Tag Archives: Fairfax County

Deer and Forest; Balance and Management

Fairfax County Deer Management Sign

If you visit a park in fall or winter, you may notice orange archery signs popping up along trails and in parking lots. September signals the start of the white-tailed deer management season, and with that program come many questions from park users about the need for deer management and about the safety aspects of a deer management program.

First, a bit of background.

The Fairfax County deer management program originated in the late 1990s after a local librarian was killed in a deer-vehicle collision in Great Falls. The program is overseen by the Fairfax County wildlife biologist, who serves within the Fairfax County Police Department. Deer management takes place primarily on parkland with the coordination and consent of the Park Authority.

What started as a public safety response to deer overpopulation has expanded for several reasons. There is greater evidence and awareness today that deer browse is one of the top threats facing the county’s forested natural areas. Biologists from the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries estimate that there could be more than 50,000 deer currently living in Fairfax County. This is more than 100 deer per square mile, and that is six to ten times higher than a healthy ecosystem can support.

Deer have become over-abundant because we feed and shelter them. Our suburban ecosystems, including our fertilized lawns and gardens, create sumptuous buffets for deer. Many does give birth to twins each year. Large predators, such as resident bears or packs of wolves, are gone from this area. Humans are the only remaining predators of deer, and hunting pressure has steeply declined over the past few decades.

In many of our parks, there is no native vegetation growing between six inches and six feet above the ground because of browsing deer. This summer, our natural resources team measured browse levels at 140 plots countywide and confirmed ongoing, severe browsing in most of the surveyed parks. Many local biologists and naturalists are concerned about the future of our forests, and citizens also have cause for concern. As mature trees die or fall during storms, what replaces them? Under current conditions, very few native seedlings will survive, and invasive species, which the deer aren’t able to eat, often take hold in their place.

Over the long term, forests will degrade and will fail to provide the air quality, water quality and stormwater management benefits we rely on. On a personal level, the property values of homes next to parks may decrease, and the quality of life will diminish as there are fewer places to escape into the cool and quiet of a summer woods. The loss of native shrubs and trees also contributes to a broad decline in native insects, migratory songbirds, and so on up the food chain. It’s like a house of cards. Pull out the right card at the bottom, and the whole pyramid is coming down.

The deer management program relies on several different methods of population reduction including archery, managed hunts, and sharpshooting. There are currently no feasible alternatives to controlling deer populations other than lethal means, in both effectiveness and expense. Archery is the least imposing and most cost-efficient method currently in use because parks can remain open and volunteers can be recruited to hunt on behalf of the county. We recognize that some residents oppose lethal deer control, so we continue to provide public education and to address specific concerns regarding safety. For example, new signs include the international symbol for archery for those who may not be able to read the text.

2013 is the fifth year that we are allowing archery in the parks. In 2012, archery was implemented in more than 30 parks, and there were no safety incidents with people or with pets. This includes heavily-visited parks such as Burke Lake Park, Lake Accotink Park, Huntley Meadows Park, Riverbend Park, Ellanor C. Lawrence Park, and Wakefield Park. The 2013 archery program has expanded to over 40 parks, including several inside the beltway. Each park has been marked with orange signs.

Hunting is confined to tree stands in specific areas of the parks, with hunters at least 50 feet from a trail and at least 100 feet from a property line. Each site is reviewed for safety. All of the volunteer archers must abide by strict rules to participate in the program. They must have superior ability with the bow and must qualify at a range to participate. Modern archery equipment is extremely precise and effective, and the program’s wounding rate has been less than four percent each year.

The next time you see a sign during one of your visits, take a minute to search for an oak, maple or hickory seedling. Do you see any? The future of our forests depends on fewer deer.

Author Kristen Sinclair is the senior natural resource specialist in the Park Authority’s Natural Resource Management and Protection Branch.

Looks Nice Outside

Fall Colors

The temperature is 71 degrees outside right now. One of those to-die-for fall days, a blue sky with cloud puffs balanced on a bowl of Trix-colored trees – raspberry red, lemon yellow, and orange orange.

I’m lucky. I have a window in my Herrity building office. It overlooks a patch of trees that sits between the Fairfax County Government Center and the Fairfax Corner shopping center. Probably doesn’t sound very exciting to a naturalist or volunteer who spends time at a place like Burke Lake or Huntley Meadows, but that patch of trees is important to me. There are times when it’s mine, and just mine. Nobody else around it.

I do a lot of writing, and those trees are often my inspiration, something to look at when I need to clear my mind. Often I look at them and words start bouncing through my keyboard. Like now.

I’m in my office, writing. One year ago, on a similar day, I wrote a first draft for an article in ResOURces newsletter. It was about trails at Riverbend Park and the Riverbend Park Tree Walk. The first draft of the article opened like this:

Remember sitting in your office and staring out a window, wishing you were outside because it was such a beautiful day?

See? It’s true. Writers write what they know. The article talked about remembering those days you wished you were outside, and then getting outside when you have the chance.

Or maybe, instead of waiting to see if we have a chance, maybe we should create that opportunity. Consciously decide to go take a walk in a park.

There are over 400 county parks with patches of trees like my little one outside my window and across the street. Every one of them is an opportunity for a moment of refreshment.

It is a nice day. Blue sky, autumn-drenched trees nearing their peak, perfect temperature. Those trees, like the ones in parks all over the county, aren’t very far away from me. Probably some not far from you, either.

I think I see an opportunity before I go home.
Author David Ochs is the Manager of Stewardship Communications for the Fairfax County Park Authority’s Resource Management Division.

Fish On The Move: Huntsman Lake To Be Drained Later This Year

Contractors remove fish from Huntsman Lake.

Contractors remove fish from Huntsman Lake.

It was an unusual day for the fish. An adventurous one, too. They’ll certainly have something to talk about with their BFFs.

If they can find them.

On May 15, an estimated 800 to 1,000 pounds of fish were shocked, netted and moved from Huntsman Lake to Lake Mercer. Huntsman, a 28-acre lake in the Pohick Creek watershed, will be drained later this year to allow for dam maintenance, which would certainly have been an even larger inconvenience for the fish.

Ecologist Shannon Curtis of the county’s Department of Public Works & Environmental Services says that after Huntsman Lake is drained, the lake bottom will be dredged, and the sediment that has flowed into it in recent years because of erosion upstream will be removed. That means the lake will be deeper and, once again, more effective at trapping sediment, which Curtis says is one of the lake’s primary functions.

In addition, there will be some engineering work done on the Huntsman Lake dam.

There’s nothing wrong with the dam. The lake’s emergency spillway needs to be upgraded because there are new regulations governing dams. This is just an upgrade to meet the new regulations.

Fairfax County also is going to repair and replace the riser structure, which visitors to the lake see as a large concrete block standing out in the water near the dam. It houses the pipe that drains the lake into the stream below the dam, and it’s the work on this structure that requires that the lake be drained.

There will, unfortunately, be a loss of some fish that are in the lake. That’s why the shocking boat was on the waters saving as many fish as possible. The loss of fish means there may be a stench around the lake, and there could be visits from predators – hawks, eagles, foxes – looking for an easy meal.

There’s good news coming at the end of the project. “There’s a lake restoration plan that’s going to occur that’s actually going to improve the conditions of the lake,” Curtis said. Engineers plan to add an underwater berm, or ridge, across the upper part of the lake that will create a sediment forebay, a kind of pocket in the lake’s upper reaches. That pocket should catch most of the sediment coming into the lake and help the deeper part of the lake remain somewhat free of sediment. That also means the next time the lake requires dredging that engineers may not have to drain the entire lake. Rather, they can lower the water so that the silted-in area behind the berm can be dredged while water in the deeper, lower basin can be left in place.

There are shoreline improvement plans, water quality improvements and habitat improvements coming for the lake after the construction. Residents may notice a change in the flora around the shoreline.

Curtis says the shocking showed that the lake “currently actually has a very productive fishery in it.” Some nice largemouth bass in the two-to-four pound range were captured and moved to Lake Mercer. Once the construction work is complete and the lake is restored, it will be put on an annual stocking plan managed by state fisheries biologists.  Even better, the restoration plan includes creation of submerged habitat (structure) for fish, shoreline stabilizations and both wetland and aquatic vegetation plantings.

The entire project, “mucking up, draining, digging, dump trucks hauling dirt out, moving dirt, general construction activity” as Curtis puts it, is expected to start in late summer or fall and likely last six to eight months.

Written by Dave Ochs, manager, Stewardship Communications