C&O Canal White-Tailed Deer Management Plan

A view of the forest floor between trees
Forests with dense deer populations, like this one at Great Falls, often contain little to no understory vegetation as deer will feed on many of the plant species that generally thrive in these habitats.

NPS Photo

History of White-Tailed Deer at Chesapeake & Ohio Canal National Historical Park

White-tailed deer are an important part of the ecosystem at Chesapeake & Ohio (C&O) Canal National Historical Park (NHP). If you’ve visited the park, you’ve likely seen deer on the trails or roads. Since the early 1900s, as a result of lower mortality rates due to a lack of predators and increased availability of food and habitat, the deer population has increased throughout the eastern United States.

For several years, C&O Canal has monitored vegetation plots and surveyed deer density. Fewer than 20 percent of the vegetation plots have enough tree seedlings to ensure healthy forest regeneration. Deer density at the park has varied from year to year, but has remained consistently higher than the recommended 15-20 deer per square mile needed for a healthy forest. For example, recent surveys in the Great Falls, Md., area of C&O Canal show approximately 78 deer per square mile.

Prompted by a marked decline in forest regeneration, C&O Canal initiated a public process to create a plan, which calls for quickly reducing the density of deer to support long-term protection and restoration of native plants and to promote a healthy and diverse forest. The plan also addresses the potential for a spread of chronic wasting disease in deer within the park. The plan was developed for both Harpers Ferry and C&O Canal national historical parks because both parks face the same issues of high deer densities and lack of forest regeneration.

Deer Management

The NPS must balance the needs of all animals and plants at C&O Canal. The NPS has identified an initial density goal of 15-20 deer per square mile at C&O Canal to allow for healthy forest regeneration. The NPS uses an adaptive management approach that is flexible based on how deer and vegetation populations respond.

The plan outlines lethal and nonlethal strategies. The NPS will use lethal reduction, including the use of firearms and/or selective use of archery by authorized federal agents to quickly reduce the population. Each park will develop site-specific implementation plans to outline their operation prior to the start of any activities. Future lethal management activities may include the use of skilled volunteers who are trained, qualified and certified under an NPS-developed system. Volunteers will not be used during initial lethal reduction activities.

The NPS selected a deer management strategy for C&O Canal in June 2018. The park will conduct its first season of deer management in February and March 2019

More Information

Deer Management Plan/Environmental Assessment (April 2017)

FONSI - White-tailed Deer Management Plan and EA for C&O Canal and Harpers Ferry National Historical Parks

New Releases

National Park Service proposes plan to manage deer populations at C&O Canal and Harpers Ferry (April 2017)


Frequently Asked Questions

An overabundant white-tailed deer population is damaging the forest and agricultural areas in Chesapeake and Ohio (C&O) Canal National Historical Park (NHP). To address this situation, the National Park Service (NPS) has developed a deer management strategy that supports long-term protection, preservation, and restoration of native vegetation and cultural landscapes.

When proposing a management action of this scope, the National Park Service must follow the National Environmental Policy Act of 1969 (NEPA). This law requires all federal agencies to: (1) prepare in-depth studies of the impacts of, and alternatives to, a proposed major federal action; (2) use the information developed from these studies to decide whether to proceed with the action; and (3) diligently attempt to involve the interested and affected public before any decision affecting the environment is made.

Deer eat a wide variety of vegetation, including tree and shrub seedlings. In a self-sustaining forest there would be a wide range of native trees in all stages of life, from seedling to sapling to mature. There also would be an understory layer of herbaceous (non-woody) plants, including a variety of wildflowers and native shrubs. At C&O Canal, this vital mix is missing. The consistent overpopulation of deer has compromised the ability of native forests to regenerate.

In addition, over the past 20 years, the unsustainable deer population has caused detrimental changes in the species composition, structure, abundance, and distribution of native plant communities and their associated wildlife. Deer now are so dominant in the environment that they have decreased the habitat for other species.

After extensive analysis, the National Park Service selected Alternative D: Combined Lethal and Nonlethal Deer Management for implementation. This plan involves a combination of lethal and non-lethal methods that would lower the park’s deer population and then keep it stabilized at a level that allows the park’s vegetation to recover over time.

The National Park Service analyzed three action alternatives and one “no action alternative” before selecting Alternative D. You can learn more about White-tailed Deer Management Plan and Environmental Assessment.

Volunteers will not be used during initial lethal reduction activities, but the park may consider utilizing skilled volunteers during future efforts to maintain the deer populations at a sustainable level, contingent on a number of factors.

The use of skilled volunteers is at the park's discretion and contingent upon the park having sufficient staff and resources available to develop volunteer training and to supervise volunteers in the field. The decision to use skilled volunteers would be site-specific and would allow managers to make strategic use of available resources.

Hunting isn’t allowed in a national park unless it was specifically authorized in the legislation that established the park or by any subsequent law. The laws establishing these parks do not authorize hunting.

Deer density at C&O Canal has varied from year to year, but has remained consistently higher than the recommended 15-20 deer per square mile needed for a healthy forest. For example, recent surveys in the Great Falls, Md., area of C&O Canal show approximately 78 deer per square mile.

Yes, venison will be donated to local food banks and other organizations, consistent with NPS public health guidelines. In 2018, four national parks in Maryland and the District of Columbia together donated more than 14,000 pounds of venison to local nonprofits that serve those in need.

The park’s top priority is the safety of park visitors, neighbors, and staff. Extensive safety measures will be put into place to ensure a safe and successful operation:

  • Initial lethal reduction will be conducted by federal firearms experts under the direction of National Park Service resource management specialists.

  • Lethal removal with firearms will primarily occur at night (between dusk and dawn), during late fall and winter months when deer are more visible and fewer visitors are in the parks.

  • For lethal removal, noise suppression devices and night vision equipment may be used to reduce disturbance to the public. Activities will be in compliance with all federal firearm laws and regulations.

  • Law enforcement will provide for visitor and employee safety during reduction activities.

Yes. This plan is designed to bring the deer population to a level that allows the park’s forests to regenerate and maintains a healthier, more sustainable deer population. White-tailed deer are part of the ecosystem, and future generations of park visitors will continue to have the opportunity to see deer in the park.

Four parks in the National Capital Region have implemented white-tailed deer management plans: Antietam National Battlefield, Catoctin Mountain Park, and Monocacy National Battlefield in Maryland, and Rock Creek Park in Washington, D.C. Catoctin has actively worked to reduce deer populations since 2010 and has seen a more than 10-fold increase in tree seedling density.

National Park Service areas in other regions are actively performing deer management including Gettysburg National Military Park, Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore, Valley Forge National Historical Park, and Cuyahoga Valley National Park.

C&O Canal will issue press releases to announce management actions and post this information on on this website. Email us if you have further questions.

Last updated: February 1, 2019

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