Academics and Research / Magazine Feature

University of Denver law clinic sues National Park Service

The University of Denver Sturm College of Law Environmental Law Clinic is suing the National Park Service, arguing that a proposal to kill more than 80 percent of the deer at Pennsylvania’s Valley Forge National Historical Park violates federal law.

The suit, filed Nov. 12 in U.S. District Court in Pennsylvania, is led by Assistant Professor Michael Harris and Fellow Kevin Lynch, with research provided by student-attorneys Anthony Basile, Alyson Gould and Robert Westfall. It is filed on behalf of two clients, Connecticut-based Friends of Animals and Pennsylvania-based Compassion for Animals, Respect for the Environment (CARE).

According to the suit, the National Park Service plans to cull the deer population at the park —where General George Washington and his army camped in 1777 — to reduce the stress on park plant life and protect the deer from disease and malnourishment. It is estimated sharpshooters will shoot deer each winter over the next four years, cutting the deer population from just under 1,300 to about 175.

“For the National Park Service to enter Valley Forge National Historical Park in the cover of winter to slay white-tailed deer is not only an appalling twist on the park’s history, it is another sign that the service has abandoned its century-old mission to strive for parks in which conservation of nature is paramount,” Harris says.

The suit alleges the Park Service’s White-tailed Deer Management Plan for the Valley Forge National Historical Park violates the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), the Organic Act and Valley Forge enabling legislation.

Additionally, the suit charges the Park Service’s plan to administer birth control to female deer is environmentally unsound, and that shooting the deer endangers the public and ignores local laws. Introducing coyotes as a natural way to balance deer population would be a wiser choice, the suit argues.

“I’m not sure which is worse, shooting deer or compromising their social and reproductive interactions by imposing birth control on them,” says Allison Memmo Geiger, president of CARE.

A spokesperson for the Valley Forge Park was not immediately available for comment. However in announcing the deer reduction plan earlier this year, park officials said actions are necessary to preserve the park.

According to the park service, the deer management plan is necessary to cope with a deer population that has been growing for 20 years.

“Excessive browsing has led to the inability of forests to regenerate into the future and the loss of habitat for other animal species,” the park serve wrote in the news release.

“We look forward to a future that provides high quality habitat for all wildlife species at Valley Forge,” Park Superintendent Mike Caldwell said in the release. “After many years of study and public involvement, we have an effective, science-based plan that will help us preserve the park’s environment for future generations.

The 3,400-acre Valley Forge Park spans five suburban Pennsylvania townships, about 18 miles northwest of downtown Philadelphia. The park is surrounded by industrial, residential, and commercial neighborhoods

The two counties that include the park are home to more than 1 million residents.

“Decisions under the National Environmental Policy Act cannot be based simply on seizing upon the apparently easiest answer to a perceived problem,” says Lee Hall, legal director for Friends of Animals. “Killing deer is not the answer to the decline of plant life in a sprawling, concrete-covered suburb.”

The suit names Mike Caldwell, Superintendent of Valley Forge National Historical Park, the National Park Service, Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar, National Park Service Director Jon Jarvis, and National Park Service Regional Director for the Northeast Dennis R. Reidenbach.

The DU Sturm College of Law Environmental Law Clinic’s docket currently involves a similar action in Rocky Mountain National Park, as well as actions seeking to ensure utility and manufacturing industry compliance with the Clean Air Act and actions seeking to protect a variety of species under the Endangered Species Act.

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