Valley Forge National Historical Park ("Valley Forge Park") is located eighteen miles outside of Philadelphia in a rapidly growing suburban area. Friends of Animals v. United States National Parks, No. 10-4329 (3d Cir. June 27, 2011). The park is filled with white-tailed deer who voraciously eat the park’s vegetation. From 1983 through 2009, the deer density in the park exploded, rising from 31-35 deer per square mile to 241 per square mile. Appropriate deer density to maintain natural forest regeneration is approximately 10-40 deer per square mile.
On August 28, 2009, after a three-year study and the proper publishing of notices, distribution of a draft environmental impact statement ("EIS"), and public meetings and comments on the deer issue, the National Parks Service ("NPS") published a final EIS, as required by the National Environmental Policy Act ("NEPA"). The primary objectives of the EIS were to protect and restore plant communities by reducing deer browsing, and maintaining the deer population in Valley Forge Park in a manner that allowed for the restoration of native plants. The NPS evaluated four methods to accomplish those objectives: 1) "No action," whereby the current deer management policies would remain in effect; 2) "Combined Nonlethal Actions," which included the introduction of a chemical reproductive agent (once one became available on the market); 3) "Combined Lethal Actions," which included sharpshooters to kill deer; and 4) "Combined Lethal and Nonlethal Actions," which involved the use of sharpshooters immediately and the chemical reproductive agent in the future. The NPS chose the fourth option and estimated its deer density goals would be achieved in four years.
In the EIS, the NPS also identified other options that it had rejected, including the reintroduction of predators, like cougars and wolves. In rejecting that option, the NPS noted that the park was surrounded by humans and developed areas, and that those predators had not proven to be effective in controlling deer populations.
In November 2009, several animal groups (referred to collectively as "FOA") filed a complaint. The NPS responded by staying the deer hunt for the 2009-10 winter season. In April 2010, FOA attempted to supplement the administrative record with studies regarding coyotes and also moved for summary judgment. The NPS cross-moved for summary judgment. The FOA later moved for a preliminary injunction to stop the planned 2010 deer hunt. The District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania denied all of FOA's requested relief and granted summary judgment to the NPS. The Third Circuit affirmed.
The Third Circuit reviewed NEPA, pointing out that it served procedural rather than substantive goals. In that regard, NEPA did not require specific substantive results but rather required the collection and evaluation of information about the environmental impacts of planned actions. FOA argued that the NPS violated NEPA by failing to consider increasing the coyote population in Valley Forge Park as a reasonable alternative. After reviewing relevant precedent, the court observed that the NPS seemingly rejected the coyote option based on one 1997 study that showed that coyotes did not control deer populations. Pointing out that the NPS's main objective was to protect plants in the park, and that the high deer density negatively impacted plants, the court further explained that any reasonable alternative would have to lead to the reduction in the deer population or preventing deer from destroying the park's vegetation. Even if it only relied on one study, the Third Circuit found that the NPS did not err in deciding that coyotes were not a reasonable alternative and did not require further evaluation. Moreover, the court noted that FOA did not offer a detailed counter-proposal, and that two of the three additional studies it tried to rely upon actually supported the NPS's position.
FOA also argued that the first two options were "straw men" and that the NPS simply preferred to "shoot the deer[.]" The Third Circuit rejected that argument, reasoning that the NPS performed a lengthy and reasoned review before focusing on the four aforementioned alternatives and then ultimately selecting the fourth. After detailing that review, the court concluded that the NPS considered a reasonable range of alternatives and did not violate NEPA.
Furthermore, FOA argued that the District Court did not conduct a probing review of the record in considering whether the NPS violated NEPA. The court dispensed with that argument, stating that its own review made it clear that the NPS complied with NEPA.