The NIST campus in Gaithersburg, Maryland, is home to a variety of wildlife, including deer, foxes, coyotes and more than 65 species of birds. To sustainably manage its 575-acre campus, NIST must balance the needs of all these species while also fulfilling its mission as a federal research laboratory.
Based on a survey conducted in January 2022, experts from the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) Wildlife Services program estimate that there are 120 to 145 deer living on the NIST campus — a population density of more than 130 per square mile. This is too many deer for the ecosystem to sustainably support.
As a result, the deer starve in the wintertime. They also eat all the saplings in the NIST forest, threatening its long-term survival and that of other species that depend on it. The high population also increases the chances of roadway accidents involving deer.
The Maryland Department of Natural Resources (DNR) recommends that deer populations in this area be maintained at roughly 20 per square mile. The Maryland DNR has also found that fertility controls such as contraceptives and surgical sterilization are not effective for significantly reducing deer populations. Instead, the department recommends reducing the deer population to a sustainable level using lethal means. Once achieved, that level can then be maintained by controlling fertility.
Based on these recommendations, in 2024 NIST plans to reduce the size of the deer population with support from USDA’s Wildlife Services program. The USDA and its firearms experts have conducted similar operations safely and in a humane manner at federal facilities throughout the area. The objective is to remove 50 to 75 deer this winter, then survey the population later in the year to determine next steps.
These operations have been carefully designed to ensure the safety of everyone on the NIST campus and in surrounding neighborhoods. The operations will be conducted in coordination with the NIST Emergency Services Office and Office of Security. In addition, plans for these operations have been reviewed and will be permitted by the Maryland DNR and the Montgomery County Police Department both for safety and to ensure compliance with all state and local regulations.
Safety measures include:
Maryland DNR’s recommendation to use lethal means to reduce the deer population is based in part on a study conducted on the NIST campus starting in 1996. That study, which involved the use of contraceptives, was the longest-running study on nonlethal control of deer populations in the state of Maryland. It showed that contraceptives can stabilize the deer population, but they did not reduce it enough to prevent habitat damage.
All the venison produced during deer removal operations will be donated to local food banks.