaver Valley land, said his office understood the community’s frustration and they were pressing the park service “to move this along expeditiously.”
Staff for Carper and US Senator Chris Coons pointed to a November 2018 letter sent on behalf of the Delaware congressional delegation requesting acting National Park Service Director Dan Smith to study and develop a plan to address the deer issue.
In March of this year, the regional National Park Service director informed the delegation that “a complete scientific monitoring” will be conducted to determine “the status of the deer population within park boundaries.” Carper staff further confirmed that the park service would be partnering with the University of Delaware to conduct this work, but additional details and timing remain unclear.
A Growing, Costly Problem
Local farmers say the exploding deer population is affecting their bottom line.
Stewart Ramsey’s family first bought land on what is now called Ramsey Road and Thompson Bridge Road in 1860 that he is still farming today. He said the deer population’s growth after the Woodlawn property became federal park has resulted in crop devastation and investment in protective measures that make profitable farming “difficult to impossible.”
“We estimate [the problem] cost us (Ramsey’s Farm) roughly $45,000 last season,” he said. “Our pumpkin crop was totally wiped out in 2018. The number may be a little less this year as I installed a deer fence that costs nearly $10,000 for a 10-acre field to grow pumpkins.”
“Other lower value crops we grow continue to suffer significant damage – for example, alfalfa hay for horses has experienced a 50 percent yield loss. Basically, I cannot plant any more alfalfa until the population is brought under control – this loss is bringing into question the future viability of Ramsey’s Farm and potentially removing the possibility of my son Carl [a sixth-generation family member] from being able to continue farming.”
Lavelle believes creation of the national park – which put management of the park in federal hands – created a costly dilemma that Delawareans are not free to address.
“This land could have been contributed to the [Brandywine Creek] state park, which would have left decision making in the hands of Delaware. The federal government put no money in and now they stand in the way rather than solving problems.”
Neighbors like Norman say the impact of the deer can be quite personal. “My husband and I have spent over 30 years creating a garden which we hope brings pleasure to our neighbors as well as to ourselves. Sadly, it is becoming almost impossible to prevent deer from eating these lovely plants.”
“We realize that responsible deer management is a complex problem,” said Norman, noting that the community’s goal is a safe and “sustainable solution.”
DNREC’s Division of Parks & Recreation will be conducting a special managed hunt at Brandywine Creek State Park on Jan. 8. The state park sits across from the border of the national park. But a representative with Sen. Coons’ office said that when this controlled hunt begins, “it’s thought that the deer simply retreat from the state park to the safety of the national park.”