The snow at long last has vanished from the golden meadows and hillsides of Valley Forge National Historical Park.
And so has a substantial percentage of the park's deer population, to the consternation of animal-rights activists.
Under a controversial "culling" operation that began in November, U.S. Department of Agriculture sharpshooters are aiming to winnow the herd substantially over the next four years.
Numbers for the first shooting cycle will not be available until late next month, and park natural resource manager Kristina Heister said only that the program has "exceeded all expectations." But it's likely that the tally of slain deer will be several hundred.
Two groups rebuffed by a judge in the fall are asking a federal appeals court to halt the program before it begins again next November.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Richard Bernstein said the government would file a "vigorous" response this week on behalf of the National Park Service, which holds that Valley Forge's precious forests are fighting for their lives against the deer's voracity.
The Park Service also says the carcasses are serving a humanitarian purpose: feeding the needy. The Chester County Food Bank estimates that it has received more than 3,000 pounds of fresh-ground venison from Valley Forge.
Jeff Houdret, who lives next to the park and has mixed feelings about the culling, said he had noticed a distinct dearth of deer recently. It could be a function of seasonal behavior. Still, "If I went in there with a gun this afternoon," he said, "I don't think I would get one."
The park's plan calls for killing 500 deer annually over four years, and ultimately reducing the herd more than 85 percent, from an estimated 1,275 to fewer than 200. After four years of hunting, the park might try birth-control measures. The program would run 15 years, with a cost of up to $2.9 million.
In November alone, 225 deer were killed in the park, according to the Pennsylvania Game Commission.
The appeal filed by Friends of Animals and Compassion for Animals, Respect for the Environment (CARE) argues that the Park Service adopted a shoot-first, ask-questions-later policy, rather than seriously weighing other options.
"The only alternatives that the agency considered viable amounted to a choice between shooting the deer on the one hand, and shooting them on the other," the appeal states.
In particular, the groups have urged Valley Forge to find ways of "enhancing" the park's coyote stock to control deer. In its final deer-management plan, the Park Service said that coyotes and other predators "have been shown not to exert effective control." The groups said they had offered scientific evidence to the contrary.
The deer population had increased about eightfold in the last 25 years, and culling was deemed the most efficient and humane way to reduce it, the Park Service said.
Under the program, while the park and nearby roads are closed, deer are gunned down in the dead of night by USDA sharpshooters with night-vision goggles.
The Park Service said the shootings would occur from November through March but has declined to disclose specific dates, denying an Inquirer request under the Freedom of Information Act.
The Valley Forge plan addresses only the threat to forests and the destruction of habitats of ground-nesting birds and other species.
Deer are strictly vegetarian but have eclectic and prodigious appetites, consuming five to nine pounds of food a day. A Pennsylvania study of deer stomachs found 98 plant species. As the region's gardeners are well aware, deer are partial to backyard flora.
While the Valley Forge plan does not discuss human-deer issues such as motor-vehicle collision and Lyme disease, the deer tensions there constitute a variant of a theme played out across the country as a once-endangered species has become an urban and suburban pariah.
As a result of hunting and predation, whitetail deer were so scarce that in 1906 the game commission started importing them.
Development, however, has been the deer's best friend - routing predators, restricting hunting, and offering generous helpings of backyard plantings.
As deer populations have grown in developed areas, culls and hunts have become more popular.
A cull started at Gettysburg National Military Park in 1995, and the herd has been reduced close to 90 percent, said management assistant Katie Lawhon. The shoots have continued, with an average of 150 deer killed annually.
Culling took out about 1,600 deer from Fairmount Park from 2001 to 2007, most of them in the first two years, according to a park commission report.
In the shooting season that ended in January, 127 deer were killed in populous Lower Merion Township, said Police Lt. Bernie D'Amour. Given that 86 of them were does, and that each of those would have given birth to an average of two fawns, the operation would mean a net of 299 fewer deer in the township in the spring, he said.
A total of 143 were killed in two hunts in December at Ridley Creek State Park in Delaware County, and 125 in a one-day hunt in Tyler State Park in Bucks County.
The deer have been a bonanza to food banks, said John Plowman, head of Hunters Sharing the Harvest, a statewide agency that distributes deer meat.
"It's going to people who desperately need it," said Kendall Hanna, executive director of the Central Pennsylvania Food Bank, which has been involved in distributing meat from Gettysburg and Valley Forge.
But Friends of Animals and CARE argue that the Valley Forge deer have no business on anyone's dinner table. The groups contend that the shootings are a betrayal of the "deer-human relationship."
Friends' attorney Lee Hall said she realizes that it's too late for any action this year, but the groups hope to stop the shootings "for next season, and for good."
Contact staff writer Anthony R. Wood at 610-761-8423 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Inquirer staff writer Jeff Gammage contributed to this article.